Charles Ryskamp: Passionate art curator and scholar

It was a hot summer night, some 30 years ago. Charles Ryskamp and I had been to a dinner together, and it seemed too early to turn in. "There's a party we could go to in Brompton Square," said Charles, so off we went. You could hear the party from Knightsbridge as we walked up the square. Outside the house were some ghostly figures. Seen closer, these turned out to be Andy Warhol, drawing with chalks on the pavement, silently watched by two or three adoring flower-people. Inside, the house was packed, the music deafening, with flashing lights; we did not stay long. As we passed the rapt group outside, the drawing more advanced, Charles said, "Why don't you come back tomorrow with a pickaxe and lift that paving-stone? It would make your fortune."

For almost 30 years, Ryskamp was a pillar of the New York museum world, as director first of the Pierpont Morgan Library and then the Frick Collection, combining this with an even longer career teaching at Princeton. But to a far wider circle of friends, he was a magician, someone who could turn the banal details of ordinary life into a world of colour and delight.

Ryscamp was born in East Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1928. Several of his uncles were professors, his father a professor of economics; his background was educated, with two libraries in the house he grew up in, but not aesthetic. One day he saw a newspaper advertisement for a picture sale at Parke-Bernet in New York: "Send for catalogue" it said, so he did. It arrived to family disapproval just as they were setting off for church, but he was hooked. When, age 13, he went on an outing to New York, he fell in love with the Frick Collection, never guessing that he would one day be its director.

After attending college in Grand Rapids he moved to Yale for his MA in 1951, and there began the thesis on the early life of William Cowper for which he got his PhD in 1956.

He spent 1953-54 as a post-graduate student at Pembroke College, Cambridge. At Pembroke he met Geoffrey Keynes, surgeon and book-collector, and through him a wonderful new world of books and pictures. He bought 18th-century books, and a couple of Lear drawings. He went to London, to Colnaghi's and other dealers, and to the British Museum, where the library and the department of prints and drawings opened his eyes to new riches.

In 1955, back in the US, he started to teach English at Princeton, and went smoothly up the departmental ladder, doubling an associate professorship with curatorship of English and American Literature at the University Library. His friendships spread far and wide, notably with Paul Mellon, with whom he went on visits to dealers, watching him build his great collection of British art. His William Blake, Engraver came out in 1969.

The same year Ryskamp was chosen to succeed Frederick B. Adams as director of the Pierpont Morgan Library. World famous as a collection of the finest books, manuscripts, prints and drawings, it was no longer the Morgan family's private library, but it still had an air of exclusivity – you rang the bell for admittance by a uniformed attendant. Ryskamp opened it up. A lively programme of exhibitions and events brought new treasures and new visitors. Realising that even Morgan money could not support this, he invited new friends and benefactors to help. Soon, the Morgan became an exciting new cultural centre in New York.

Acquisitions poured in: Mrs Landon K Thorne's Blake collection in 1971; bookbindings from Julia Wightman; the Mary Flagler Cary trust music-manuscripts; Italian drawings from Janos Scholz; and books from Paul Mellon. William S. Glazier's illuminated manuscripts, deposited at the Morgan, became a gift, and in 1987 Gordon Ray, president of the Guggenheim Foundation, left his collection of French and English literature and illustrated books.

The exhibitions began in 1970 with William Blake's Drawings for the Book of Job, and in 1976 came the first of a series, continuing to this day, of drawings from the Eugene Thaw collection. Besides the Morgan's own treasures, exhibitions brought in others on loan.

The great collections on both sides of the Atlantic and their owners became familiar to him. His enthusiasm and charm opened all doors. In New York he could call on Brooke Astor, Alice Tully and Ben Sonnenberg. In London he was a member of the Roxburghe Club, at Chatsworth and Drumlanrig a close friend to the Devonshire and Buccleuch families; as welcome to the Belgian and Dutch royal families, he could play Scrabble in three languages. But he was just as likely to seek out a promising artist or a poor scholar, summon them to dinner, or find them new patronage.

In 1987 Ryskamp, having raised funds to build a glass annexe between the Morgan family house and library, moved on to the Frick Collection, on New York's East 70th Street. Here, with his own apartment round the corner, he was even more at home. He no longer had to find money for acquisitions, so poured his energy into raising funds for the Frick Art Library, the most comprehensive index of works of art in the world.

He also kept up his scholarly work, particularly on William Cowper, and delighted in encouraging others, among them Verlyn Klinkenborg, who produced two volumes of facsimiles with transcripts of British Literary Manuscripts (1981) in the Pierpont Morgan Library.

He was, besides, a trustee of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and served on many other cultural bodies, among them the William Blake Trust, the Lewis Walpole Library, the Princeton Art Museum and the Cowper Society. He did much for Dutch-American relations, and was made a commander of the order of Orange-Nassau, with decorations also from Belgium and Iceland.

Latterly, he had also been national adviser to the council of the Neuropathy Association. For the last dozen years he had suffered a painful and incurable neural ailment in his right leg. He did not let this stop him leading as active a life as ever, nor did it quench the gaiety and fun that he brought to everything that he did.

His last weeks were enlivened by an exhibition of drawings from his own collection at the Yale Center for British Art. Some were by famous artists (Stubbs, Blake, Delacroix), most not: those by virtually unknown German and Scandinavian artists were a particular eye-opener. Arranged by subject (ruins, trees, the natural world, boats, the human figure, the inner vision), the whole was a panorama of the quest that animated his life.

This was captured as well in Varieties of Romantic Experience, the book of the exhibition by Matthew Hargraves. There were also talks and seminars at Yale, a great signing party at Ursus Books in New York. In the middle of it all was Charles, like Prospero, and then, quite suddenly, he was gone. His charms are all o'erthrown, but his books and pictures will live on in other hands, to remind those who knew him of all the magic that he made during his life.

Nicolas Barker

Charles Andrew Ryskamp, English scholar and art curator: born East Grand Rapids, Michigan 21 October 1928; director, Pierpont Morgan Library 1969-87; director, the Frick Collection 1987-97; died New York City 26 March 2010.

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