Laurance Roberts

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Laurance Page Roberts, Orientalist and museum curator: born Bala, Pennsylvania 1 October 1907; Assistant Curator of Chinese Art, Brooklyn Museum 1934-38, Director 1938-42; Director, American Academy in Rome 1946-60; married 1937 Isabel Spaulding; died Baltimore, Maryland 10 March 2002.

When Laurance Roberts was appointed Director of the Brooklyn Museum, New York, in 1938, he was, at 30, the youngest museum director in the United States. After the Second World War he moved to Rome as Director of the American Academy. He was held in high respect not only as a museum curator but for over 70 years, in America, Europe and particularly in Japan, as an authority on Oriental art.

Born in Bala, Pennsylvania, in 1907, he was the son of George Brinton Roberts, who was in the soft coal business. His grandfather George Brooke Roberts had been president of the Pennsylvania Rail Road. After Montgomery School in Philadelphia and St George's School in Newport, Rhode Island, he entered Princeton in 1925, from which he graduated magna cum laude. After a postgraduate year, he went to work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where he was asked, in the autumn of 1930, if he would like to specialise in Oriental art. He was appointed assistant in the Chinese department. In 1932 his father sent him to Japan and China, returning to "the Greek Garage" (as it was known) on Fairmount at the end of 1933.

In 1934 Roberts was appointed to the post of Assistant Curator of Chinese Art at the Brooklyn Museum. There he found, already en poste in the education department, a distinguished alumna of Vassar, Isabel Spaulding, whom he married in 1937.

Appointed Director the following year, he instituted two changes of policy: purchase funds were to be concentrated on areas which were already strong, Egyptian and American art, that is "building on strength", rather than "filling gaps", and on major and longer exhibitions. He also sought out the ethnic communities in conjunction with the education division. This lively imaginative programme was not interrupted by Roberts's war service as a captain in army intelligence in Washington from 1942 to 1946. It was continued by his wife as Curator-in-Chief and then as Director until 1946.

Thus early in their married life did their work become inseparable as, after his war service, they were to remain. Few couples can have been so united (Edgar and Margaret Wind proved a comparable pair).

In 1946 they were sent to Rome. The American Academy is the only American overseas research centre for independent study in the fine arts, the child of the conjunction of two 1890s institutions in Rome, the American School of Architecture and the American School of Classical Studies. After the war the city was thriving intellectually and culturally: in the words of Harold Acton,

Tennessee Williams, Victor Prokosch and Gore Vidal created a Bohemian annexe to the American Academy where Lau-

rance and Isabel Roberts created a cultural annexe to the American Embassy. The muted voice of Laurance Roberts – he spoke in a barely audible whisper – was more persuasive than the voices of his colleagues, and such was its effect on me that I, too, found myself murmuring as in church when we met.

Acton and Roberts had first met in China. The best portrait of the lives of the Robertses in Rome is given by Roger Hinks, who was the representative of the British Council there from 1945 to 1949. "If only I knew how to Panjandrumise them properly," he wrote. He did, in The Gymnasium of the Mind (1984), his journals of 1933-63:

At the Villa Aurelia social life is focused on luncheon and dinner. Laurance and Isabel are fully occupied between whiles, and are invisible and inviolable; and their guests are expected to conform to this simplest of conventions – and with all Rome at the gate, what could be simpler than for them to efface themselves pleasurably and profitably every morning and afternoon? And, if they do not wish to descend into the city, there is a charming library with all the latest books and records, and a terrace commanding the most wonderful view in the world.

On his retirement from the American Academy in 1960 Roberts was one of those who founded the New York State Council of the Arts in 1960-61. But soon they were back in Italy, moving to the Palazzo Albrizzi in Venice. They later moved to Frascati, to Paris, back to Venice, and then to London, to Cranmer Court in Chelsea.

It was not until 1988 when Roberts was over 80 that they bought a house of their own and became householders in Baltimore. Even then their travels were unceasing. Those to Japan had resulted in his A Dictionary of Japanese Artists: painting, sculpture, ceramics, prints, lacquer (1976) and Roberts' Guide to Japanese Museums (1978). He treasured, he said, "fine examples of Japlish: an especially trying interpreter said, 'I must go to bed now; I am very tiring' ".

Laurance and Isabel Roberts were both so interested in the activities of their friends that they seldom reminisced. In 1992, over lunch at Au Bon Accueil in London, they did so. They talked about Japan in the Thirties, and what it had been like to be in Berlin, Munich ("We must be two of the last people living who saw the exhibition of 'degenerate art' ") and Vienna, where they watched the queues for visas outside the consulates. After their visit to Japan, no one in the US on their return wanted to know what they had been told and knew of the intentions of the Japanese. They were regarded as bearers of doom. Later, they were urged to record their memories but, innocently, did not believe that what they had to say would be of interest. It was – the stuff of history.

When they were about to return to Baltimore in February 1995, Laurance wrote proudly, "We haven't been there for more than 10 days since July." Frail, on sticks, they crossed the Atlantic as they had 50 years earlier, but his last years were a trial; he was very deaf and confined to a wheelchair and housebound. Isabel cared for him assiduously.

Ian Lowe