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  1. Wealth
August 13, 2013

How are John Hall’s Venice gap year courses staying relevant today?

By Spear's

So your parents want to pack you off to Venice in your gap year and make you hang out in galleries, go to lectures, learn to cook supper and generally work like a doge? Well, if it’s on the John Hall course, you’ll thank them later

So your parents want to pack you off to Venice in your gap year and make you hang out in galleries, go to lectures, learn to cook supper and generally work like a doge? Well, if it’s on the John Hall course, you’ll thank them later

FIVE HUNDRED YEARS ago, the Renaissance was in full flower. Machiavelli started writing The Prince, Titian was perfecting his palette and Leo X ascended the papal throne, from where he funded St Peter’s Basilica by selling indulgences (to which Martin Luther rather objected).

Nearly 50 years ago, John Hall decided to bring the spirit of the Renaissance to British students — or rather he decided to bring the students to the spirit. Students who sat Oxbridge exams during the seventh term needed something to do in the months that followed (the early modern gap year), so he created the Contemporary Europe Pre-University Course, ever since known as John Hall Venice.

It is a structured, six-week educational course in Venice between the end of January and mid-March, with a week in London. Around 40-50 students gather in London (put up by friends of Hall and his family) for a series of preliminary lectures, many of them at the National Gallery. (It helps that Nicholas Penny, the gallery’s director, is a ‘John Haller’.) They then move to Venice, where they stay in a hotel, chaperoned by John’s son Charlie, and are provided with wholesome, home-cooked food. After that, if they choose, they can continue to Rome and Florence for two weeks. As John is now approaching 80, Charlie is largely at the helm. 

What explains the course’s longevity in the highly competitive world of specialist gap-year companies? Charlie Hall argues that parents and students are starting to wonder about the point (and expense) of a gap year spent on an African safari, cruising full-moon parties in Thailand or backpacking round the Outback. ‘Too many kids take off on their gap years to do what?’ he asks. ‘Sit on a beach getting off their faces or rebuild an orphanage that last year’s gappers failed to build properly? It’s more necessary than ever in this sleek, business-oriented world to learn to appreciate art and beauty. Who else is going to fall in love with our great European cities and sustain them for future generations?’ 

Originally the course dealt mainly with politics, economics, social history, philosophy and psychology, but gradually, meeting student demand, it incorporated more art (it would seem a shame in Venice not to). Art is at the course’s core but, John explains, ‘We have kept in positively of-the-moment issues like climate change, the roots of the Arab Spring, relevant science like the astrophysical scale of the universe, space and time.’ 

Over half a century, the course has spawned its fair share of imitators, most notably Art History Abroad, which takes gap-year students on shorter, more affordable, trips round Italy and prides itself on eschewing the lecture hall in favour of inspired on-site ‘brilliant tutors’. In comparison, John Hall is expensive (prices start at £9,890) and students attend lectures on a daily basis. Its detractors would argue it is an outmoded course for a stuffy elite; last year the daughter of a wealthy American left the course after a day claiming that the other students were ‘spoilt’. 

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Charlie explains in more depth why prices remain high. ‘The course is gold standard. We bring experts from universities in England and some from America — combined, they make a sort of international university experience that is absolutely impossible to get anywhere else. It’s not something that any university could pay for. It’s a superteam of intellectual giants.’ 

Illustration by Femke de Jong


A glance at the list of ‘John Hallers’ initially reads like a potted guide to Britain’s aristocracy: Armstrong-Jones, Asquith, Bowes-Lyon, Cawdor, Douglas-Home, Fiennes, FitzRoy, Guinness, Hesketh, Moncreiffe, Pakenham, Pleydell-Bouverie, Sainsbury, Somerset, Villiers. Yet closer scrutiny reveals the course has also contributed to the cultural education of creative business moguls such as Peter Bennett-Jones and Cath Kidston. It also welcomes children from around the world. Anand Piramal, who attended the course in 2003, says: ‘The course goes way beyond art and culture and it inspired me to explore in greater depth India’s cultural heritage. I felt I was on the cusp of something new and life-changing.’

Charlie and John Hall argue that rather than creating an elite, they are bringing culture to a generation that sorely needs to be wrested away from a virtual take on life via an electronic screen. ‘Is the ability to appreciate art necessary for the modern world? Of course!’ insists Charlie. ‘All one has to do is to look at where our alumni end up working — we equip people for all sorts of paths and open their minds so they are able to appreciate beauty and understand and celebrate the great tradition of Europe.’ 

‘There was a time we approached every grammar school in Britain,’ says John Hall. ‘One replied that parents would never expect to spend money on education. A pity, but there it is. What we’re offering can’t be done on the cheap, so we’re in the process of setting up a philanthropic foundation funded by our wealthier alumni to send two students a year on the course. It may not sound much, but it’s a start.’ 

I went to the National Gallery to hear Karen Armstrong, author, commentator and former nun, talk about fundamentalism. The course had just started and the students were shyly appraising each other, but Armstrong had them gripped with her earthy tales of her scratchy nun’s clothing and what inspired her to explore the forces behind fundamentalism. I went on to Venice and heard palaeontologist Professor Simon Conway Morris talk about Darwinism. David Ekserdjian, curator of Bronze at the Royal Academy, talked about the Renaissance. Physicist and astronomer Malcolm Longair talked astrophysics. Conductor and music scholar Jane Glover talked about Mozart. Renowned musical director and lyricist Jeremy Sams had the students moist-eyed and open-mouthed when he introduced them to some of opera’s greatest love arias. Venice expert and resident Professor Peter Lauritzen took them round the Accademia. Charlie Hall took them on a private visit to the great cathedral of San Marco at night. 

Some afternoons, students went to artist Geoffrey Humphries’ studio on Giudecca, for life drawing classes and a dose of jazz. They also went to the home of Enrica Rocca, the ‘Cooking Contessa’, to learn the rudiments of Italian cuisine. As she poured glasses of prosecco, she said: ‘There are two things you can’t compromise on when it comes to quality: food and sex.’ The students were entranced as Enrica taught them to cook linguine with mussels and bollito misto in her steamy kitchen. I watched an American boy, hands big as hams, chopping herbs with exquisite precision. 

The John Hall Venice class of 1965

Golden anniversary

As John Hall prepares to celebrate the course’s 50th anniversary, he is adamant that his offering remains unique and has value and relevance in today’s world. ‘Our alumni are already planning ways to support those who can’t afford it, and even if we only reach a few it’s worth doing properly,’ he says. ‘Other courses are not residential in the same way. Our students really come to love and know Venice and gain their independence. It’s an invaluable gift for any school leaver.’ 

For parents who might have trouble persuading their children about going to lectures, Hall is resolute: ‘We will not bow to the fashion for quick, lazy fixes. Nothing shorter or less academic will do for us. We know our standard is gold and we’re never going to compromise on quality. That way we hope to keep going another 50 years at least.’

Watch Spear’s editor Josh Spero talk about how rising education costs are harming social mobility 



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