Newsletter Archive: Spring 2007
Dennis Farr Remembered
I last saw Dennis in late October at a meeting of the Works of Art Committee at the Athenaeum where he was a very popular member. We were planning a Victorian Christmas evening to celebrate the loan from the Royal Collection of a pair of splendid portraits of Victoria and Albert. We decided to have some Christmas readings and Dennis agreed to read one of Anthony Trollope’s Christmas stories. Sadly we never heard him read it for he died the day before our dinner. Instead of listening to his mellifluous voice, and being beguiled by the quizzical smile, we stood in silent tribute to his memory.
Dennis was both a clubbable and a lovable man. In many ways, he remained a private man in public places but his enthusiasms were infectious and his delight in conviviality obvious. At our committee he would say very little until the right moment came. His opinion, always listened to with respect, was delivered with an affable reticence, which added to his influence and increased its effectiveness. His name added lustre to our committee. His contributions added sparkle.
When I first met Dennis in late 1970 he was the relatively-recently-arrived Director of Birmingham’s City Museums and Art Gallery. Before then he had already acquired wide experience at the Tate, of which he has written very engagingly in TheBurlington Magazine; at the Paul Mellon Collection in Washington, and in Glasgow. The Birmingham days were happy and he achieved a great deal. I was privileged to be able to give support to Dennis in his successful campaign to acquire Canaletto’s two jewel-bright pictures of Warwick Castle. The Canalettos were not his only notable Birmingham acquisitions. The loveliest of all was Bellini’s Madonna and Child with St Peter and St Mark. And, building on Birmingham’s twinning relationship with Milan, he masterminded a memorable exhibition of 17th Century Lombard paintings. That he was highly regarded in Birmingham was underlined by the fact that he was made a Justice of the Peace there and awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Birmingham University.
In 1980, after more than a decade in the second city, Dennis went back to the Courtauld, where he had been a student and taken both his first and his Master’s degree, a period he wrote about with nostalgic affection in a delightful essay in The Burlington Magazine last year. Now he was Director of the Courtauld Institute Galleries. He would remain there until his retirement in 1993.
These later Courtauld years were full and eventful. As their website tribute makes plain his impact was a significant one. He successfully integrated the Prince’s Gate Bequest into the collections and supervised the move of the collections and gallery to Somerset House, perhaps the most remarkable and successful move of its kind since the Royal Academy moved from there to Burlington House and an achievement for which he was, very fittingly, awarded the CBE. The move was not without its complications but during the transition Dennis’ acute sense of timing and judgement ensured the collections remained in the public eye. There were exhibitions and there were memorable publications on the Impressionist and post-Impressionist works, and on other highlights in the collection.
But Dennis was not just an able administrator with flair and panache. He was a thorough museum professional and an art historian of international repute. He is the only one so far to have served both as President of the Museums Association and as Chairman of the Association of Art Historians and he published widely. His books on William Etty and his history of English art from 1870 to 1940 are still regularly cited and consulted, as is his monumental work on the sculpture of Lynn Chadwick, which has now run into four editions. [In these] as in his contributions to the new DNB and in his many papers and articles, he displayed an economy of language to powerful effect.
His tastes were catholic and his knowledge profound but he was never a pedant. He wore his learning lightly, with unassuming grace. He shared his love of art with others and was always ready to listen to their opinions. He was a gregarious man but boisterous bonhomie was not his line, which is, I suppose, why he loved the Athenaeum.
Dennis and Diana had been married for almost fifty years and it was clearly a happy union of two people for whom the arts and literature added a special bond: Dennis was a historian, Diana a renowned author in her own right. I know how he delighted in his son Benedict and his daughter Joanna. I know too from comparing notes, how he enjoyed being a grandfather and how proud he was of Nicholas, Sebastian and Kieran.
This tribute is an excerpt from a speech given at Dennis Farr’s funeral on 14 December, 2006.
Dr. Dennis Farr CBE, Director of the Courtauld Galleries 1980-1993,
died on 6 December, 2006.