Obituary: Professor C. J. F. Dowsett

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The Independent Online
Charles James Frank Dowsett (Charles Downing), Armenian scholar: born London 2 January 1924; Lecturer in Armenian, School of Oriental and African Studies, London 1954-65, Reader 1965; Calouste Gulbenkian Professor of Armenian Studies, Oxford University 1965-91 (Emeritus); Fellow, Pembroke College, Oxford 1965-91 (Emeritus); FBA 1977; married 1949 Friedel Lapuner (died 1984); died Oxford 8 January 1998.

C. J. F. Dowsett was not only for 26 years Calouste Gulbenkian Professor of Armenian Studies at Oxford University but also, as "Charles Downing", the children's author of the delightfully retold Tales of the Hodja (1964, illustrated by the Greek cartoonist Papas) and the collections Russian Tales and Legends (1956) and Armenian Folktales and Fables (1972).

He was a man of exceptional ability and versatility. His total lack of pretension, his ever-youthful sense of enquiry and his playful delight in the quirks of language meant, however, that one was never overwhelmed by his immense learning and extraordinarily wide range of reading. It is not surprising that he had a wonderful rapport with children.

At Peterhouse, Cambridge, from 1947 to 1950, Dowsett changed to Comparative Philology for Part II of the Tripos after reading Russian and German for Part I. This happily brought him into contact with Professor (later Sir) Harold Bailey, who first introduced him to Armenian. Bailey, who was a scholar with a phenomenal knowledge of Indo-European (and many other) languages, was to remain a lifelong friend, and in honour of his 90th birthday in 1989 Dowsett presented him with an Armenian ode, composed and beautifully illuminated by himself.

After a period of further study in Paris, where he gained diplomas in both Armenian and Georgian, he was appointed in 1954 to a new Lectureship in Armenian at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University. This was the only post in the subject in Britain; so, when the Calouste Gulbenkian Chair of Armenian Studies was established in Oxford in 1965, Dowsett was the obvious candidate.

At Oxford, where the Chair is associated with a Fellowship at Pembroke College, Dowsett had a small but steady stream of students, mostly graduates, many of whom are now distinguished scholars teaching in universities in both Europe and North America. His graduate classes were not exactly conventional, and might well have nonplussed today's Teaching Quality Assessors. Barely would a line or two of text have been read before some etymological puzzle would emerge, and then each member of the class would be directed to a different dictionary in the subsequent chase for cognates.

The dictionaries might be of anything from Old Irish to Albanian - all were conveniently present on his crowded bookshelves. Romany etymologies were a particular favourite. At the end of the class, although there might have been no great progress in reading the Armenian text of the day, one nevertheless went away with one's intellectual horizons not a little broadened, and with an exhilarating sense of excitement.

Dowsett had a gift for inspiring his students, and this is the essential quality which makes for a real teacher. Some students, of course, anxious just to complete a text in a minimum of time, found this method of teaching frustrating, but those who persevered soon discovered the experience to be both enriching and unforgettable.

Students were privileged to enjoy the wonderful warmth and hospitality of his home, where Friedel (nee Lapuner), whom he married in 1949, would provide for them memorable meals. After her premature death in 1984, this tradition of hospitality was in due course revived, in her own distinctive style, by Ani Kupper, especially after Dowsett was compelled, by increasing immobility in one leg, to teach at home.

His earlier academic publications include an annotated translation of Movses Daskhurantsi's History of the Caucasian Albanians (1961) and an edition and translation of the 12th-century Penitential of David of Gandzak (1961). Subsequently he collaborated with John Carswell in the publication of the Kutahya Armenian Tiles (glazed tiles in the Armenian Cathedral, Jerusalem), Dowsett being responsible for the volume dealing with the Armenian inscriptions, The Inscribed Tiles (1972).

But his magnum opus, which fortunately saw publication some six months before his death, was a major study of the multilingual poet Sayat Nova (Sayat` Nova: an 18th-century troubadour, 1997). Dowsett's wide range of linguistic abilities, combined with his deep love of poetry and music, made him the ideal person to write on this poet, who composed with equal facility in Armenian, Georgian, Azeri and Russian.

Inspired, perhaps, by Sayat Nova's example, Charles Dowsett would, especially in his later years, every now and then send his friends a sheaf of his own multilingual poems, proverbs or limericks; written in an even wider range of languages, these were often illustrated, or even set to music, by himself. He was particularly proud that the Times had once published a poem of his written in Lithuanian, which he had composed in honour of some sporting event with Lithuanian participants.

His next projected book was to have been a study of Lithuanian wedding songs.