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Smashing the age barrier

The origins of the Ancient & Modern award

The Ancient & Modern prize for original research goes to scholars both young and old – under 25 or over 60. John Carswell reveals what inspired him to set up the award

The idea for the prize had its origin in New York in 1966. I was staying with the painter John Ferren and his wife, Rae, seeking a gallery for my own work. I had met them in Lebanon the previous year, where I was teaching in the art department of the American University of Beirut.

John was a leading light of the abstract expressionist movement, and had been chosen by the US administration to be sent abroad to interact with local artists. It was the inspired idea of the Kennedy regime to send artists, writers and poets to be cultural ambassadors. John was chosen because he had lived in Paris and spoke fluent French. He had become friendly with Gertrude Stein, who pronounced him to be the only American artist who was any good. He had also met Picasso and helped him stretch the canvas for Guernica.

John was a macho character in the Hemingway mould who smoked a pipe and whose expressionist action paintings mystified the Lebanese. We had little in common stylistically, as my own work at that time was a kind of hard-edged conceptualism, executed in black and white on wooden panels. But it reminded John of his own work in the 1930s, and he and Rae invited me to stay with them when they returned home and see if I could find a gallery for a one-man show.

The Ferrens lived in a brownstone on West 73rd Street. When I arrived, they made it clear that this was to be no holiday. I had to leave the house after breakfast and not return before five o’clock, when I would be given a drink and recount my experiences during the day. The search for a gallery was a dispiriting experience and it was six months before I succeeded. One day Rae took me to meet the widow of the famous painter Stuart Davis. She told me that for three years before he died he had applied for a Guggenheim fellowship, and each time he was turned down. Why? Because he was too old.

This stuck in my mind, and some years later I realised there was another category of people who miss out: those who are too young and have yet to get onto the first step on the ladder. This led to the creation of the Ancient & Modern prize, which is awarded for original research to scholars aged under 25 or over 60.

It is easy to apply, with no references needed, simply a statement of age and a brief summary of the project (no more than 500 words), with an emphasis that it would be difficult to find funding for the project from any other source.

The applications are judged by an anonymous committee, on a scale of 1 to 20. They never meet, and there is no discussion. The scores are added up by the honorary secretary, and the highest gets the Ancient & Modern prize; the runner-up gets the Godfrey Goodwin prize (named after the distinguished Ottoman architectural historian, who died in 2005).

And the 2013 award goes to… Harriet Nash from the University of Exeter, 61. The winner of the first prize of £1,000 is investigating the fast-disappearing use of sun and stars for the timing of the division of water in Oman – the only country still using traditional irrigation systems that probably originated in Central Asia 4,000 years ago.

The Godfrey Goodwin prize of £500 goes to Polina Ivanova, 24, who is at Harvard, and plans to follow in the footsteps of a little-known Ottoman traveller, a contemporary of Evliya Çelebi, called Bulus al-Halabi (or Paul of Aleppo), an Orthodox priest who journeyed from Aleppo to Muscovy in the 17th century.

Past winners include Martha H Henze from the USA, aged 81. Her proposal was to draw up an inventory of early Anatolian carpets in Ethiopian churches. Her prize, awarded in 2008, was very productive: she went on to discover rare 17th-century Ushak carpet fragments in a remote monastery in Ethiopia.

At the other end of the age spectrum, in 2001 the young English scholar Emma Dick, then 24, was given the Ancient & Modern to compare two of the Topkapi’s imperial illustrated albums, the Sûrname-i Hümayun and the Sûrname-i Vehbi.

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 49
  • Chekhov’s ‘Warm Siberia’

    Like many writers, Chekhov made his way to Crimea to nurse his TB in a milder climate. His two houses, now museums, became magnets for artists. One he left to his sister, the other to his wife.

  • Prince on Tour

    Philip Mansel on the future Edward VII’s Ottoman expedition

  • Into the silence

    By any standard, Hüsamettin Koçan’s mountain-top Baksı Museum, in the northeastern Anatolian village where he was born, deserves a place among the world’s top ten remote museums.

  • Connoisseur 49

    This silver goblet was one of more than 600 medieval treasures from Central Asia crowding Bonhams’ elegant rooms in Edinburgh for six days in January.

  • Heavenly Berries

    Mulberries come in an array of hues: black, white, pink, purple; some enticingly sweet, others astringent and healing. As Berrin Torolsan can testify, having grown up with them in her Istanbul garden, all are adored – by man, mallard and pine marten alike. Here she traces the history of this lucious fruit

  • The Unlikely Saviour of Sancta Sophia

    Thomas Whittemore, the American scholar and philanthropist, was instrumental in restoring the Byzantine treasures of Ayasofya. Robert S Nelson delves into his enigmatic life

  • Parisian Panache

    The V&A’s Tim Stanley eyes up the Louvre’s astonishing new Islamic offering

  • Nine Days in Crimea

    From the towers of Tatary to the tombs of Scythian kings, from clifftop citadels to an underground castle, from Balaklava to the beaches of the Tsarist Riviera, Crimea is a land to fall in love with, waiting to be enjoyed, not destroyed

  • Palaces of Silk

    As the Sadberk Hanım Museum celebrates the art of embroidery, Min Hogg marvels at the motifs of palaces, fruit and flowers, sea and cityscape, wrought stitch by stitch, to adorn every Ottoman home

  • The Dutch Orientalist

    Aard Streefland tells the story of the Dutch orientalist Marius Bauer (1867–1932)

  • Crimea: the Heartland

    The Crimean khans founded their capital in the fertile foothills of the Crimean Mountains in the 15th century. This was the nucleaus of the land known as Cim Tartary. The garden palace of Bahçesaray is a glorious reminder of the khans’ 350-year reign

  • Crimea: the South Coast

    Dramatic and picturesque, Crimea’s southern coast became a resort for doomed royalty and a refuge for ailing literati

  • Crimea: the West Coast

    Two ports – Sevastopol and Yevpatoria – rule Crimea’s flat west coast. One was built for war, the other for recreation. Both played a part in the Crimean War

  • Eastern Crimea and the Kerch Peninsula

    Geonese merchants, a millionaire painter and a symbolist poet brought fortune and fame to the eastern stretches of Crimea’s south coast and its fertile hinterland

  • The Crimean War: Into the Mouth of Hell

    Balaklava, Sevastopol, Inkerman, the Valley of Death – in Britain, where the savage toll was so acutely felt, these names still have the power to arouse pride and fury. Algernon Percy travelled to Crimea to visit the evocative battlefields

  • Crimean War: The Empire Strikes Back

    From the Danube to the Caucasus, conflict raged. The Ottomans were fighting for their territories and their lives, but the full story of their courage is only now being told, says the military historian Mesut Uyar 

  • The Crimean War: The Real Reason Why

    The war of 1853–56 was a calamitous clash of imperial ambitions. Turkey sustained heavy losses, but without them she might have ceased to exist. David Barchard puts the conflict in context

  • Yevpatoria: Bathed in splendour

    With its healing brine baths and golden beaches, its wealth and variety of architecture, and its layers-deep history, this resort offers something for everyone – from hedonist to hypochondriac

  • No surrender for Anna

    Yevpatoria in Crimea was the home the young Anna Akhmatova, an icon of Russian literature, who fell foul of Stalin

Buy the issue
Issue 49, April 2013 Travels in Tartary
£10.00 / $12.65 / 415.33 TL
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