How did you become a curator?

I realised quite early on that I wanted to be a curator, so I worked steadily towards it. Volunteering in museums and postgraduate studies were really important steps on the way. It’s been hard work but, at the same time, it’s always felt like natural progression. Even as a kid I gravitated towards the visual arts and enjoyed sharing my pleasure and interest in them. I could spend hours in Manchester City Art Gallery. That’s probably what’s behind it all.


Why did you choose pictures and sculpture as your speciality?

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by pictures and sculpture. I’ve always appreciated art’s ability to create a space for reflection, and a sense of connection to an ever-expanding range of ideas and cultures. As time has gone on, I’ve also grown to value the intellectual challenges of understanding the original meaning of artworks. Along with music and literature, for me, the visual arts create the most intimate and emotional experience you can have with people of far-distant times and places. To give a simple example, there’s a real magic in seeing a spontaneous brushstroke that looks like it was painted yesterday, but is actually hundreds of years old. It makes the past – but also the present moment – feel so alive.

What does an average day at work look like for you?

John Chu wearing a blue shirt standing in front of a marble statue
John Chu at Powis Castle. (Reproduced by kind permission of the National Trust)

With over 13,500 oil paintings in National Trust collections across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, not to mention all our sculpture, prints and drawings, there’s a lot to keep me busy. At any given time, I might be giving a public talk on a painting, valuing a statue, making conservation decisions or initiating a research project. This year has been especially exciting. In September we’re publishing a book illustrating 100 of the National Trust’s best paintings – from medieval times to the 20th century. It was really hard work to arrive at the final selection – we could have included at least four times as many in the book.

Do you have any favourite paintings or sculptures you can talk about?

The paintings that are closest to my heart are often the ones that I have had a hand in acquiring. There might be a perception out there that historic houses and their contents are unchanged and unchanging. Part of my job is to identify artworks that left sites before they came under the care of the National Trust. It’s up to me to make the case for bringing them back. Early into my time at the National Trust, we fundraised to secure a beautiful portrait by Thomas Gainsborough for Knole in Kent. It depicts the Marquis de Champcenetz, a French aristocrat who fled to England during the French Revolution and found refuge at the house. I love the sensitivity of the likeness, but also the resonance of its story of homes lost and found. These acquisitions provide permanent public access to fantastic works of art – which is great in itself – but they also provide a new perspective on National Trust sites. I was lucky enough to curate exhibitions at Osterley Park in west London and Powis Castle in Powys, to celebrate the purchases of Carlo Dolci’s Saint Agatha and Isaac Oliver’s superb miniature of Lord Herbert of Cherbury. We redisplayed whole sections of each house around these acquisitions. You get really intimately acquainted with works of art through that process.

Why do you believe that artwork from the past is still relevant today?

The art of the past resonates in so many ways with people’s present-day experience. Among the pictures cared for by National Trust, there really is something for everyone to connect with. Many people find solace in the beauty and creativity they find in works of artists like Rembrandt, JMW Turner and Barbara Hepworth. Others might be intrigued by the parallels between a historical portrait sitter like Lord Herbert, brazenly promoting his looks and courtly talents, and a contemporary social media influencer manipulating their online image. Then there’s the emotional and spiritual potential of art. Dolci, for example, shows the martyr Saint Agatha in the midst of her torture by the Romans. The picture invites us to contemplate the cruelties of religious persecution and empathise with the suffering of one willing to stand against it. It’s hard to imagine anything more profound.

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What advice would you give to aspiring curators?

Be tenacious, but remain open to new ideas and be curious about different points of view. There’s no substitute for scholarship and deep knowledge – so work hard on that – but bear in mind that it won’t count for much if you can’t make your subject meaningful for others.


This article was first published in the September 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed


Dr John Chu is Senior National Curator, Midlands (Pictures and Sculpture) at the National Trust