A Memoir, by T.J. Diffey
The British Society of Aesthetics was formed in 1960 to promote discussion and research into the theory of art and criticism and the principles of appreciation. This objective of course expresses a particular moment in the history of aesthetics. The Society was founded by a group of people including Sir Herbert Read, Dr (later Professor} Ruth Saw and Harold Osborne. The Society is incorporated in law as a registered charity. Harold Osborne’ s knowledge and advice were indispensable to setting it up on a sound legal footing. Louis Arnaud Reid, Professor of the Philosophy of Education in the University of London was also active in the affairs of the Society from the beginning. Reid had written Meaning in the Arts, published in 1931 when, in Harold Osborne’ s words, “ writing on aesthetics by serious philosophers was still at a very low ebb in English-speaking countries” .
The first meeting of the executive committee of the Society was held in July 1960. Osborne, who was a long-standing friend of Sir Herbert Read’ s, was the founder editor, and thus the first of the three editors to date, of the Society’ s quarterly journal, The British Journal of Aesthetics. The first issue of this appeared in November 1960. The Journal has gone from strength to strength and maintains the pre-eminent position in the field first established by Harold Osborne. It has been published on behalf of the Society by a succession of Britain’ s leading publishers, first Routledge & Kegan Paul, then Thames & Hudson and since 1975, Oxford University Press. Terry Diffey succeeded Harold Osborne as editor in November 1977 and Peter Lamarque became editor in January 1995.
In its early years the Society was London based. Harold Osborne was a civil servant working in London when the Society was founded. The Society too had strong links with London University, particularly Birkbeck College. Ruth Saw, and another stalwart pillar of the Society from its earliest years, Ruby Meager, held posts in London University. Monthly evening lecture meetings addressed by guest speakers and followed by discussion were held during the autumn and spring terms. Visiting speakers included practising artists speaking of their work, philosophers, critics, art historians and educationalists. Speakers included Adrian Stokes, Alan Rawsthorne, William Empson, Kathleen Raine, Stuart Hampshire, John Bayley, Roman Ingarden and Yehudi Menuhin. For many years the meetings took place in the Holborn Central Public Library.
Though in effect London-based at the beginning, the Society was of course always a national society. Its membership was always national not to say international and from the earliest years it generally held an annual conference, bringing in speakers from the whole country and from abroad, e. g. Mikel Dufrenne. Moreover, one could generally count on meeting scholars from overseas who were in Britain at the time of the conferences, particularly our colleagues from the American Society for Aesthetics. However, it was the custom not to hold national conference every fourth year when the International Congresses of Aesthetics took place. But in 1980 the Society changed this policy in favour of holding annual conferences.
The first conference was held in London in September 1963 and they continued in various venues in London until the mid1990s when the conferences moved from London to St Edmund Hall, Oxford. Conferences were organised at Hanover Lodge, Regent’ s Park from 1967 to 1971 by Professor Eva Schaper of the University of Glasgow. Eva Schaper was a leading member of the Society from the beginning. She was not the first conference organiser for the Society but she did organise some conferences before 1967 at other venues in London. 1972 was an International Congress year. When national conferences were resumed in 1973 they were organised by Terry Diffey in halls of residence belonging to London University. Ben Martin Hoogwerf took over from Terry Diffey and in 1981 Richard Woodfield took on the job. Other members of the Society to organise the conferences include Philip Meeson and most recently Nick McAdoo has acted as conference organiser.
Harold Osborne and his associates, but particularly Osborne, had a strong international outlook. The Society always participated in the four-yearly international congresses of aesthetics. Indeed the story is often told that the Society was formed in the first place so that Sir Herbert Read, who became the first president of the Society, could attend the international congress of aesthetics in Athens. Allegedly you needed to be a member of a national delegation in order to attend. Whether this is true or not (I think there may be something in it) Harold Osborne and many other members of the society were, and many still are, far more widely involved in the international scene than just with the congresses. Read was accompanied to Athens in September 1960 by a good sized contingent which included Ruth Saw, Louis Arnaud Reid, Frank Sibley and Eva Schaper. The Society has engaged in many bilateral meetings with Societies from other European countries, it has friendly relations with the American Society for Aesthetics, and it has been active in contributing over the years to international newsletters and committees for aesthetics.
Early members of the Society included Benjamin Britten, Kenneth Clark, the BBC, John Gielgud, Ernst Gombrich, Ronald Hepburn, John MacMurray, Henry Moore, Victor Pasmore, Nikolaus Pevsner, Basil Spence and Richard Wollheim.
Professor Ruth Saw succeeded Sir Herbert Read as President of the Society, when Read died in 1968. Ruth Saw resigned the presidency in 1981 because increasing lack of mobility made it difficult for her to get to meetings. Harold Osborne then became President.
After Harold Osborne died shortly after his eighty-second birthday at his home in Switzerland in March 1987, Eva Schaper became President. After her untimely death at the age of 67 in June 1992 Richard Wollheim assumed the office until his death in 2003 with Richard Woodfield and Graham McFee respectively as vice-presidents. Malcolm Budd became president in 2003 and continues to uphold the office until the present day. Matthew Kieran has been vice-president and chair since 2003 and will be retiring from the post in Sept. 2008.
For much of its history the main activities of the Society have been concerned with publishing the British Journal of Aesthetics, the annual conference and promoting the kind of conferences mentioned above. Peter Lamarque recently retired from editing the journal and the editorship has passed over to John Hyman and Elisabeth Schellekens.
The Society has also ranged more widely in its activities than this might suggest, not only in the variety of its overseas contacts already mentioned, but in its concern to foster the study of aesthetics in Britain. For example, it is about to embark on sponsoring a PhD studentship in aesthetics and financially supports, though necessarily on a modest scale, other societies and individuals engaged in projects in aesthetics who apply to it.
T. J. Diffey, 22 October, 2003
Amended 1st August, 2008