Obituary: Sir Brinsley Ford

BEFORE TRANSFERRING to the Intelligence Corps during the Second World War, Brinsley Ford saw a short period of service in the unlikely guise of Troop Sergeant-Major in an artillery unit. An event he liked to recall from that time was of the puzzling reprimand he received one day from an inspecting colonel - for displaying a nude pin-up. The object of the colonel's disapproval, it turned out, was a photograph Ford had hung over his bunk of Giambologna's Venus Standing on a Dolphin, a particular favourite among a group of works by Giambologna contained in Ford's remarkable family collection.

This story - in which Giambologna would invariably be referred to as "John of Bologna" - was one of a number with which Ford might regale a guest over the glass of manzanilla that marked the midway point of a tour of the Ford Collection. Another was of how, after James Byam Shaw had successfully bid for Ford in the 1936 Oppenheimer sale on a drawing by Michelangelo, Ford's aunt had given her nephew a stiff dressing-down on the perils of such extravagance (the drawing had cost a little over 3,000 guineas, the price of a good-sized house).

These and other anecdotes, recounted by Ford in a style once described as uniting "the measured cadences of Edward Gibbon with the humorous sparkle of Horace Walpole", contributed to make a visit to the Ford Collection an outstandingly memorable event. All who have paid a visit to look over the collection at Wyndham Place, and who recall the intense sense of expectancy with which they were led from one treasure-filled room to the next, will also retain a vivid recollection of the spellbinding effect worked on them by their urbane and characterful guide.

Ford once wrote that "the pleasure of owning a collection, and sharing it with others, fully compensates for the burdens that it entails", and he welcomed scores of enthusiasts through the door of his home. Tours began at 6 o'clock sharp with Ford - tall, distinguished and invariably dark-suited - seated at the head of an ancient table in the dining room. In his sonorous voice Ford would relate the history of the collection from the time of its original formation in the 18th century by his ancestor Benjamin Booth; and would explain the different parts played by successive generations of Fords in moulding its present shape.

The collection grew up around a group of pictures by the English landscape artist Richard Wilson, the most important such group in private hands in Booth's day and today. They entered the collection as a result of the marriage of Booth's daughter, Marianne, into the Ford family. Ford used to express the hope that he had done something to redress the balance since the diarist Joseph Farington remarked, "Lady Ford has got all the pictures by Wilson and says she will not sell any of them, nor will she suffer her house to be dirtied by permitting people to see them."

Ford was proud of the collection's claim to a continuous presence in London - albeit at different addresses - for two centuries, and of the fact that it is the only such one remaining to be referred to by both Farington and Gustav Friedrich Waagen, in his Treasures of Art in Great Britain (1854). He was also justly proud of his own role in supplementing the collection over his lifetime with a magnificent array of pictures by Old Master and contemporary artists, Renaissance and Baroque sculpture and ceramics. Last year the 60th annual volume of the Walpole Society, whose President Ford had been since 1986, was devoted to the collection.

Before leaving the dining room for the principal rooms on the upper floors of his home, Ford would draw his guests' attention to a variety of 18th- century sculptures and paintings, and to an exceptional group of Castelli maiolicas acquired by his great-grandfather Richard Ford, and added to by Ford himself. Visitors would also have the opportunity to inspect a portrait of Benjamin Booth - variously ascribed to Reynolds and Opie - and to admire a splendid group of drawings by Augustus John, including portraits of Ford and his wife, acquired from the artist in the 1940s.

Upstairs, the true extent and the eclectic nature of the collection became apparent. The Renaissance bronzes, Baroque sculpture, French 18th-century terracottas and Italian Old Masters for which Ford first developed a taste in the 1930s, were displayed alongside later works by Toulouse-Lautrec, Epstein, Gaudier- Brzeska, Frank Dobson, John Piper, John Bratby and Henry Moore, some of them acquired when Ford was still an undergraduate at Oxford. Room after room of Ford's home testified to his careful stewardship of the family inheritance, and above all to his own sure eye for quality.

The culmination of a tour came when Ford ushered his guests into the great first-floor drawing room, with its breathtaking array of Richard Wilsons, and Michelangelo's celebrated study for the first version of his statue of The Risen Christ in the church of Sta Maria sopra Minerva at Rome. Works by Ingres and other masters hung beside them, and on the tables were the models by Giambologna. Also of special interest was a pair of handsomely embroidered slippers presented to Ford on his retirement as Secretary of the Society of Dilettanti.

Two rooms more than any others in Ford's home recalled his great enthusiams: his bedroom, hung from floor to ceiling with works of the Royal Academy Schools students he regularly acquired; and his cluttered study, powerhouse of his scholarly work and myriad activities in the service of the arts. For the student of Fordiana, the study appeared uncannily to fit Sir William Maxwell-Stirling's description of his ancestor Richard Ford's room with "the inky table, the crammed pigeon holes, and the piles of manuscripts which encumbered the chairs and the floor".

