History of the Journal of the Warburg Institute

A Short History of the Journal

Origins: the Journal of the Warburg Institute

The books and photographs of the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg, with their attendant scholars, migrated from Hamburg to London in 1933. Within a year, reformulated as the Warburg Institute, they had, with the help of friends and supporters, found a temporary home, in Thames House. There would be further movements and disruptions before the Institute settled into its present quarters in Woburn Square, built for it by the University of London, in 1958. Fritz Saxl and his colleagues resolved on the production of a Journal, in English, which would diffuse Warburgian ideas and reaffirm the values of threatened European humanism, by exemplifying and promoting a cross-disciplinary approach to the study of intellectual and cultural history.

In Hamburg Saxl had been in charge not only of the Library, but of its programme of lecturing and publishing; he had thereby fostered close associations with the new University of Hamburg, involving figures such as Ernst Cassirer and Erwin Panofsky. London presented a very different intellectual environment, with academic life much more compartmentalised, and art history, Saxl’s original field of study, only beginning to gain recognition as a scholarly discipline: the foundation of the Courtauld Institute in 1932 just preceded the establishment of the Warburg Institute in London. The very notion of Kulturwissenschaft, the term by which Warburg’s library in Hamburg had defined itself, was novel and alien in Britain. Indeed, the difficulties of finding English equivalents for this and other key Warburgian concepts, such as das Nachleben der Antike, hint at the effort of cultural adaptation and assimilation involved in the creation of an Institute which sought to make a virtue of its enforced transplantation. The Journal of the Warburg Institute which emerged, in four parts, during 1937 and 1938 was, to some degree an equivalent of the Hamburg Vorträge der Bibliothek Warburg. It was also, in the words of Roger Hinks, who reviewed the first issue (in The Spectator, 9 September 1938), ‘one of the first-fruits of [the Institute’s] new life in London. ... Though written by specialists, it is refreshingly free from the spiritual provinciality of the average learned publication’.

The Journal introduced itself to the world with a programmatic statement of intent drafted by its founding Editors, Edgar Wind and Rudolf Wittkower. It was to ‘take the study of Humanism, in the broadest possible sense, for its province’ and thus ‘supply a common forum for historians of art, religion, science, literature, social and political life, as well as for philosophers and anthropologists’. It would further seek ‘to explore the working of symbols – the signs and images created by ancient, and employed by modern generations, as instruments both of enlightenment and superstition’. These words not only have strong echoes of Warburg’s own concerns, with the ways in which Europe has accommodated the contrasting aspects of her classical heritage – magic and superstition as against enlightened self-control. Behind them is a vivid sense of the immediate threat posed by National Socialism to European civilisation.

Association with the Courtauld Institute

The Institute’s precarious early existence in Britain, with books intermittently displaced or packed away, gave a particular significance to academic contacts and friendships. Notable among the scholars in London who proved receptive to Warburgian ideas were W.G. Constable, T.S.R. Boase and Anthony Blunt, successive directors of the Courtauld Institute of Art. Blunt, who contributed an important article to the first volume of the Journal, also helped with the general editing, encouraging foreign-sounding phrases towards an English idiom. He was officially promoted to Editor, along with Wind and Wittkower, on the titlepage to the second volume; Boase joined them from Volume 3. Other English speakers provided practical editorial help. Francis Wormald was one; the Journal’s sympathetic reviewer in 1938, Roger Hinks, was another. So too was Frances Yates; she joined the Institute as editorial assistant and is represented in the first volume of the Journal both as author, and as translator of an article by Delio Cantimori on Italian humanism. Later she served officially as Editor. The close attention paid by many readers with different interests to the text of every article meant that content as well as form regularly came under revision. Thus historical circumstances fostered the habit, now a valued tradition, of discussing and reviewing individual submissions among interested members of staff as well as invoking the expertise of specialist readers.

The association with the Courtauld was formalised in the title to Volume 3, for 1940. This change of name both signalled and strengthened the Institute’s ties within the University of London, of which the Courtauld was already part; the Warburg Institute was itself incorporated in the University in 1944. One consequence of the association was to encourage art-historical contributions, although there was, and still is, an understanding, set down in the following terms in the fourth part of the first volume, that ‘it does not come within the scope of this Journal to publish studies devoted primarily to questions of attribution or style’.

Present aims

From the start the Journal aimed at an international readership and welcomed contributions from within and outside Europe. But an article on any given theme can generate a whole chain-reaction of response, so that a periodical can easily find itself identified with a particular style or topic. It was partly with a sense that the Journal was becoming the focus for material on a relatively limited range of subjects and periods – especially around the Renaissance – and, moreover, was rejecting an increasing proportion of long and often long-winded submissions, puffed up with extended surveys of existing literature, that in 1972 the then Editors, David Chambers and J. B. Trapp, decided ‘to restate the Journal’s aims and interests for the guidance of intending contributors’. The term cultural history, avoided or unavailable in the 1930s as an approximation to Kulturwissenschaft, could now be used as the Journal’s defining feature. Otherwise, it was the initial call for a forum of discussion between different disciplines that was emphasised, with ‘the continuity of the classical tradition... seen as one theme that would encourage an interdisciplinary approach’. In addition, with an eye to the wit and general appeal of many of the learned little notes in the early volumes, succinctness was urged, recapitulation of scholarly argument discouraged, and the hope was expressed that the Journal would ‘arouse a non-specialist’s interest in specialized material’.

The Journal’s ideal remains that of presenting to the scholarly community at large the fruits of new research in intellectual and cultural history, in a way that would ensure that academic standards are not compromised by accessibility. It seems ever more important to affirm the integrity of this concept of interdisciplinarity in the present climate of research, when the term is sometimes misapplied to impressionistic ‘cultural studies’ or to the opportunistic recycling of previously published specialist material.

The Journal has appeared regularly, at first quarterly, then half-yearly, then annually ‘through wartime and immediately post-war paper shortages, and through successive University retrenchments’, to quote the preface for the celebratory 50th volume of 1987. The business of editing and production has always taken place at the Warburg Institute, from 1948 with the help of a Journal Secretary. More of the production is now done in house than ever before, since the editorial assistant prepares the page layout for text and illustrations. There are at present four Editors, backed by an Advisory Board, all of them drawn from both Institutes.

Occasional numbers have been in some sense special issues. One such was the 1946 volume, devoted to contributions from Italy, in a post-war reassertion of the common purpose of British and European scholarship. Another was the 1987 volume, which was given over to past and present members of the two Institutes. But generally there is no attempt to impose a theme on any particular issue. With publication only once a year, it would be unreasonable to make authors wait for their subject to come round. And if the Editors sometimes advise prospective new contributors to look at past issues to gain an idea of the Journal’s profile and intended readership, this is emphatically not so as to impose any limitation on subject matter. Making past issues available to a wider public in the form of CD-ROMs, will, it is hoped, stimulate new topics and new ideas, indeed make the Journal the forum for discussion of a broader sort even than that envisaged in the original prospectus.

 Elizabeth McGrath (2002)