Graham Pollard: Deputy director of the Fitzwilliam Museum who was an expert on Italian Renaissance medals museum

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John Graham Pollard, numismatist, museum curator and civic campaigner: born Gillingham, Kent 25 December 1929; Keeper of Coins and Medals, Fitzwilliam Museum 1966-88, Deputy Director 1969-88; Fellow, Wolfson College, Cambridge 1967-97 (Emeritus), Librarian 1980-95; married 1963 Maria Seri (died 2007; one son); died Cambridge 17 December 2007.

Graham Pollard was the leading authority on Italian Renaissance medals in the post-war period. He will be best remembered as the author of the multi-volume catalogues of two of the greatest collections in the world, those of the Bargello Museum in Florence and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. But as a curator of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge whose coin and medal collection he did much to enhance his influence was far wider, as he shared his knowledge and judgement with students, scholars, collectors and dealers.

John Graham Pollard was born in Gillingham, Kent in 1929, as his father was in the Navy, based at Chatham. As a schoolboy during the Second World War he was fascinated by Rochester Museum and, encouraged by local antiquarians and collectors, he developed his interests in the arts, literature and natural sciences. He would cycle into the countryside in pursuit of medieval churches, and he prized a substantial collection of stuffed animals, including an armadillo, given to him by one old gentleman; it was later gratefully accepted by the Zoology Museum in Cambridge.

At the end of the war the family moved to Cambridge when Pollard's father was offered a clerical job at Pembroke College. There Pollard discovered the Fitzwilliam Museum. Within a few months he had been seen in the galleries so much that he was asked if he would like to work as an attendant, and thus he embarked on a career in the museum that would last for 41 years.

He registered for a London University external degree in Geography, but had to abandon it in 1948 when he was called up for National Service. On his return in 1950, he was appointed a Museum Assistant and assigned to the Coin Room to work under Harold Shrubbs. With encouragement from the museum's director, Carl Winter, he decided to apply to Cambridge University to read History, and rapidly taught himself sufficient Latin to pass the entrance exam, entering Pembroke College in 1951. He continued to work part-time for the Fitzwilliam during the first two years of his degree, and was given leave for the third. On graduating in 1954 he was appointed Junior Assistant Keeper, and promoted to Keeper of Coins and Medals in 1966 and Deputy Director in 1969.

Pollard's interest in medals had been fired by chance soon after arriving in Cambridge. In a fire-sale at an antique shop he saw a tin bath containing several hundred medals, and hastened home to borrow money from his father to buy them. The Italian connection came somewhat later and for a different reason. His first trip, in 1957, was with a group of friends wanting to look at Italian architecture, and he was bowled over by the experience. On a subsequent trip, in 1961, he went with Jack Trevor in search of fossils at the mine of Bacinello in southern Tuscany. In the nearby town of Grosseto he met a young schoolteacher, Maria Seri, who two years later would become his wife.

From then on his publications flowed, and in the Fitzwilliam he set about extending the medal collection through a series of discerning purchases that transformed its depth and quality. His friendly manner encouraged donations, notably one from the Rev Henry Hart, who gave his excellent collection of Greek coins to the museum in 1963. Just as crucially, Pollard's good relations with Philip Grierson, the Honorary Keeper of Coins from 1949, helped to secure for the museum the finest collection of European medieval coins in existence, which Grierson lent in 1975 and bequeathed in 2006. Pollard's interests also extended to modern and contemporary medals, and he was a founding member and the first president of the British Art Medal Society, 1982-86.

Pollard's career at the Fitzwilliam ended in 1988 when, after a frustrating period having to deal with a difficult colleague, while feeling unsupported by the then Director, Michael Jaffe, he took the option of early retirement. This freed him to work on an authoritative catalogue of the Renaissance medals in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. In this he was assisted by his wife, Maria, whose knowledge of Italian literature led to a number of significant discoveries.

Renaissance Medals was due to be published in January 2008 and launched in Washington with an international symposium, but when last September Pollard was diagnosed with terminal cancer, the production was accelerated, so that in October an advance copy was couriered to Cambridge in time for him to appreciate it. This massive catalogue of two volumes, running to more than 1,100 pages, is truly the crown to a distinguished numismatic career.

There was another side to Pollard's life, as a passionate defender of the civic landscape in Cambridge. In 1963 he had refused to give up his rented studio room in Ram Yard (the site of the present Park Street car park), remaining there even as the bulldozers started pulling the walls down. Through bodies such as the Cambridge Preservation Society, he campaigned against the Lion Yard and the Kite developments in the city, and influenced many others. He was a longstanding and effective member, and from time to time chairman, of the Listed Buildings Panel and its successor, the Design and Conservation Committee, which vets planning applications for Cambridge City Council. He was Chairman of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society and a member of the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain. At Wolfson College, of which he had been a Fellow since 1967, he served as librarian during the 16 years leading up to the construction of the new Lee Library.

A striking figure, Pollard will be remembered for his elegant italic handwriting since Sir Sydney Cockerell's time museum attendants had been trained in calligraphy to write labels for the exhibits for his clear and precise speech, and most of all for his jovial smile and friendly manner. He and Maria were a devoted couple, and his final illness, though short, was heart-rending, as she herself was battling with the terminal stages of a cancer, which took her just three weeks before him.

Mark Blackburn

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