Although Ford used to say of himself that he was unable to draw a line, he was a great encourager of fine draughtsmanship in others, and a generous patron. In addition to the quantity of works by young artists he bought over the years, in 1976, with the proceeds of the sale of his first edition of Goya's La Tauromaquia, he endowed the annual Richard Ford Award - named after his famous Hispanophile ancestor, author of The Hand-Book for Travellers in Spain (1845) - to enable a talented Royal Academy Schools student to go on a week-long study trip to Spain. And 1986 saw the birth of the National Trust Foundation for Art, an organisation formed under Ford's chairmanship to enrich National Trust properties with pictures and sculpture by contemporary artists with especial emphasis on young artists of promise.

It was Ford's fascination with his family and its achievements (his Christian names, Richard Brinsley, derived from his great-great-great-great-grandfather, the playwright Sheridan) that provided probably the greatest impetus to his scholarly activities. His immense pride in his ancestor Richard Ford - to whom he bore a strong physical resemblance and all of whose papers and drawings he inherited - prompted him to mastermind the splendid 1974 exhibition "Richard Ford in Spain", shown in London and Birmingham in aid of the National Art Collections Fund, for which he not only provided all the loans but also wrote the meticulous catalogue.

Equally, it was his deep love of his family collection that led him to produce the model monograph The Drawings of Richard Wilson (1951); and his desire to share it with others that resulted in the regular loans from his collection to exhibitions world-wide.

Ford's study of Richard Wilson, in combination with his work on a Walpole Society edition of the letters of the watercolourist Jonathan Skelton, in turn led to an almost consuming interest in the subject of the English in Italy at the time of the Grand Tour. By 1972 he had written some 280,000 words relating to the activities of Englishmen in Rome at that period, and had filled 94 foolscap volumes with notes. This huge archive of material, now housed at the Mellon Centre, provides an invaluable source for scholars - so much so that one book on Pompeo Batoni contains over 100 separate acknowledgements to Ford's researches. The archive forms the basis for John Ingamells's compendious volume, A Dictionary of British and Irish Travellers in Italy, 1701-1800, published in 1997.

For nearly 30 years Ford sat on the Executive Committee of the National Art-Collections Fund, of which he had first become a member in 1927. Major works purchased by museums with the NACF's assistance during Ford's chairmanship were a Donatello bronze at the Victoria and Albert Museum, a van Dyck Madonna and Child at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and a pair of Stubbs's paintings at the Tate Gallery. For 35 years Ford was a member of the editorial board of The Burlington Magazine, to which he made his first erudite contribution in 1939 ("Ingres' Portrait Drawings of English People at Rome, 1806-1820"), and which dedicated an issue in tribute to him on his 80th birthday.

George Ireland

Less well-known about Brinsley Ford is that he was a writer, writes Ian Lowe. His book on the drawings of Richard Wilson remains the standard work of reference. From 1946 until 1975 he also kept journals.

He did not think that these would merit publication "because they are not illuminated by shafts of malice" like those of James Lees-Milne, which he enjoyed. Such extracts as have seen the light of day have offered outstanding insights into the immediate past, into a way of life which has gone, as at Felbrigg where he and his wife were the guest of Wyndham Ketton-Cremer. Published in The National Trust Handbook (1977-78), Ford's account of Norfolk food is mouth-watering; that of their host's reaction to the discourtesy of a fellow guest, the gin-drinking "pasha", subsequently revealed as Villiers David, is masterly. It was the Marquess of Cholmondeley at Houghton who referred to "artisans" when he meant aesthetes; the old lady "pickled- in-a-sauce of disagreeability" was "old Mrs Blofeld at Hoveton". Brinsley later wrote, "As Richard Ford said, `A note made on the spot is worth a cartload of recollections.' "

A graphologist once described Ford's rapid scratchy, vertical longhand as that of "a tortured soul". He much admired his "superb prose", as in the passage describing a college gaudy in June 1986:

When I met you in Oxford I was on my way to attend what will have been my last Gaudy at Trinity. It was a painfully Proustian scene. Before dinner we assembled for drinks in the quad. I am getting so old that I scarcely knew anyone but one white-haired, ruddy-faced, pot-bellied old man looked vaguely familiar. Surely it could not be Blenkinsop, the golden-haired youth, who was captain of boats and who looked like a cross between Rupert Brooke and the Apollo Belvedere. But, by Jove, it was. Luckily I could not read his thoughts.

Richard Brinsley Ford, art historian and collector: born 10 June 1908; trustee, National Gallery 1954-61; trustee, Watts Gallery, Compton 1955- 95, Chairman 1974-84; member, Executive Committee, National Art-Collections Fund 1960-88, Vice-Chairman 1974-75, Chairman 1975-80; CBE 1978; Secretary, Society of Dilettanti 1972-88; Joint Honorary Adviser on Paintings to National Trust 1980-95, Chairman, National Trust Foundation for Art Committee 1986-90; Kt 1984; President, Walpole Society 1986-99; married 1937 Joan Vyvyan (two sons, one daughter); died London 4 May 1999.

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