Obituary: Helen Waterhouse

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The Independent Culture
BEST KNOWN as a meticulous scholar of ancient Greek civilisation who played no small back-room role in wartime intelligence, Helen Waterhouse was one of but a few brilliant women of her day who were able to succeed in combining a full and exciting life and a career of civil and scholastic achievement with raising a family and caring for a distinguished husband. All who knew her and also delighted in the company of the late Professor Sir Ellis Waterhouse (1905-1985) can vouch for the ranking of this last achievement.

She was born into academia. From her early childhood her father, F.W. Thomas, Librarian at the India Office and then, from 1927 to 1937, Fellow of Balliol and Professor of Sanskrit and Oriental Languages at Oxford, engaged a tutor for her and two of her friends; he delayed sending her away to school before the secondary level. She credited him with demanding the strict academic methodology which was later to serve her well at Roedean - where she was a scholar and head of house - and at Cambridge.

When eventually at school, she soon betrayed an interest in Greece that was later to dominate her life. At first, it was restricted to language and dancing, which she loved, but for which she hated dressing up. At Girton College she blossomed and made many lifelong friends. She took a First in Classics and a starred First in Archaeology and stayed on to win a number of college and university studentships, prizes and a bifellowship in 1938. From 1935 to 1938 she held a Studentship at the British School at Athens.

The Second World War interrupted her academic career; she joined the cipher office at the British Legation in Athens and then moved on to the Political Intelligence Centre in Cairo. On returning to London in 1941, she worked in the War Office as a civil assistant before going to the Research Department of the Foreign Office, dealing specifically with Greece. She never spoke much of those days but it is known that she encoded and deciphered vital telegrams for Anthony Eden. Not surprisingly, when the librarianship of the British School in Athens fell vacant, she was appointed in 1946.

She looked younger than she was and proved a tireless researcher and traveller. So much so, that it was quite common for local Greek and Cretan farmers to express concern for her physical and moral safety and well- being. She grew tired of being accosted with "Young lady, where is your mother?" and once, when the latter visited her in the field, the old lady was promptly mounted on a donkey and led over the hills to the current archaeological site, probably never quite understanding the full significance of Helen's triumphant responses to passers-by.

She contributed several learned articles to the Annals of the school and composed book chapters and important surveys relating to the treasures of Mycenae, Ithaca and the early houses of Minoan civilisation. Much later, in 1986, she published The British School in Athens: the first hundred years. And, before her retirement, she also held lecturing and research appointments at Manchester and Birmingham universities.

A landmark was her marriage in 1949 - after an engagement that had been on and off several times over at least four years - to Ellis Waterhouse, who was rapidly establishing himself as a public servant and art historian of renown. The Director of the National Galleries of Scotland, he was later Barber Professor of Fine Arts at Birmingham and Slade Professor at Oxford; he served as Director of Studies at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in Art, and ended his career as Kress Professor at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. He was knighted in 1975.

He had long remained in contact with a schoolmate from Marlborough who became a frequent visitor at the Waterhouses' home on Boars Hill, outside Oxford. On one such weekend, to Helen's surprise and complete indignation, the house guest was exposed as a spy in the national press. He was (Sir) Anthony Blunt.

Throughout her life Helen Waterhouse inspired great faith in the academic tradition. An alert and penetrating mind did much for her undoubted conversational skills. On occasion rather sharp - some, not always fairly, attributed that to the influence of years with the beloved but idiosyncratic Ellis - she would more often show a gentle underlying courtesy. She suffered considerably in hospital for more than two years. Even so her concern for others never faltered. One day she was greeted with a friendly query from an elderly fellow patient, "What are you reading, deary?" This met the considered response, "Oh, only a detective book, but I think you are looking better today."

Those standing nearby could hardly fail to notice that the volume in question was actually Homer in the original Greek.

Richard Greenfield

Helen Thomas, classical scholar, archaeologist and librarian: born Chaldon, Surrey 5 March 1913: Librarian, British School in Athens 1946-47; Assistant Lecturer in Classics, Manchester University 1948-49; Honorary Lecturer and Research Fellow, Birmingham University 1966-71; married 1949 Ellis Waterhouse (Kt 1975, died 1985; two daughters); died Oxford 9 September 1999.