James Harle

Perceptive historian of Indian art
Click to follow
The Independent Online

James Harle arrived at Oxford University half a century ago and for two decades until his retirement in 1987 was Keeper of Eastern Art in the Ashmolean Museum. He was a well-known figure in his chosen field of the history of Indian art.

James Coffin Harle, art historian: born Santa Monica, California 5 April 1920; Assistant to the Dean of the College, Princeton 1947, part-time instructor in English 1948-49; Fulbright Lecturer, Philippines 1953-54; Assistant Keeper, Department of Eastern Art, Ashmolean Museum 1960-62, Senior Assistant Keeper 1962-67, Keeper 1967-87; Student, Christ Church, Oxford 1970-87 (Emeritus); married 1949 Jacqueline Ruch (died 1968; marriage dissolved 1966), 1967 Carola Fleming (died 1971), 1973 Betty Hulbert; died Oxford 27 June 2004.

James Harle arrived at Oxford University half a century ago and for two decades until his retirement in 1987 was Keeper of Eastern Art in the Ashmolean Museum. He was a well-known figure in his chosen field of the history of Indian art.

He brought to his roles in Oxford and in the international world of scholarship significant insights from his own unusual and complex background. He has been called Anglophile and Francophile, to which one should add that he had a warm and scholarly understanding of Indian culture, as well as a loyalty towards his own American heritage.

James Coffin Harle was from a family who were among the early settlers of East Tennessee. His middle name came from a line of preachers and seamen of Nantucket. Harle was a very large man who moved gently, and photographs of his father and grandfather show men of similar features and presence. The family participated in the early-20th-century American discovery of Europe. His father volunteered as an ambulance driver with the French army during the First World War.

Harle as a boy was brought up by a grandmother in Paris, and throughout his life spoke correct and elegant French. His education was in Rhode Island and at Princeton University, where he graduated in History and English in 1942. After this he did four years' service as a Navigator-Bomber in the Pacific campaign. He was credited with a direct hit on a Japanese submarine and was awarded the US Distinguished Flying Cross. He also visited Japan a few days after the surrender.

After demobilisation he returned to Princeton for graduate studies in English, but his wartime experiences had awoken an interest in the civilisations of Asia. He accepted a year's employment as a Fulbright Professor teaching English in the Philippines. Then he went on a prolonged visit to India, where he took some lessons in Sanskrit from a Pandit. After this the path led to Oxford, where he was accepted as a student in Indian studies by Christ Church. (Nineteen years later, in 1970 he was elected as a Student of Christ Church in another sense - that is to say a don at that ancient college.)

Harle came to Oxford in 1954. This was a critical period in the survival of traditional Indian studies in the older British universities and also in the grudging recognition in such universities of art history as a serious discipline. After the traumas of the end of Empire, interest in India was perhaps at a nadir among the British educated classes in the 1950s. At the same time the standing of art history in the United Kingdom and the level of competence of its practitioners had been strengthened by a generation of scholars who were fugitives from Nazi Europe.

Harle obtained first class honours in Sanskrit and Pali. From being primarily a linguist he appears to have become a convert to Indian art history mainly through his association with Wilhelm Cohn. Cohn was a historian of Indian sculpture, for whom a place of refuge had been found as Keeper of the predominantly late-19th-century collection of handicrafts and curiosities lodged in the Indian Institute. This was a massive building on a covetable central site at the end of the High Street which a majority of MAs entitled to vote on policy in the university sought to divert to other uses.

The contents of the building were redistributed by their decision. A portion of these passed into the Ashmolean Museum, which was also part of the university, as well as the oldest museum open to the public in the United Kingdom. In the museum these objects became the nucleus of a newly created Department of Eastern Art. After submitting his doctoral thesis ("The Architecture and Iconography of the Cidambaram Gopuras"), Harle joined the museum in 1960 as Assistant Keeper in this department.

In his initial research Cohn directed Harle's attention to South Indian sculpture as a field in particular need of attention. Harle's researches, which were largely conducted in the field in south India, bore fruit in a handsome and rigorously organised volume, Temple Gateways in South India, published in 1963. A shorter but important monograph followed, Gupta Sculpture (1974). It was an elegant presentation of a high epoch of Indian culture, and was notable for the political expositions as for its choice of illustrations and commentary.

His last major work was The Art and Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent (1992). It is one of the most distinguished attempts to write an overall historical survey of the art of the subcontinent. The miniaturised octavo size of the two printings make it possible to carry the volume as a guide for a lengthy tour of India, but the many fine photographs and the 600 pages of small print call for a library edition of larger format like the older volumes in this Pelican series.

Harle's methodology was influenced by the writings of the French scholar H. Jouveau-Dubreuil, who worked on a portion of the south Indian material surveyed by Harle in his own first publication. Little notice of these analyses had previously been taken by British and Indian writers on temple architecture and sculptures. Jouveau-Dubreuil concentrated on the elucidation of a typology of evolving details. Less systematic writers were inclined to trust their aesthetic judgement, their "eye" or connoisseurship without attempting to conceptualise the individual stylistic details which must have served as a basis for their judgements.

Harle had a warmer approach than his model. He invariably looked closely at the details of ornaments, gesture and modelling to argue on the evolution of the typological sequence and chronology, but he made an imaginative attempt to reconstruct the climate of emotion and sensibility through which the physical details were rendered in this fashion.

His personal taste inclined towards an appreciation of robust elegance in the human form and its adornments, and this is matched by his language. He refers to "hanks" of hair and to a "bouffant" style. In his description of a sculpture of a divine couple he writes of "the god both majestic and uxorious, his consort nestling beside him in her confident femininity".

The acceptance by a well-established Oxford college of a civilised and confident American student in his mid- thirties was a fortunate conjunction which benefited both the applicant and the university where he spent the remainder of his life. Harle developed into one of the most perceptive of art historians of India in his generation. Through two decades of his benign and watchful keepership (1967-87), the Department of Eastern Art in the Ashmolean Museum changed from being the depository for the detritus of objects from the old Indian Institute to a collection of international importance, linked to the Oriental Institute of the university in providing facilities for study, training and research.

Harle's own scholarly and aesthetic preferences were always clearly defined, but he never promoted these to the neglect of other aspects of the visual arts of Asia or the concerns of scholars and collectors with different enthusiasms or expertise. His courtesy played a part in procuring magnificent donations of Islamic and Far Eastern art. Only towards the end of his tenure did the Indian holdings begin to be enriched with equally impressive benefactions. In 1987 he and his colleague Andrew Topsfield published a useful and elegant handbook, Indian Art in the Ashmolean Museum.

After retirement Harle continued to write upon Indian art until advancing age led him to dispose of his significant personal library. He then turned to another topic, editing his father James W. Harle Jnr's diary, With the French Army in the Great War (2004).

Many will remember warmly the hospitality of James Harle and his third wife, Betty, in their old farmhouse hidden in suburban north Oxford.

Simon Digby