Leslie Primo – the art historian
Jade O'Donoghue

Leslie Primo – the art historian

Leslie Primo-the art historian

First published date June 24 2014 Amended date March 24 2016

Confusion is a familiar feeling to anyone who has visited an art gallery and found themselves wandering from exhibit to exhibit baffled by what they’re viewing, desperately trying to interpret some kind of message or meaning within the frames. While most of us can appreciate good art, being able to read it and fully understand it is a different thing altogether.


Art historians make a living out of this though and Leslie Primo prides himself on his ability to make art accessible to even the most philistine gallery visitor. A graduate in art history and Renaissance studies, Leslie has worked at the National Gallery for 14 years giving lectures to the public, as well as teaching a number of different art history courses in a variety of colleges and universities.


In between art tours and history lectures we managed to snatch a few moments with Leslie at Bishopsgate Institute to find out more about the art world and the courses he teaches.


How did you first discover your passion for art history?

A primary school trip to the National Gallery, but the passion would not be re-ignited until another visit, one late night after work, as an adult.


Are you any good at art yourself? Or do you prefer appreciating others’ work?

I am not any good at art myself; I have seen too much art to create art, so I do prefer to appreciate the work of other artists.


Do have a favourite?

Rather predictably for a Renaissance specialist, my favourite artist is Leonardo da Vinci because he is an artist not restricted by boundaries, such as what it is to be an artist. An artist who doesn’t believe in the modern concept called cheating, he is the quintessential modern artist that is only now understood by contemporary artists.  However, if he was alive now, because of his experimentation and use of unorthodox approaches to art, he probably would not be understood by most of the public.


Tell us about the course you teach at Bishopsgate...

It’s called ‘Unlock the otherwise impenetrable world of the art gallery’. It’s about revealing the art behind the art, the origins of art movements, the world of the art gallery and the reasons why art is made in the first place.

When students come to the first session, what’s the first thing you teach them? 

Art history is not a precise science, there is no such thing as art history, just art histories.

Sounds intriguing! What’s the main thing they take away?

A basic understanding of the visual language of Western European art including iconography and iconology. And, of course, the ability to feel at ease and confident in art galleries!


How do you make sure they absorb everything?

With quizzes and comparison examples of different works of art where they have to say what might be the common factors between said works.

How subjective is art interpretation?

There is an element to all art that is subjective and thus can be read in different ways by different people. This can be down to individual interpretation by each artist, or it can be because the original information regarding the meaning of particular paintings has been lost over the course of many centuries.  But there is also a language to art that is prescriptive and descriptive and can be read in individual works of art, such as the identification of gods and goddesses, well known stories from antiquity, the identification of saints and sinners, and personifications. 


What’s the hardest thing about your work?

Earning a living wage can be difficult in art history. For me, planning and writing courses and building up a visual memory of works of art is a challenge too.


We know you run art discovery tours – how do you go about ensuring the art world doesn’t feel too daunting to the untrained eye?

In many cases the artists that made the great works of art were from very ordinary backgrounds and the subjects that they depict; despite being biblical or mythological in origin, are in fact very ordinary stories with moral issues that we are still very familiar with today.  My job is to unravel these seemingly complex stories and reveal them for the soap operas that they really are. There is nothing that goes on in art that we really don’t understand, because they are made by humans, and we are human.  Art is life and life is art.


We’ll never look at art in the same way again! Thanks Leslie! If you want to look like you know your stuff in a gallery and fancy learning more about art, have a look at the related courses available in everything from art, crafts, history and criticism