I met Sir John Pope-Hennessy on only a couple of occasions, but his death on October 31 has been much on my mind. We had friends in common, and over the past year or so I have been working my way through his writings.
The first time I met him he was embarking on a study of Benvenuto Cellini. I asked if it was true that Cellini’s memoirs were a pack of lies. Pope-Hennessy replied that every verifiable detail in the memoirs had turned out to be true. He said this with great pleasure. He was very definite about it, and I liked to hear him say something so definite, even though I was also wondering what to ask next without opening up new tracts of my ignorance of Cellini.
On the next occasion, last summer, I was better prepared, but Pope-Hennessy was already ill and old, and concealing the fact behind a bright, sociable manner that made actual conversation impossible. He reminded me of someone I knew who had died only with great difficulty and fear, protesting vigorously to the end; and the verdict of the doctor a few days after he died was that he had lived about a year longer than anyone else in his condition would have. He received the last rites, and bounced back. His mental powers had certainly lasted, unimpaired, until very recently indeed.
The obituaries have all quoted him to the effect that objects meant more to him than people. If this were so, it would be hard to guess how he was able to command such love and affection (along with terror, respect, and doubtless loathing). My feeling is that he is more passionately present in his writings about art than most comparable scholars, and that these writings are not about objects but about an intense inquiry into the mind of the artist responsible, and into the other (some rival) scholars who have ventured an opinion on the subject.
At the time that Pope-Hennessy began work on sculpture, he had two major predecessors: Wilhelm Bode, who formed the Prussian art collections and whose name is commemorated by the Bode Museum in Berlin, and Leo Planiscig of Vienna. Bode was often a sloppy scholar, but he was the founder in the field, and Pope-Hennessy always likes to give weight to his virtues as a connoisseur. Bode is the grandfather. Planiscig, on the other hand, is to be rebelled against. He is beneath contempt. He is worthless. He is practically never mentioned without being slapped down.
This furious involvement, this terrific partisanship, provides the running sideshow, the “battle of the gods” going on at the same time as the epic of his own inquiries. Of course the ultimate judgment on art-historical questions must be nonpartisan. It must be built to last, and of course the substance of the reasoning must be, as one of the obituarists described it, almost legally watertight. But the essays and the catalogs make a salty read.
There is a Holmesian bravura in such essays as the one on Donatello’s relief of the Ascension (which is in the Victoria and Albert). The tendency of the theory is to show that this was a predella for the most famous chapel in Florence, the Brancacci; Pope-Hennessy gets all the elements of his argument beautifully in place and you really believe that, yes, Donatello had been looking at Masaccio’s frescoes and that this relief (which, oddly, shows the Ascension, and Christ giving the keys to Peter) was designed to complement the fresco cycle (from which the key scene is missing). But he doesn’t insist on the conclusiveness of his own case. In a dashingly un-Holmesian maneuver, he affects to find his own reasoning inconclusive. The essays contain many such detective stories.
And there are Holmesian touches in his autobiography, as when he describes the acquisition of the greatest Baroque sculpture in England, Bernini’s Neptune and Triton. This had once belonged to Sir Joshua Reynolds, and was now in the garden of Lord Yarborough at Brocklesby:
One evening in 1950 I was dining with an old friend, Paul Wallraf, who was then employed by Wildenstein. To my surprise he asked me some questions about Lincoln and its cathedral, and when I got home I took a map and drew a circle with a thirty-mile radius around Lincoln. One major home fell within it, and that was Brocklesby. So we at once opened up negotiations to forestall a bid by Wildenstein.
I love the thought of the two friends having dinner together and Wallraf making his fatal slip, his incautious inquiry about Lincoln, and Pope-Hennessy working out what he was up to and stabbing him in the back, as it were, with a compass.
Later he goes to Brocklesby and finds the Bernini in an untidy rose garden. Lady Yarborough, pricelessly, says: “Since we can’t keep up the rose garden, the statue seems to have lost its point.” It had been one of the great landmarks of the Rome of the Baroque.
In the press recently I have seen references to the old days of museum curatorship, caricatured as a period that was all very well for the scholars who lived a cushy life within these institutions, but not so fine for the general public. In fact, as a member of the public I have to go back to what Pope-Hennessy wrote in his time at the V&A to get any detailed appreciation of the bulk of its collection. The museum is, sculpture-wise, passing through an autistic phase, but this may change, just as the sculpture collections are due to be redisplayed.
But the point is that the idea of Pope-Hennessy as a fatuous mandarin is quite wrong. Kenneth Clark, the closest figure to whom he can be compared, was a better popularizer, if you insist. But that Bernini heist at Brocklesby was a brilliant act of popularization. Clearly, Pope-Hennessy was no slouch at acquisition and as far as I can see he was a much better scholar than Bode. His skills blossomed in America, a context not known for obscurantism. He was a great scholar and curator, and a great figure of our time.
He was not always fair or fairminded. His attitude toward certain figures seems ungracious (in the case of Ronald Lightbown, who gave him major assistance on the V&A catalog), or unremittingly hostile (in the case of Charles Seymour, whose writing had ventured perhaps too soon on his territory). He was not always right, but he was perceptive about Margaret Thatcher, whom he detested from the bottom of his heart. Of the politicians with whom he had to deal, he liked the Labour arts minister Jenny Lee, Nye Bevan’s widow, best.
He was brilliantly looked after in his retirement by Michael Mallon, the scholar who edited the most recent essay collection and helped his revision of his standard work on Italian sculpture. They lived in a highly intriguing apartment with a view across the Arno to the Uffizi—echt Florence. Latterly, Mr. Mallon would read novels to Pope-Hennessy. Recently, when he was ill and confused and being wheeled around the flat, he was asked by Mr. Mallon: “Where would you like to be?” The Pope replied: “Mansfield Park.”
Copyright © The Independent 1994