Obituary: David Rodgers
Monday 19 July 1999
After a colourful but chequered museum career he had settled down at home in Stockwell, south-east London, to a more contemplative life as a freelance writer and at the time of his sudden death was working with rare energy and infectious enthusiasm on various exhibition projects associated with Oscar Wilde.
Born at Sheffield in 1942 and educated there at King Edward VII School, Rodgers went on to read English and the History of Art at St John's College, Cambridge, where he graduated in 1963. Here he gravitated toward the Footlights, and in his daily life affected a theatrical role as a fin-de-siecle aesthete, dazzling his landlady with his silk dressing gown, Turkish cigarettes, and sexually provocative reproductions after Beardsley and Moreau. He would later claim to have visited the Fitzwilliam Museum on only two occasions, and famously irritated Professor Michael Jaffe by suggesting a Raphael they were studying derived its essential quality from its "golden glow", provoking the sharp retort that this was discoloured varnish.
If Rogers showed scant interest in developing a career as a connoisseur of old masters, nevertheless he was profoundly serious in his personal dedication to the late 19th and early 20th century, and this was to be reflected in the large and pioneering exhibition on Charles Conder that he put on as curator at the Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, in 1967.
Rodgers had begun his museum career four years earlier at the City of York Art Gallery. A remarkable reference from Cambridge drew attention both to his intellectual potential and his innate laziness, and suggested he might bore himself to death unless he quickly found an absorbing job. This was calculated to appeal to the director at York, Hans Hess, who had for long shown a rare ability to appoint talented mavericks in preference to what he perceived as the narrow-minded art historians produced by the Courtauld Institute. The memory of Hess's successful battles with philistine councillors in York must surely have sustained Rodgers when he took up his own first museum directorship at Wolverhampton in 1969.
The Wolverhampton Council had been hoping for a change of direction at the seriously run-down museum, but were soon shocked and shaken by the quiet revolution that Rodgers set in motion. He brought in visitors who had never previously considered entering an art gallery by organising a series of popular exhibitions about design and local history ("serious exhibitions with silly things in them"). "Coronation Souvenirs and Commemoratives"; "Seaside Souvenirs"; and, above all, "One for the Pot" - teapots - which he launched with a tea-party for 100 lucky schoolchildren and Noddy, the Brooke Bond (PG Tips) chimpanzee.
He built up an important collection of British and American Pop Art, probably the best outside London, acquiring for pounds 30,000 Lichtenstein's Purist Painting with Bottles, and Peter Blake's Cigarette Packet, in the face of much mocking from the local press ("pounds 18,000 up in smoke"; "Tories fuming over Pop art"). He also added modern prints and sculpture, including a maquette of Nicholas Munro's giant sculpture King Kong, which itself ultimately found a home on the roof of a Wolverhampton garage.
Rodgers enjoyed the company of artists and established fruitful relations with the Wolverhampton Polytechnic. He organised exhibitions by contemporary artists including Tom Phillips and John Langton, and a much-admired exhibition of collages. Nor did he neglect his duties as curator of the historical collections. He rescued a Richard Wilson that had been used to stop a coal-house door, bought Zoffany's Garrick and Sir John Brute (Brute in drag) and a Wright of Derby, and gave new prominence to Victorian genre painting.
In 1981 Rodgers moved to the Exeter Museums. Faced with a more conservative and less generous council, he stealthily acquired contemporary art under the pretext of extending the topographical collections, most notably with Burra's large-scale watercolour of Dartmoor.
His appointment to the Geffrye Museum promised much but delivered little when he fell out with the trustees and declined to reapply for his post when the museum was restructured. He did nevertheless produce pleasing publications in Mr Pooter's London (1988), based on Diary of a Nobody, and A Victorian Schoolboy in London: the diary of Ernest Baker (1881-82) (1989).
Rodgers was modestly self- deprecating about his capacity to write on an art-historical level. A long, intellectually fruitful friendship with Sir Michael Levey, whose sophistication and eloquence he particularly admired, and with whom he travelled regularly to Italy, may paradoxically have inhibited his own readiness to commit himself to print on an ambitious scale. He wrote a short book on Rossetti for Phaidon (Rossetti, 1996), and a popular book on William Morris (William Morris At Home, 1996) for the William Morris Society. And he was cajoled into making valuable contributions to the Macmillan Dictionary of Art, and a forthcoming Oxford Companion to Western Art, on which he also served as an advisory editor.
In his editorial capacity he could be surprisingly, but always charmingly, stubborn, resisting attempts to persuade him to commission articles on fashionable subjects such as Modernism which did not interest him. Pressed relentlessly to find an author to write on the sensitive issue of Feminism, he mischievously wrote an apparently faultless article himself, signed "Lesbia Brandon", without ever revealing whether or not he expected it to he published.
Rodgers's greatest gift was a capacity for friendship and a knack of turning lovers or aspiring lovers into friends. He met his long-standing companion, Clare Martin, at Wolverhampton when she was still a schoolgirl. Almost from the outset she had to sustain him through periods of tiresome and on occasion dangerous ill-health; yet she must herself have drawn great strength from David's warm, protective and stoic personality. With characteristic irony, and perhaps some regret, he suggested his own epitaph: "David Rodgers: he was very jolly."
David Ernest Rodgers, museum curator and writer: born Sheffield 1 February 1942; Art Assistant, York City Art Gallery 1963-65; Curator, Graves Art Gallery 1965-68; Curator, Old Battersea House 1968-69; Director, Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Museums 1969-81; Director, Exeter Museums and Art Gallery 1981-86; Director, Geffrye Museum 1986-90; died Lyndhurst, Hampshire 3 July 1999.
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