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Obituary: Shirley Bury

IT IS the heaviest printed book I have ever held. It weighs in at 32lb, fills 1,380 pages, is quarter-bound in red goatskin by Cedric Chivers, set in Caslon, designed by Guy Miles Warren, edited by Shirley Bury's great friend Claude Blair, half of it written by Bury herself, and published by the Stationery Office at pounds 1,000 per copy.

Bury spent the last eight years of her life concentrating on this great task, often staying up till five in the morning, such was her obsession with the obscure, fascinating details of royal anatomy and royal meanness.

The Crown Jewels (1998) is the first catalogue of this fabulous collection in nearly a thousand years of history and legend. Bury checked every source she used - there was never anything second-hand or derivative in her scholarly writings - so, characteristically, she wrote too much and took too long. Like many scholars, she could not always see the wood for the trees, but her trees were so dense and interesting that her editors usually gave up in despair and allowed her a few dozen more pages than had been offered.

Here, she spices her accounts of the coronation ceremonies. Charles II showed what she pithily calls his "nicely judged balance of conciliation and reward" when he created six new earls and six barons. We meet Pepys in Westminster Abbey getting "up into a great scaffold" from which he noted scarlet everywhere. "All the officers of all kinds, so much as the very fiddlers, in red vests."

Bury tells of how the royal goldsmith, Robert Vyner, was bankrupted by the King, who never paid properly for his extravagant new regalia, but as a royal servant he was immune from arrest for debt. We wonder with Bury what really happened to the earlier royal regalia when it was "destroyed" under the Republic of Oliver Cromwell. Much later, King William IV, unlike Charles II, wanted to economise for his coronation, so existing furniture was reused with an artistic result defined by Bury as "florid eclecticism".

She successfully negotiates the minefield of who owned who in the period of the Regency, with the eminent goldsmith merchants Paul Storr, Rundell Bridge and Rundell, Hunt and Roskell, all of them making money as well as or better than they made gold. Much later again, we meet King George V who complained of the discomfort of his crown, but nevertheless insisted on wearing it more often than his predecessors. For our own Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, Bury turns to Pepys's successor as gossip extraordinary: Chips Channon wrote, "I could have watched it for ever." That is how Bury's friends felt about her.

She usually wrote very formal prose, but in this exceptional book she let her hair down and revealed often concealed insights into human nature. Her achievement has not received due credit.

"All researchers have their occasional moments of illumination when a single additional fact begins to make sense of a body of information patiently amassed over a long period." So she wrote in the 1983 Album of the Victoria and Albert Museum, to which institution she devoted her whole working life - night and day - from 1948 to 1972. These words may not be so pithy as Pepys, but they might serve as Bury's epilogue. The academic windfall was a Victorian silver teaset of 1851 by Joseph Angell just acquired by the V&A, long known in documents, but only now, thanks to Shirley Bury, properly evaluated.

Bury was born in 1925, read Fine Art at Reading University, and soon afterwards joined the Circulation Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum (which was responsible for travelling exhibitions). In 1960 she completed an MA on the silver trade up to the Industrial Revolution, and the next year became senior research assistant and assistant keeper in the library the year after that.

I first worked with her in the 1961 international artists' jewellery exhibition which I organised at Goldsmiths' Hall. I sensed that her heart did not lie in modern art, despite her love for her eminent modern painter husband, Morley Bury. But she always wanted to help, and was eager to learn too. She taught me about the precursors of 20th-century design, like Pugin and Henry Cole.

She loved Pugin at a time when almost everyone else thought him trivial: in the 1969 V&A Yearbook, she records his hatred of half-pearls, and his generally hysterical attitudes about ornamental detail. Bury discovered that he had written about a tiny part of a tiny brooch: "I wonder you defend the Brooch, I think the half-pearls execrable. I won't have it, it is too horrid . . . it is a regular Houndsditch affair." (Houndsditch being the workplace for many cheap merchants, then as now.)

In 1967, Bury organised "Copy or Creation" with me at Goldsmiths' Hall, investigating the nature of Victorian church treasures, and I realised what an able sleuth she was; she discovered how everything copied something else, but that these copies were so full of doctrinal passion that they were creations in their own right. The following year she moved to the metalwork department, becoming deputy keeper in 1972.

She began to use words of such sophistication that I read her with a new awe. For instance, she called Ramsden and Carr, the British silversmiths of the 1920s, "those able epigones". But by 1985 she was using everyday language again, perhaps because, now promoted to Keeper, she had to master the arts of communication. In an elegant V&A booklet on jewels, she dragged in Congreve's agreeable Tattle from Love for Love, flourishing his "letters, lockets, pictures and rings" as proof of his sexual conquests.

Bury now preferred jewels to silver, and realised that jewels, though they are art, are also human nature: in another V&A booklet on rings, she records a Roman peacock of the first century AD who wore six rings on each of his hands, night and day.

Bury's most beautiful monument may be the superb jewellery gallery at the V&A, with her fine guide through the centuries. Her most complete achievement is perhaps her big two-volume book Jewellery 1789-1910, published in 1991, after she found a new self-discipline, and bravely reduced her initial 27 chapters to a more digestible 17, and jettisoned some 80,000 words.

Her best-kept secret was her love of her family, which she organised from its centre like Ruth and Naomi in the Bible. A friend once likened her to Dorothea in George Eliot's Middlemarch, always an influence for good, always showing confidence and faith in everyone. There are very few historians of metalwork and they nearly all know each other. Shirley Bury, with her accuracy and her generosity, was an example to them all.

Shirley Joan Watkin, art historian: born London 27 February 1925; Deputy Keeper, Department of Metalwork, Victoria and Albert Museum 1972-82, Keeper 1982-85; married 1947 Morley Bury (one son); died London 25 March 1999.