Fordyce Maxwell: Fifteen minutes ago I knew what a pediment was. Now I was damned if I did

Fordyce Maxwell
Fordyce Maxwell
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IT WAS some years since I’d been in an exam room.

But surrounds and sensations were familiar – desk bare except for the exam paper, hard chair, invigilator checking the clock, deep breathing, unbidden sigh. Then the “You may now open your exam paper” and off we go.

Or not, as the case might be. It was only a three-question, one hour, History of Art exam, but the three had to be read carefully and the accompanying picture with each studied briefly to decide in which order to tackle them. Provided, of course, that my mind didn’t go blank and I couldn’t write anything. Then I’d get my coat.

My mind didn’t go blank, but retrieval didn’t work as well as it might have done. Take architecture: “Describe the appearance of the Royal Courts of Justice and the importance of that to its function.” I could do the analysis, but was that a balustrade and blind fenestration and could I call that a buttress? And 15 minutes ago on the walk down I knew perfectly well what a pediment was. Now I was damned if I did.

Barry Flanagan’s Leaping Hare, bronze and stained wood sculpture was only a marginal improvement when I’d hoped for a Henry Moore or a Rodin or, when you get right down to it, Michelangelo’s David. As for the self-portrait of artist and wife by good old Giuseppe Baldrighi – yes, new to me too – I could just about cover a page while managing to insert a “negative space”, “chiaroscuro” and “linear perspective” into the narrative.

Apart from retrieval problems when there was anything to retrieve, I’m a painfully slow writer by hand, while Sheila was covering page after page. I mention her individually because as I flogged myself to the end of the course like a foundered horse, she was the only other one left.

We started with ten then, like an Agatha Christie novel, lost people regularly, if not mysteriously. One, the only other male, only lasted a week, overwhelmed either by likely workload or gender imbalance. Made of sterner stuff, I stuck at it while the ladies started to vanish – one because she’d never failed an exam and wasn’t going to start, one because she had too many other classes, one because she liked paintings, but not architecture, one for a long holiday.

I enjoyed the course and it wasn’t necessary to take the exam. But I did, in an attempt to make belated amends for appalling A-level results a lifetime ago.

Comparing notes after the exam, we wondered if the effort had been worth it. 
Time will tell – and the second, longer, exam this week. «

Twitter: @FordyceMaxwell