Obituary: David Rodgers

DAVID RODGERS was a charismatic figure in the museum world; a friend of artists and a protagonist for 20th- century art; a stylish but reluctant writer of rare wit and quick intelligence.

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor