York ISSP Masterclasses 2018 – a personal reflection

Over three Saturday afternoons in February and March I had the pleasure of working with a group of year 9 and 10 pupils from schools across York as part of the York ISSP annual masterclasses.  To be allowed to teach on this programme was a real honour … but also a daunting challenge. Like pulling on the jersey of a top team, you know that eyes will be on you, and expectations will (rightly) be high.

Teaching is always a privilege – but the opportunity to teach a group comprising pupils from several schools, including from St Peter’s, where I work – carries a special responsibility.

This sense of trepidation was amplified by the reality that I am still a newcomer to York, and that I was being trusted to work under the York ISSP name – a hallmark of the highest quality in the world of school-to-school collaboration.  For twelve years the school leaders, teachers and coordinators of the York ISSP, and generations of pupils, have worked tremendously hard to build this wonderful partnership.  As the first session approached, impostor syndrome started to kick in quite strongly, as the discipline I chose to work in was one about which I am passionate, but definitely an amateur.

Our brief for this year’s Masterclass was to explore the question “What is truth?” through a our chosen subject area.  I opted for “The Truth in What We See” and decided to approach it through The History of Art.

I divided up the question of whether truth can be found in art through three key questions:

-Can we trust our eyes ?

-What truths can we find in portrait and landscape art?

-Can art tell moral and political truths ?

In order to frame these questions, we began by looking at four distinct perspectives on the relationship between art and truth – those of Plato, Vasari, Kant and Picasso.

thinkers 4

Below are a small sample of the many images that we used to explore notions of truth in art – through asking questions across a broad range of themes, which we related to these four thinkers and artists.

We explored the differing use of perspective in two famous depictions of The Crucifixion, that of Masaccio’s Trinity (1427) and Salvador Dali’s The Christ of St John (1951).



What truths are artists wanting us to understand in their self-portraits? We looked at several self-portraits, including those of Albrecht Dürer aged 28  (1500) and of Frida Kahlo aged c.33 (1940).

Durer and Kahlo


We looked at what truths artists may be seeking to convey when portraying others. I can’t resist juxtaposing two of the world’s finest portraits, Diego Velázquez’s Pope Innocent X (1650) and John Singer Sargent’s Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (1892). (I hope that one day the respective homes of these masterpieces will make this happen in reality !)


Velazquez and Sargent


We also looked at how artists seek to convey moral and political truths, through a three-way comparison of Francisco Goya’s 3 May 1808 (below, right), with Edouard Manet’s The Execution of Emperor Maximilan (1868-9) and (left, below)  Street Fight (1927) by Otto Dix, itself destroyed during the closing months of the Second World War.

Manet, Goya and Dix

It was a huge privilege spending three afternoons looking at amazing art with a group of young people willing to commit their free time to working with content that had demanding and provoking themes.  If you are a teacher, and are ever in the position to work on such a programme, it is a wonderful experience, where the hard work is rewarded many times over by the insights and contributions from the pupil group.

There are many great school-to-school partnerships around the country, of all shapes and sizes, and organised along a variety of models.  If you are a Head and in an area where there isn’t a partnership, why not make that phone call to your neighbouring Heads ?


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