Obituaries: Clive Wainwright
He was a great lover of new technology, with a kitchen full of the latest gadgets alongside a dining room with furniture by Pugin
Monday 05 July 1999
He was based for more than 30 years at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and was a generous scholar with a great breadth of outside interests. He loved the V&A with a deep and abiding passion for giving him the opportunity to work closely with its great library, to write and research, and to develop, as he did, into a formidable and polymathic authority on many different aspects of design and the decorative arts, above all as a specialist on 19th-century furniture and collections, but also with a great knowledge of many other subjects, as knowledgeable about Ettore Sottsass, the contemporary Italian designer, as he was about Romanesque book production.
His magnum opus was The Romantic Interior: the British collector at home 1750-1850, published by Yale University Press in 1988. The book demonstrated his strengths as a scholar with an astonishingly wide range of knowledge of early-19th-century collections and an interest more in provenance and the appetites of early collectors than in the physical appearance and the making of furniture. It led to appointments of which he was enormously proud, including, for example, an invitation to lecture at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa and his appointment as a Visiting Professor at Birkbeck College, London University.
Born in Langport in Somerset in 1942, Wainwright was the son of a gardener and, although he was the least rural person imaginable, he was proud to have risen from a relatively humble background. Educated at Huish's Grammar School in Taunton, he went straight into industry without going to university in order to work at ICI in Welwyn Garden City.
His background as a research chemist doing early work on the development of plastics for household use was one amongst many unexpected aspects of his personality, so that while his bearded appearance made one think that he might be a neo-Luddite, in practice he was a great lover of new technology, using a mobile telephone long before they were common and with a kitchen full of the latest gadgets alongside a dining room with furniture by Pugin.
In 1966, he entered the Victoria and Albert Museum as a Museum Assistant after he had been told that to become a school teacher he would have to shave off his beard. He started working in the National Art Library. Then in 1968, he transferred to the Department of Furniture and Woodwork, which remained his spiritual home.
In the late 1960s, the Department of Furniture and Woodwork was extremely hierarchical and Wainwright as a non-graduate was at the bottom of the tree; but Peter Thornton, the energetic and then newly appointed Keeper, rapidly tranformed the atmosphere of the department into an engine of active scholarship and research. Wainwright worked particularly closely with Simon Jervis and together they led a scholarly reappraisal of 19th- century furniture which moved away from Pevsnersian orthodoxies to a much more active appreciation of the full gamut of styles.
During the 1970s, Wainwright's great achievement was in building up the Furniture and Woodwork archive. This was a classic example of effective compilation of all kinds of secondary research material for use by scholars; but in some ways the greatest research resource was Wainwright himself whose encyclopaedic mind was always able to come up with recondite bibliographic references which he would impart with a generosity of spirit not always evident in other parts of the museum world. Alongside his official duties, he began to publish widely on subjects including William Beckford's collection, the early furniture of A.W.N. Pugin and the furnishings of Abbotsford, Sir Walter Scott's house in the lowlands of Scotland.
In 1988, he was finally appointed as Assistant Keeper in a department which had recently been renamed the Department of Furniture and Interior Design. This was a period of increasingly rapid change at the museum and it was one of the minor tragedies of Wainwright's life that just at the moment when he had achieved a position which might have given him more freedom to publish and research, the expectations of people in his position changed and he was expected to devote more time to public and administrative duties than to scholarship. However, in 1991 his position was to some extent resolved by his appointment as a Senior Research Fellow in Nineteenth-Century Studies in the newly established Research Department.
Clive Wainwright never really lost his early vocation as a teacher. He was one of the very few members of staff at the V&A who enthusiastically embraced the establishment of a postgraduate course in the history of design jointly with the Royal College of Art in 1982 and from its inception he taught courses on 19th- century design. However left-wing the students and however hostile to an antiquarian approach to historical research, they always admired Wainwright's knowledge, as well as his lecturing style by which he talked from memory timing himself with a fob watch tucked into his waistcoat pocket. He was due to be made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Art on the day he died.
No account of Clive Wainwright would be complete without reference to his devotion to his American wife, Jane, whom he married in August 1967 and their purchase in 1971 of a fine early-19th-century house on the New River Estate in Islington, which they filled with their collection of 19th-century furniture and where they entertained friends. Together they shared a passion for the Palace of Westminster, where Jane is Director of Information Systems in the House of Commons library. In spirit, Clive Wainwright belonged to the early Victorians, to Pugin and to Barry, dressed in tweeds, an optimist and an autodidact with a passionate enthusiasm for scholarship, travel and gadgetry.
Clive Wainwright, author, museum curator and antiquary: born Langport, Somerset 2 April 1942; Museum Assistant, Victoria and Albert Museum 1966- 75, Research Assistant 1975-88, Assistant Keeper, Department of Furniture and Interior Design 1988-91, Senior Research Fellow in Nineteenth-Century Studies, Research Department 1991-99; married 1967 Jane Mylander; died London 2 July 1999.
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