Newsletter Archive: Spring 2007
Robert Ratcliffe, 1930-2007
Bob Ratcliffe was born and brought up in Derbyshire. After taking a degree in Fine Arts at Reading and the post-graduate Diploma at the Courtauld, he was employed at the Courtauld – briefly in the Technology department, and then, until his retirement in 1990, as a lecturer, specialising in French painting of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and especially the art of Paul Cézanne.
On paper, his legacy is sadly thin: notes in the catalogue of the exhibition of Cézanne drawings and watercolours organised by Lawrence Gowing in 1973, and his unpublished PhD on Cézanne. That PhD thesis, completed in 1960, was a formidable piece of work; it is still, a necessary port of call for any serious researcher on the artist, with its combination of scrupulous documentation and deep insight into the making of Cézanne’s pictures.
It was especially through his lectures on Cézanne that Bob wielded a profound influence on successive generations of art historians; and that influence is his most significant legacy. Illustrated by a remarkable sequence of slides, made by Bob himself from the pictures under discussion and from the landscapes around Aix-en-Provence, the lectures offered an astonishingly vivid entry into Cézanne’s creative process, as the surfaces of the canvases were scrutinised, in image and word, to reveal the ways in which they were made. Many people whose only encounter with Bob’s teaching was these lectures have told me what a profound impact they had on them. I heard the series at least six times, and learned new things every time.
Those whom he taught in small groups encountered another dimension of his teaching. He taught by example, in front of the works themselves, in the Courtauld Gallery in its old home in Woburn Square, and in the National Gallery. His insistence on the problems posed by viewing conditions was revelatory. You can recognise a former Ratcliffe student when you see someone viewing a picture through a rectangle formed by their hands or, better still – cut out in cardboard – devices that Bob demonstrated as means of minimising the effects of invasive picture frames, background walls and lighting. And woe-betide the student who (as one did when I was a student) came to a gallery wearing tinted spectacles!
For him, most important was the close scrutiny of the pictures themselves. It was this that he sought to replicate in his slides, but the lesson was still more vivid in front of the original canvases. Encountering this was a crucial moment in my own education. I had just ‘discovered’ Monet when I arrived at the Courtauld, but I did not have the training or visual skills to analyse what I was seeing in his art. Bob’s example was precisely what I needed at that point. His insistence that the scrupulous analysis of the appearance and physical make-up of a painting as the necessary starting-point for our subject has remained with me.
Bob’s teaching career was interrupted by illness. But, for those who could take full advantage of what he offered the impact of his teaching has had a lifelong effect, though none of us, I suspect, could match the exacting standards that he set himself – standards that played so great a part in preventing him from feeling able to publish his work.
Bob has left a legacy to past and future students: most of his collection of slides – astonishing in quality as well as quantity – will be coming to the Institute to enrich our teaching for years to come. We send all our sympathies to his widow Daphne and their children John and Paul.
John House – Walter H. Annenberg Professor