Obituary: Ian Fleming-Williams

Click to follow
ABOUT 25 years ago, I asked Ian Fleming-Williams how he would categorise himself. He no longer painted; he'd stopped teaching; was he a scholar, an art historian, a writer? No, he said, none of those fitted exactly; he thought he was, perhaps, an "understander". And although he subsequently achieved an extraordinary late flowering as author of several books on John Constable and as co-curator of two Constable exhibitions at the Tate (in 1976 and 1991) the sense remained that, beyond any specific role he was pursuing some disinterested, and less easily definable, quest.

His parents were Freda, a music teacher, and Cliff, an artist/inventor (a pioneer of flying and, later, of caravan-building). After a "progressive" education at Frensham Heights (where he would one day become a governor) he enrolled at 16 as a painting student at the Royal Academy. There he formed lasting friendships with contemporaries such as Mervyn Peake and William Scott, and he won several prizes, but at the end of four years he felt he had nothing to say as a painter.

Jobs were scarce in 1934, and he was soon glad to be earning 10 shillings a week as a commercial artist. In 1937 he turned to teaching, becoming art master at Canford School, in Dorset, under the direction of William Coldstream, whose factual, "objective" and essentially anti-aesthetic doctrine had a profound effect on his subsequent thinking. Conscripted in 1940, he served in the Navy all over the globe, ending up as a lieutenant- commander. Before returning to Canford, he sat in on lectures at the Courtauld Institute - the nearest he came to any formal art-historical training.

In 1947 he was appointed art master at Charterhouse, in Surrey, where he would remain for the next 23 years. He supervised the building of a separate studio block; recruited some gifted young assistants (including, in 1954-56, Howard Hodgkin); but above all he created, within a conventional public school, an alternative realm where outcasts of all kinds could find refuge. He was a wonderful teacher, both in informal tutorials and in his memorable epidaiascope lectures; his rare flashes of temper had earned him the nickname "Flaming Onions", but mostly he radiated calm, a benign white-overalled figure, available but never oppressive.

His range of interests included calligraphy, architecture and ceramics, literature and music; and at home, with his wife, Ba, and his daughters, surrounded by an eclectic collection including a Manzu head and an Assyrian relief, he offered a glimpse of civilisation which to me as a 15-year- old (as to so many other pupils) proved decisive. It was from Fleming- Williams that I first heard of Sienese painting; in his house that I first saw a Bonnard (a Revue Blanche lithograph); it was he who first put into my hands a novel by John Cowper Powys; and it was he who first asked me, at 17, to deliver a full-scale lecture (on Goya). These are still among the focal points of my life.

Ever since childhood he had loved Welsh Wales, and in 1955 he and his wife bought a house near Devil's Bridge, where the family spent many holidays. He became interested in the Welsh drawings of the 18th-century Oxford drawing master J.B. Malchair, a neglected but influential figure. He consulted the art historian Paul Oppe; English landscape art became more and more important to him.

In 1970, aged 56, he took early retirement, and moved to Clapham, south- west London. He began to work closely with the Tate Gallery's resident Constable scholar, Leslie Parris; it was while preparing the 1976 retrospective that they got on the track of Lionel Constable, and began to disentangle his work from his father's (the results were published in The Discovery of Constable, 1984). He also edited Constable's correspondence, but his special subject became the artist's drawings. His work was cruelly curtailed when, following a move to Batheaston, outside Bath, Ba suffered a terrible stroke. He nursed her devotedly for the next four years.

When his life opened up again in the 1980s, he gave more time to music. He had played the viola since childhood, and was an early member of the Heinrich Schutz Society; now, together with his close friend Janet Richards, he attended several "Schubertiads".

In these years his writing deepened, stimulated by a close friendship with the young Constable enthusiast David Thomson, whose collection became the subject of his best book, Constable and his Drawings (1990). Fleming- Williams was a scrupulous writer, but not a dry one; he tried to reconstruct the milieu and circumstances in which each drawing was made, and aimed, I think, for a kind of hard-won lyricism. As Thomson's collection grew, partly under Fleming-Williams's guidance, an exhibition devoted to the drawings took place at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in 1994, touring to New York and Toronto.

After the success of the Tate's second Constable show, Fleming-Williams was appointed OBE in 1992. But his detailed factual approach was in conflict with that of younger landscape historians with their emphasis on the clash of ideas, and he suffered at least one bruising confrontation.

Visitors to the Tate can see currently on show the magnificent Malchair drawing of Welsh mountains Ian Fleming-Williams recently donated.

Timothy Hyman

Ian Robert Fleming-Williams, Constable scholar and teacher: born Heybridge, Essex 14 January 1914; OBE 1992; married 1942 Barbara Gibb (died 1981; one son, two daughters); died Newbridge on Wye, Powys 6 March 1998.

Comments