Sir Denis Mahon Essay Prize 2020


The Sir Denis Mahon Essay Prize was established by Sir Denis’ friends and colleagues in 2010 in honour and celebration of his 100th birthday. Sir Denis was one of the most distinguished art historians and collectors of the 20th century, and a determined campaigner and philanthropist. He specialised in Italian XVII Century Paintings and was an authority on Poussin, Caravaggio, Guercino and Annibale Carracci. Sir Denis died on 24th April 2011.


The Sir Denis Mahon Essay Prize comprises an award of £2,000 for an essay of distinction which reflects Sir Denis’ s studies, research and interest in the period of art from the Seicento (17th century) ,  the work of Guercino, Carracci, Caravaggio and Nicolas Poussin, and  his much wider range of art historical interests as indicated in the biography below,  including  the 15th and 16th centuries and also certain key modern and contemporary artists.  Sir Denis was a contemporary and a friend of Graham Sutherland, Stanley Spencer, Henry Moore, Eduardo Paolozzi, Giorgio Morandi and he much admired their work.  Of the contemporary artists, he liked the post-war avant-garde  British artists, as well as David Hockney and Grayson Perry. We welcome essays on any of these aspects and artists including the contemporary ones.


Throughout his life and until his very last days, Sir Denis devoted a substantial amount of his time to help and encourage young students in the study of the art subjects he was very interested in. The Prize aims to continue Sir Denis’s endeavours in this respect.

The prize is open to undergraduate and postgraduate students who are 30 years of age or below when submitting their essay, who have completed their highest degree qualification within the past five years (graduating in 2015 or after), or who are currently studying for a postgraduate qualification. Only unpublished essays are eligible for submission.


It is a condition of the prize that the winner will present his or her essay as a lecture to an invited audience. This year it was scheduled to be held on Monday 9th November 2020 at Cromwell Place, London, SW7 2JE, followed by a reception and dinner in honour of Sir Denis. Unfortunately, due to Covid and the lockdown, the event was cancelled.  Previous locations have included The Courtauld Institute of Art, The Ashmolean Museum, The Fitzwilliam Museum, The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, the Church of San Lorenzo in Cento, Italy, the birthplace of Guercino, The Museum of the Order of St John in Clerkenwell, the Prints & Drawings Room at The British Museum and The National Gallery, London.


Manuscripts should be submitted in English. Submissions should be no longer than 5,000 words in length. The Burlington Magazine’s notes for contributors should be adhered to.

Manuscripts to be submitted by email to with the words ‘Sir Denis Mahon Essay Prize Entry’ in the subject line. The closing date for submissions is 4th September 2020.

Applications must be accompanied by a full educational CV including date of birth, address and current and previous occupations and work experience.

In order to promote the prize and the work of the artists who Sir Denis admired, it is a condition of submission that the winning author grants the Trustees of the Sir Denis Mahon Foundation the right to copy, distribute copies and generally to publish the winning essay in publications which the Trustees deem suitable.  The essay will not be edited in any way without the consent of the author and credit will always be given to the author.


The Judging Panel for the 2020 Sir Denis Mahon Essay Prize comprised :

  • Gareth Bell-Jones, Director/Curator of Flat Time House, a gallery and archive in the former home of the great post-war conceptual artist, John Latham (1921-2006). He is an associate lecturer and assessor for MA Curating and Collections at Chelsea School of Art.
  • Dr. Stephen Bury, Andrew W. Mellon Chief Librarian, Frick Art Reference Library (2010-). He is Chair of the Board of the Center for Books Arts, New York.
  • Dr. Stephen Deuchar CBE, Former Curator and Exhibitions Director at Royal Museums Greenwich, former founding Director of Tate Britain and former Director of The Art Fund.
  • Professor David Ekserdjian, Professor of History of Art and Film, University of Leicester. Former Trustee and Curator at the National Gallery, London.
  • Dr. Edward Payne, Assistant Professor in Art History before 1750, Aarhus University, Denmark. A scholar of Ribeira and Guercino.
  • Sir Charles Saumarez-Smith, Chairman, Royal Drawing School, London. Former president of the Royal Academy and former Director of the National Gallery, London.
  • Dr. John T. Spike, Art Historian, Author and Lecturer, specialising in the Italian Renaissance and Baroque periods. Former Deputy Director, Muscarelle Museum of Art, The College of William and Mary, USA and past director of the Florence Biennale.
  • Toby Treves, CEO of Modern Art Press, a well-known scholar of post-war artists and Trustee of the Eduardo Paolozzi Foundation.

Specific details of past years can be found in the previous Essay Prize sections.



The Sir Denis Mahon Essay Prize 2020
with her essay presented as a lecture:
The Elephant in the Room : Simon Vouet’s Catoptric Elephant, Originality and the Magic of Optics.

Gabriella Johnson is currently a PhD Candidate in Art History at the University of Delaware, Newark. She is the 2020 Winner of the Sir Denis Mahon Essay Prize. After graduating from Colby College, Waterville, Maine with Distinction in Major in her Bachelor of Arts in Art History and Italian Studies in 2014, she completed her Master of Arts in Art History at the University of Delaware in 2017. She was awarded the Global Dissertation Development Grant, University of Delaware, 2020-2021.