Lasko, Zarnecki on the Dutch German border
Peter Lasko, centre, with George Zarnecki and G L Dodswell and guards on the Dutch German border

Peter Lasko, who died on 18 May at the age of 79, had the distinction of being both a student of the Institute, and its fourth director (1976-84). Although these formal connections covered no more than twelve years, the Courtauld was always his alma mater, and in a sense he never left it. During his fifteen years at the British Museum he was constantly in the Conway Library, where he was a founder member of the medieval mafia, presided over by his great friend, George Zarnecki. In the 1950s he and Zarnecki pioneered the series of photographic expeditions to build up the Conway collections and many a tale was told of those odysseys. Lasko was a born driver. Like everything else, he did it con brio, often with hair-raising bravado. On one occasion in Spain, baffled by the one-way system of the streets of Burgos, which was clearly designed to defeat all access to the cathedral, he drove straight down a precipitous flight of steps intended for pedestrians only. On another, when approaching the Rhine ferry for Speyer, he overtook a quarter-of-a-mile long convoy of American army trucks, on the wrong side of the road — then calmly took his place at the head of the queue as though he had every right to be there. His assurance dispelled any doubts the military police might have had.

This panache was all part of the larger-than-life persona which he projected with success for the greater part of his career. The ebullient style was matched by a gift for words, which was all the more remarkable since his native tongue was German, and he claimed not to have spoken English before he came to England at the age of thirteen as a refugee in 1938. He picked up the language by mimicking the speech of people around him, mostly children. As a result his English had no trace of a German accent. He had a rich fund of funny stories, and if he had not become an art historian, he could have been a successful character actor or a comedian.

Lasko’s art history was no part of the act, though he carried it with a misleading lightness. Rueful remarks like 'You can’t date bad art’ stemmed from a perception of the subject that came straight out of the Vienna School — which was how art history was taught at the Institute when he was a student. His magnum opus, Ars Sacra, for the Pelican History of Art, 1973, is a monument to that tradition.

Coming back to the Courtauld as Director after twenty-five years must have been a proud moment for him. The appointment was a direct consequence of the flair for administration revealed at Norwich in the 1960s, when he set up a highly successful duplicate Courtauld to teach art history at the new University of East Anglia. If the times had been more auspicious, his tenure might have been the climax of an unbroken success story. But by the mid 70s the golden age was drawing to an end. The free flow of money to the universities was drying up. His great achievement was to solve the problem of where to go after 20 Portman Square. His first answer — another state-of-the-art design of the kind Norman Foster produced for UEA, was frustrated by Camden Council’s refusal to renew lapsed planning permission for the Bloomsbury site; so, with characteristic élan, he switched from one extreme to the other, and put in a bid for the north wing of Somerset House, then coming onto the market. The project took many years to complete, but the initiative was his, and he deserves the credit for it.

It has to be said that there was another side to Lasko’s complicated character. The dynamic image was not exactly deceptive, but it was protective clothing that concealed depths of self-doubt known only to close friends. He was haunted by the cruel tag 'Professor Lasko, BA’, that some unkind person at the Courtauld attached to him, thereby fuelling a latent inferiority complex that even his FBA could not appease. He was constantly proving himself, endlessly seeking the reassurance of success, and easily deflated when it was not forthcoming. The urge to be more English than the English — the end product of his verbal mimicry — reflected the insecurity of someone who was always perhaps more of an exile than he realised. It may be that in retirement his disengagement from the siren of the Courtauld led him to the rediscovery of his German-Jewish roots. A book on the Expressionist roots of Modernism, a German topic that interested him from childhood, is said to be on the point of publication. Sadly it will come too late to restore his amour propre; but one looks forward to a favourable reception if only to raise the hopes of his friends that by writing it, his self-inflicted demons were finally laid to rest.