John Hayes

Gainsborough scholar who succeeded Roy Strong as Director of the National Portrait Gallery
Click to follow
The Independent Online

John Trevor Hayes, art historian and museum administrator: born London 21 January 1929; Assistant Keeper, London Museum 1954-70, Director 1970-74; Director, National Portrait Gallery 1974-94; CBE 1986; died London 25 December 2005.

John Hayes was Director of the National Portrait Gallery for 20 years, from 1974 to 1994. During the period of his directorship he concentrated on making acquisitions of historical portraits and also on the commissioning of contemporary portraiture for the gallery.

Among the historical material that arrived during his watch, Hayes was particularly proud of the Joshua Reynolds portraits of Laurence Sterne and Sir Joseph Banks, Thomas Gainsborough's portrait of Johann Christian Bach, William Hogarth's portrayal of the mathematician William Jones, and the conversation piece of the family of Jonathan Tyers, proprietor of Vauxhall Gardens; but there were many others, including important sculptures by Roubiliac and Rysbrack. Some fine exhibitions were mounted during Hayes's tenure, on Johann Zoffany (1977), Sir Thomas Lawrence (1979-80) and the exhibition entitled "The Raj" (1990-91) among them.

In the contemporary field, the NPG's acquisitions included Graham Sutherland's self-portrait (specially commissioned for the gallery's Sutherland exhibition in 1977) and Rodrigo Moynihan's portrait of Margaret Thatcher. In respect of contemporary portraiture, a field he was keen on from the start of his directorship, and apart from the commissioned work, he oversaw the establishment, in 1980, of an annual Portrait Award, initially sponsored by John Player and then by BP.

After complicated negotiations with government, Hayes succeeded in securing added exhibition space with the new 20th-century galleries and the Wolfson exhibition gallery, both opened in 1993. Staff were provided with new accommodation and the Heinz Library was opened on the north side of Orange Street. The gallery flourished during Hayes's tenure and he was appointed CBE in 1986.

One had to accept that John Hayes was a very private and shy person. His reserve stemmed perhaps from a not unhappy, but rather lonely childhood. He was born in London in 1929, the son of an actuary, and educated at Ardingly College, then at Keble College, Oxford (where he was made an Honorary Fellow in 1984), and subsequently at the Courtauld Institute of Art, where he did postgraduate work.

He joined the staff of the London Museum in 1954. The museum was then located in Kensington Palace under the directorship of Sir Mortimer Wheeler, a lively and eccentric character with whom Hayes got on very well. He worked there for 20 years, the last four of them as Director himself, helping to oversee the museum's move to its new location at London Wall.

Hayes wasn't entirely happy with these plans nor those concerning the proposed amalgamation with the Guildhall Museum so, when he failed to be appointed Director of the new Museum of London, he resolved to make a move. An opening occurred when, in 1974, he succeeded Sir Roy Strong as Director at the National Portrait Gallery.

The gallery had been a somewhat inward-looking institution after the Second World War, but, under the directorship of Hayes's predecessor, ebullient cultural showmanship set a trend that has since been imitated by several museums in the United Kingdom. The two directors, close friends, could not have been more different in temperament. Hayes recognised, however, what had been accomplished, and in his quiet and unobtrusive way, built on it.

Hayes's academic interest, which he was determined to pursue in tandem with his gallery responsibilities, centred around British art and in particular on Thomas Gainsborough and Thomas Rowlandson. His attention was drawn towards Gainsborough while he was still a student at the Courtauld Institute, at which time he adopted the artist as the subject for his doctoral thesis. He wrote,

It was astonishing then for someone accustomed to make some attempt at mastering the copious literature of Italian art to discover that relatively little of a serious nature had been written on an English painter as significant as Gainsborough, an artist whose contribution to the imaginative interpretation of landscape was no less remarkable than that of Rubens or Claude.

He published the fruits of this work in The Drawings of Thomas Gainsborough (1970), Gainsborough: paintings and drawings (1975) and The Landscape Paintings of Thomas Gainsborough: a critical text and catalogue raisonné (1982). These are now standard works on the artist.

As part of his extra-mural activities, he produced a catalogue of the British paintings in the National Gallery of Art in Washington (British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries, 1992) shortly before his retirement.

Hayes shared a keen interest in Rowlandson's watercolours and drawings with Robert Wark, then Curator of the Huntington Art Galleries in San Marino, California. The Huntington possessed a fine collection of Rowlandson's drawings from the Gilbert Davis collection. In 1972, Hayes published his Rowlandson: watercolours and drawings, one of the first books to explore the artist's work since Paul Oppé's study was published in 1923.

From the early 1960s, Hayes, together with the Paul Mellon Centre and a small group of scholars, was instrumental in promoting serious interest into the, up until then, long- neglected subject of British art.

In spite of his reserve, Hayes had a keen sense of humour and was a most entertaining companion. He thoroughly enjoyed the congenial atmosphere he found at the Beefsteak Club and the Garrick Club, where he served on the works of art committee. A Londoner by temperament, he bought himself a weekend cottage near Newbury in Berkshire, and was surprised, after a winter's absence, to find the garden heavily overgrown. It was with characteristic determination that he set himself to learn about gardening and he derived much satisfaction from it, doubtless advised by his friend Roy Strong. He loved music and could frequently be met with at the opera. He was an avid traveller, both in Europe and America. Food, too, was an enthusiasm, and he was an excellent cook.

John Hayes was regarded with great affection and admiration in the art world; his many friends included Sir Ellis Waterhouse, Martin Butlin, Professor Brian Allen, Sir Oliver Millar and Professor Michael Kitson, and his successor at the National Portrait Gallery, Charles Saumarez-Smith.

John Baskett