Obituary: Sir Edward Playfair

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The Independent Culture
SIR EDWARD Playfair appeared on the surface to be the epitome of the Treasury knight - Eton and King's, and, after a spell in the Treasury, becoming a Permanent Secretary of a Department. In fact, Eddie Playfair was far from being a pillar of the Establishment.

He was notably unathletic at Eton, where he was a wet bob until as cox he steered his boat on the Thames into the bank. Banished to the furthest corner of the deep field at cricket, he sat down and met remonstrance with the indisputable fact that there was no rule against it.

He was a scholar at King's and shone in an era of specially talented Cambridge undergraduates. He took a First in Classics and then read History. He was the exact contemporary of Julian Bell, the son of Clive and Vanessa, and of Robin Brook, later a director of the Bank of England. He used to give a wicked imitation of C.P. Snow unravelling the mysteries of Dostoevsky to his acolytes.

He passed into the Inland Revenue in 1931. He was a singularly unambitious person and used to say that his one ambition was to be appointed to the Royal Mint. But his quickness of mind was such that he was soon moved in 1934 to the Treasury. He was one of the first to spot the deplorable consequences that would follow if the Morgenthau plan for pastoralising Germany after the Second World War was accepted. That would repeat all the evils that Keynes had foreseen in his famous polemic against the Versailles peace treaty.

He also had a hand in financing the universities, for at that time the then University Grants Committee got its grant direct from the Treasury. Playfair realised, as after the First World War, that the universities would be flooded with returning warriors and in any case needed to expand. Although the Treasury is traditionally concerned with reining in public expenditure, Playfair relished being able to increase the subvention to learning. He did the same for museums and art galleries and later became a member of the Fine Arts Commission. He was a master at handling the Public Accounts Committee. If something had gone seriously wrong, he made an apology so frank and abject that the committee was stunned into silence.

In 1947 he spent a year at the London end of the Control Commission for Germany and began the rundown of that over-ambitious organisation whose expenditure, including the feeding of the German population, was ruining the finances of the country. It was in the Control Commission that he got to know the new kind of professional staff officer, highly competent and hard-working, that had emerged under Alanbrooke and Monty. This was to stand him in good stead when, after a further nine years at the Treasury, he was appointed Permanent Under-Secretary at the War Office in 1956.

It was a difficult time for soldiers. First there was the bungled Suez expedition, then the abolition of National Service and the 1957 White Paper, which forced proud regiments to lose their separate identity and amalgamate.

Playfair liked soldiers. His sympathy and tact towards those suffering rationalisation were noted and he was appointed KCB in 1957. He was next moved to the new department of the Ministry of Defence, set up to rationalise the three armed services. There he was less happy because he found his political boss, Harold Watkinson, less congenial than Julian Amery, with whom he had been on such good terms at the War Office.

When aged six, little Playfair was asked what he would like to do when he grew up. Eddie answered: "Retire." No one can have enjoyed retirement more than he did. He was made chairman of International Computers and Tabulators but resigned, saying that the company needed a salesman at its head. He was, however, for 18 years a director of National Westminster Bank and of Glaxo, and served on the boards of other companies.

He became a trustee and for two years chairman of the board of the National Gallery and was a most useful member of the governing bodies of Imperial College and University College London. At the time of student unrest, his sense of humour never failed him, and the militant student who had just denounced him at a meeting of the college council, demanding his resignation as a capitalist exploiter, found himself having a drink with him after the meeting was over.

But, of all academic institutions, his first love was King's, and few bouquets gave him greater pleasure than his election there as an Honorary Fellow. He was a scholar manque. His greatest interest was in the derivation of words and his etymological discoveries found their way into the new edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. He liked dons, books and clever people such as himself.

Molly Playfair, whom he married in 1941, was a qualified doctor with a practice and together they raised three high-spirited daughters. All were with him when, in his 90th year, he lay dying of cancer. He left his affairs in meticulous order, stipulating that there should be no funeral or memorial service. In the waking intervals of his last hours, he spoke of Petronius and quoted in Greek Euripides, kindly translating for the benefit of his wife.

ALTHOUGH EDDIE Playfair was chairman of the National Gallery trustees for only a comparatively short period, from 1972 to 1974, writes Sir Michael Levey, his term coincided with several changes and problems and major challenges, all of which he dealt with in typically deft, equable and thoughtful manner.

He conceived of the chairman's role as essentially supportive of the director: not to initiate but to advise and warn and be consulted. Long before he became a trustee, in 1967, he had been providing invaluable guidance and support to the gallery from his post in the Treasury, and his Whitehall contacts, up to ministerial level, were to be extremely useful in crises that occurred under the Heath government.

But he was not prepared for the savage, personal nature of the entrance charge issue as pursued so obsessively by the late Viscount Eccles, then Minister responsible for the Arts. He did all that he could to negotiate and to wring concessions for the gallery from a man with whom he had previously been very friendly, but the episode saddened him both in principle and personally. From the first, experience had told him that concept was as impracticable as it was undesirable and that an enlightened government's aim should be to encourage free access by the public to the national museums and galleries.

I feel it part of my own great good fortune that Eddie Playfair should have been chairman of the trustees when I succeeded Sir Martin Davies as Director in 1973. Shrewd, kind and amusing, always calm and never overbearing, he brought keen intelligence to every question within the gallery while in general conversation he constantly astonished me by the wide range of his abstruse knowledge - now of Serbo-Croat, now of Scottish legal terminology. In a one-time civil-service tradition, he never paraded his culture or talked of his beliefs or boasted of how he had "fixed" things. But he stood for the humane, the literate and the profoundly civilised, and in his quiet way he strove for realisation of those ideals in life.

Edward Wilder Playfair, civil servant: born London 17 May 1909; CB 1949, KCB 1957; Permanent Under- Secretary of State for War 1956-59; governor, Imperial College of Science and Technology 1958-83, Fellow 1972; Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Defence 1960-61; chairman, International Computers and Tabulators 1961- 65; director, National Westminster Bank 1961-79; director, Glaxo Holdings 1961-79; trustee, National Gallery 1967-74, chairman 1972-74; married 1941 Dr Molly Rae (three daughters); died London 21 March 1999.

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