Obituary: Jean Schofield

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
JEAN SCHOFIELD was a passionate advocate of education for all and a popular lecturer at the Victoria and Albert Museum for over 20 years.

Her love of art was rooted in her lifelong experience of Italy. Born Jean Thornett Smith in Turin in 1922, until she was eight she effectively grew up with the Agnelli children to whom her aunt was governess. This early exposure to Italian life was a rich source for her later career and her children vividly recall eating risotto in the early 1950s, long before it became familiar in England.

She was recruited in 1942 to the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House to read the Italian newspapers and then joined the Wrens, serving on Southampton Water. Characteristic was her joyous but unofficial visit to London to celebrate VE Day with Patrick Schofield whom she had married in 1944. This enterprise attracted six weeks' confinement to barracks, cheerfully endured.

Her organisational skills were tested as a young mother in the late 1940s and early 1950s when Patrick's medical training was interrupted by tuberculosis. As the wife of a busy general practitioner in Weybridge and mother of five children, she managed to carve out a role through the Wives Fellowship and Josephine Butler's Six Point Group.

It was not until the early 1970s that she was free to pursue her longstanding interest in art history, attending the Study Centre in London, which offered the first postgraduate diploma in decorative arts. A key moment for her association with the V&A was when in 1974 she was invited to help the Metalwork Department sort its archives, photographs and slides.

For 23 years she worked at the V&A giving lectures and attending on a weekly basis to sort, label, classify and mount slides and to dispense wisdom to calm the small dramas of a lively curatorial group. Jean Schofield built up for the Metalwork Department a collection of more than 20,000 slides, many from her own camera and at her own expense. Her consistent and unselfish labour remains the foundation of all the many lectures given by the Silver, Jewellery and Metalwork staff. Without her work, typical of the uncelebrated but essential effort given by almost 400 dedicated individuals, many of the curatorial activities and outreach programmes enjoyed by V&A visitors would be impossible.

Although she always regretted her lack of formal academic qualification, this was irrelevant to those who respected her wide reading and her clarity and vividness of expression, based on a profound knowledge of period sources such as diaries, memoirs and novels. She had the capacity to weave a web of meaning to explain the Baroque, 18th-century garden design, or the manufacture of Sheffield plate simply, accurately and memorably.

A longstanding ambition was to write the history of Hancock's, the London goldsmiths and jewellers founded in 1849. This invitation to her arose from a commission for jewellery, triggering her passionate interest in their 19th- century journals, photographs and workbooks. Sadly ill-health denied us the fruit of her knowledge of the l9th- century trade.

Schofield filled the V&A Lecture Theatre whenever she spoke, whether to A level English students about music and art in Shakespeare's England, or the Russian context for Carl Faberge's fantasies, the outstanding talk in a day's programme full of international scholars. She had no time for the meretricious or the merely fashionable and little interest in unkind gossip, but a constant ready ear for people in need. Her swansong at the V&A, a Late View lecture on mosaics in the autumn of 1996, enthralled an audience of 300.

Uncertain health in the 1980s was no barrier to a full programme of devising courses and lecturing not only for the V&A but also for the National Trust, Missenden Abbey and the Inchbald School of Design. Well before the recent wave of fashion, she had developed a series of lectures on the history of dining, given initially at Goldsmiths' Hall. Her high standards in presentation of her material were expressed also in her private life. Not for her was any meal taken merely as a snack and her room at the Star and Garter Home in Richmond, Surrey, where she had become a resident, rapidly acquired a small fridge full of delicacies and rum for naval visitors.

Combining a love of goldsmiths' work and a wish to encourage young makers, she was proud to have spotted the talented silversmith Rod Kelly at his Royal College of Art debut. She commissioned his Hawk bowl as an appropriate gift for her husband, a flying enthusiast, and remained one of his patrons and supporters until her death.

As a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers (1989), she carried her support for contemporary makers into her Service on the Craft Guild Mark Committee, from 1990 to 1996. The company fosters the British furniture industry, encouraging public recognition of excellence by granting Guild Marks to furniture assayed and found worthy by the company juries. She particularly enjoyed visiting workshops and meeting the craftspeople and designers.

Jean Schofield's last years were darkened when her son John, a journalist, was tragically shot dead in Croatia in 1995 when recording for the BBC Radio 4 programme The World Tonight.

Even in her last year, crippled with osteoporosis of the spine, she maintained her research interests, seeking out the original 1920s fittings designed for the Royal Star and Garter Home. The distinctive Arts and Crafts furniture, dispersed about the building and forgotten, and the chapel plate, was reassembled on paper and correctly identified. It would be a fitting tribute to her if these discoveries could be incorporated in any future refurbishment. As Chairman of the Residents' Committee, she operated as a catalyst and as a courteous voice for her colleagues from the Services, exploiting her interior design skills, for example to improve the location of doors and lights for wheelchair users in new lavatories.

Jean Thornett Smith, art historian: born Turin, Italy 18 December 1922; married 1944 Patrick Schofield (one son, three daughters and one son deceased); died Richmond, Surrey 20 August 1998.