Obituary: Barbara Craig

Archaeologist Principal of Somerville
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The Independent Online
BARBARA CRAIG was for 13 years Principal of Somerville College, Oxford. Her term of office, from 1967 to 1980, coincided with a particularly difficult period in Oxford, with two episodes of violent student unrest, and the - not very orderly - move of the university towards what was then inelegantly called "co-residence".

After much heart-searching, Somerville's Governing Body took the decision, against the general trend, to remain single-sex. Throughout the debate, most Fellows remained unaware of the Principal's own views on the subject; she defended the decision vigorously at the time, and in 1992 gave her wholehearted support to the beleaguered Governing Body which had come to take a different view.

She was born Barbara Chapman, in Calcutta in 1915, and spent the first four years of her life in India, where her father, John Alexander Chapman, was librarian of the Imperial Library in Calcutta (now the National Library of India); childhood memories of the subcontinent - and particularly of its birds - were to remain vividly with her throughout her life. Her father - from whom she inherited her love and speed of walking - stayed on in post when in 1920 the rest of the family moved to London, and her uncle, R.W. Chapman of the Oxford University Press, was a more powerful influence on her childhood and teens - not least in directing her to the study of Classics.

In 1934, after 11 years at the Haberdashers' Aske's Girls' School at Acton, she entered Somerville as senior scholar of her year. Though her tutor, Isobel Henderson, took pains to assure her that the title meant nothing, it proved amply justified in her case: she went on to take Firsts in Honour Moderations and Greats, and in 1938 was elected to the Craven Fellowship (being only the second woman to hold it) and the Goldsmiths' Senior Studentship.

In her first year as an undergraduate she in fact put her scholarship on the line, when - urged on by the future Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin, then the most junior member of the Senior Common Room - she protested to the Principal about one of the notorious "double standard" incidents of the 1930s: a Somerville undergraduate who had spent the night in the room of her Christ Church boyfriend was threatened with being sent down permanently from the university, the young man with a term's rustication.

Always a mistress of self-deprecation, Craig told this story in later life to illustrate not her own moral courage but the extent to which she was incapable of withstanding Dorothy Hodgkin's persuasive powers. The memory of the devastatingly long silence followed by the words "You may go now" with which Miss Darbishire greeted her prepared speech, must have come frequently to mind when, 40 years later, she found herself dealing with recalcitrant students from the other side of the Principal's desk.

The Craven Fellowship enabled her to travel to Italy in 1938 to begin research on the historical background to the Greek lyric poets. In Rome she met her future husband, James Craig, a Cambridge classicist who was then Librarian of the British School. She proceeded to travel alone round Sicily, where her striking good looks, political naivete and passion for birdwatching proved a dangerous combination: the police took some convincing of the innocent purpose of her binoculars, and on one occasion the women of Randazzo came to her in a deputation to insist that, for her own safety, she should stay indoors with them.

On the outbreak of war she worked for a year as Temporary Assistant Principal at the ministries of Supply and Labour, before taking up the post of Assistant to the Professor of Greek at Aberdeen University. When she married James Craig in 1942 she returned to London as Temporary Assistant Principal - subsequently Principal - in the ministries of Home Security and Production.

After the Second World War James joined the British Council, and for 20 years Barbara made his career her own, with successive postings to Rio de Janeiro, Baghdad, Barcelona and Lahore. A stylish hostess on official occasions, she was always mindful of the welfare of junior members of staff, and was extremely popular among the young British Council wives, especially those with small children.

The opportunity to develop her own archaeological interests came during their time in Baghdad in the 1950s, with the riches of the Baghdad Museum available at her doorstep. She was encouraged by Professor Max Mallowan, who was then making his major discoveries at Nimrud, and who became a close personal friend. It being deemed unfitting for a British Council lady to be seen reading books before lunchtime, her studies had to be undertaken with some circumspection. In 1954 Somerville elected her to the Katharine and Leonard Woolley Fellowship in Archaeology to enable her to pursue her research on the relations between Greece and Asia.

From 1956 until 1982, she took part whenever her other commitments allowed in the Hellenic-British digs in Laconia and at Mycenae, working first with Sir Alan Wace and later with Lord William Taylour. She became an expert on Mycenaean pottery, and worked for some time on a detailed analysis of Tsountas' House at Mycenae. Characteristically modest about her own archaeological achievements, she was generous in acknowledging her debt to "the young friends who always had to draw my sections for me". Many of these remained friends for life.

In 1967 she was elected Principal of Somerville in succession to Dame Janet Vaughan. She brought to this difficult task a wide knowledge of the world and its young people, a reputation for hard work and endurance in adverse conditions, exacting standards of scholarship, and sympathy for most manifestations of human frailty except the inability to spell. After James Craig's retirement from the British Council, she also - in a nice reversal of their previous roles - had the perfect principalian consort, unfailing in his support for her and tireless in working behind the scenes on Somerville's behalf.

University politics were not to her taste, and the college was always the main focus of her attention. From the outset she had made clear what was to be her top priority, writing to her predecessor before taking up office, "I want to give the graduates as much time as possible since their lot is more complicated and less catered for than that of undergraduates." For the 13 years of her principalship she was in effect also Tutor for Graduates, with a particular concern for those coming to Oxford for the first time from abroad.

Within the Senior Common Room she was equally supportive of the young research fellows. When in 1999 Somerville named its Ancient History fellowship in her honour, and marked the occasion with a Symposium on "The Contribution of Material Evidence to Ancient History", speaker after distinguished speaker paid tribute to the importance in their careers of her encouragement and support.

Though her relations with the undergraduate body were not always easy (Somervillians were prominent among the student protesters of 1973-74), her care for them as individuals was manifest. Reserved and distinctly formidable at first acquaintance, she opened up instantly to anyone in any kind of difficulty or distress, conveying, as one research fellow put it, "the quiet conviction that whatever the problem is, it is manageable". She could also, when occasion demanded, be disconcertingly forthright. She always insisted that she learned more from the undergraduates than they from her, and was clearly both amused and startled when at a recent gaudy a leading student rebel of the 1970s embraced her affectionately and said, "You were our role model."

Her principalship ended on a high note, with the celebrations in 1979 to mark Somerville's centenary, and in 1980 Barbara and James Craig retired to the beautiful but Spartan cottage in Wensleydale which had been their base and retreat throughout their married life. A companionable period of walking and birdwatching and reading was brutally cut short by a car accident in 1985 which left James confined to a wheelchair until his death four years later.

Despite her own increasing frailty Barbara continued until shortly before her death to make regular visits to Oxford, scorning the use of taxis, and arranging a daunting programme of dental appointments, expeditions to galleries and lectures in London, and meals with friends, to coincide with gaudies and other college events. She was generous in her support of numerous college projects, including the setting up in 1995 of a gymnasium, which, after quizzing the Junior Dean over breakfast, she concluded was the best way of benefiting the new mixed generation of undergraduates.

During her time as Principal the college was once roused by a fire alarm in the early hours of the morning; she contrived, without making any delay, to appear perfectly groomed. Her elegance was natural and legendary, and she retained it to the end.

Barbara Denise Chapman, archaeologist: born Calcutta 22 October 1915; Woolley Fellow in Archaeology, Somerville College, Oxford 1954-56, Principal 1967-80, Honorary Fellow 1980-2005; married 1989 James Craig (died 1989); died Bainbridge, North Yorkshire 25 January 2005.

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