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Dr James Hillson M.A., Ph.D

Dr James Hillson, M.A., Ph.D

Research Fellow at Emmanuel College

Gothic Architecture in Northwestern Europe, primarily 1200-1400

Relationships between Art and Politics in the Middle Ages

Processes of Stylistic Transmission in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries


At the start of my postgraduate life I described myself as an art historian who studies medieval things. The description is still broadly accurate, though these days I might add “specifically architecture”. I grew up in the Chiltern hills on the farthest end of the Metropolitan line, and came to Cambridge to read History of Art as an undergraduate at King’s College in 2008. In 2011 I moved to the University of York and started an MA in History of Art. I stayed at York for my PhD which I finished in October 2015, supervised by Prof. Tim Ayers, and with Prof. Mark Ormrod on my thesis advisory panel. My doctoral thesis was focused on reconstructing and reinterpreting the design of St Stephen’s Chapel in Westminster, an influential building which was built between 1292 and 1363 and burned down in its entirety in 1834, hence the problem. During my time at York I was also an Associate Researcher for the AHRC-funded St Stephen's Chapel: Visual and Political Culture 1292-1941 Project, aimed at producing a digital reconstruction of the building for public access. Most recently, in 2016 I was elected a Research Fellow of Emmanuel College, starting in October that year.

Research Interests

At present my research focuses on Gothic architecture in northwestern Europe, primarily from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. My doctoral thesis, entitled St Stephen's Chapel Westminster: Architecture, Decoration and Politics in the Reigns of Henry III and the Three Edwards (1227-1363), focused on interactions between architecture and politics in English royal patronage. Using a combination of material evidence, antiquarian prints and drawings and medieval financial accounts, my thesis used St Stephen’s to explore the economic, social and iconographic consequences of political decisions for a king’s building projects. In the process I have proposed a more iterative design process for Gothic buildings, responsive to accidents of domestic and international political affairs as much as the personalities and inclinations of the monarchs and masons who built them. I am presently preparing this thesis for publication.

In addition, over the course of my Research Fellowship at Emmanuel I intend to embark on a new project – the study of international stylistic transfer in Northwestern Europe between 1200 and 1400. By reconsidering the limitations and potential of language, drawing and travel for transferring artistic ideas across long distances, I aim to develop new frameworks for understanding style in this formative period of European architecture. This also involves a systematic reappraisal of existing stylistic categories, in particular their establishment during the 19th and 20th centuries, and a close study of contemporary and medieval concepts of copying, transmission and images.