It is improbable that anyone who was self-taught today would be acknowledged by the art-history world as the expert in his field. Without any formal training, J. G. Links became the world expert on Canaletto, a notoriously difficult painter to date. Even though he thought of himself more as a cataloguer than an art historian, Links achieved this while maintaining total integrity, modesty and a delight in life.
Links found Canaletto "endlessly fascinating" and wrote several books about him; Views of Venice by Canaletto, engraved by Antonio Visentini, was published in 1971; Canaletto in 1976; and Canaletto and his Patrons in 1977. Links helped with the exhibition at the Queen's Gallery in 1980, where he was able to examine many Canalettos in detail for the first time. The big Canaletto exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1989/90 was conceived by Links and made possible by his encyclopaedic knowledge; the loan of 70 paintings from private collections, many of which had never been seen in public, was due to his contacts and enthusiasm.
He was born in north London in 1904; his father was a Jewish refugee from Hungary who had started the fur business Calman Links. His mother died before he was 13 years old and he had to leave school aged 14; his father had become ill and wanted to teach him the fur trade before he died. "I was an unwilling and sullen pupil," he wrote, but he later appreciated not having to make a decision about a career. "There was the business and I jolly well had to go and earn my living at it."
Although he thought of himself as a bad salesman, he made the business more upmarket: his father had mostly traded in skunk skins, eventually becoming a director of the Hudson's Bay Company and gaining the royal warrant as the Queen's furrier. In 1956 Links wrote a book on the subject, The Book of Fur.
In the 1930s he published a series of crime dossiers with Dennis Wheatley, with whom he shared a love, and great knowledge, of fine German wine. These books, including Herewith the Clues! (1939) and The Malinsay Massacre (1938), with manually inserted "clues" for the reader, were phenomenally popular and were reissued in the 1980s.
During the Second World War Links was a Wing Commander in the RAF working on barrage balloons in the Air Ministry. Through his war work he met Robert Lutyens, son of the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, and through him his sister Mary, whom Links married in 1945. Their honeymoon was spent on a troopship going to New York. When his new wife objected to this as a rather unromantic honeymoon, they tried Venice as a more suitable option.
On this first visit to Venice they both became "hooked for life". They followed in the footsteps of John Ruskin with The Stones of Venice and, after that, for 30 years went to Venice two or three times every year. In the late Sixties, Links became involved in the establishment of the Venice in Peril Fund, set up to help prevent the buildings of Venice from crumbling into its lagoon, and remained a prime mover and fund-raiser.
The interest which he developed in both Canaletto and Ruskin grew out of his passion for Venice; in 1962 Mary gave him a copy of W.G. Constable's new monograph on Canaletto in which Constable had noted a missing painting which Links recognised as the painting hanging over his sister-in-law's fireplace. He and Constable started a correspondence and, when Constable came to England, he asked Links whether he would take over the second edition of the book; it took him six years rather than the six months Constable had anticipated and Canaletto was published in 1976.
Links's friends constantly asked for advice before they went to Venice; he wrote them letters describing what to see and do, which, with his characteristic generosity, he enjoyed doing, until one friend, the publisher Max Reinhardt, of Bodley Head, suggested turning this advice into a book. So his best- loved book, Venice for Pleasure (1966), originated, described by Bernard Levin as "Not only the best guide-book to that city ever written, but the best guide-book to any city ever written". A fifth expanded edition was published in 1994. Links also wrote The Ruskins in Normandy (1968), Townscape Painting and Drawing (1972) and Travellers in Europe (1980).
He had an extremely happy marriage; he and Mary were unfailingly polite to each other and she said of him, "He made me nice again." They loved working together and made a good team; he typed everything she wrote, wearing a short, black nylon jacket for his work. He built up an extraordinary collection of reference files and was endlessly curious, interested in everything, and took a great joy in life, even doing the Cresta Run on a bobsleigh.
Often, after dinner, they would read out loud to each other; he was a great fan of Raymond Chandler, but their literary and musical tastes were broad. He loved Mozart and knew Cole Porter, to whom they would dance, by heart. Links was very keen on good food and wine and both he and Mary were famous for their dry Martinis. When younger, they led a very stylish life and had a house in Sussex where they entertained.
Links was interested in clothes, especially ties, and he was always immaculately dressed. Even though he did not share his wife's enthus- iasm for the Indian mystic Krishnamurti, with whom she had grown up and about whom she published several books, when Krishnamurti was dying in California Links accompanied her to his death-bed. He was delighted when he discovered that in his will Krishnamurti had left him his extensive collection of Charvet ties.
Joe Links was extremely wise, versatile and able; he was always polite and worked hard all his life not to make an enemy. "I have had a very private life and I hope to go on being private for what's left of it," he said in 1989.
- Sarah AndersonReuse content