Paul Overy: Writer on art and architecture

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Paul Overy was one of the most gifted art historians andcritics of his generation. He was a natural and distinguished scholar, yet one who, as a critic especially, wore his learning with a lightness and ease that led the general reader to share his interests and enthusiasms unpatronised and unintimidated.

From the middle 1960s until the late 1970s, when Overy was art critic successively for The Listener, the Financial Times and then, from 1971, for The Times, his was a calm, authoritative and distinctive public voice, open and generous in its sympathy across the whole range of the contemporary visual arts, yet particularly acute in its understanding of the Constructivist tradition in Modernism, then in the process of critical reassessment, and in its subsequent manifestations in Minimalism and Systems Art. Kandinsky – whose widow he once met and studio, still crammed with work, he saw – was a particular and lifelong enthusiasm.

Yet the English intellectual is not always sympathetic to the visual arts at all, let alone to its more advanced and experimental strains, viscerally distrusting of, and ever prepared to condemn, the new and unfamiliar. And Overy's misfortune at The Times was to be linked, more by loose association than material fact, with a small group of young art critics of broadly left-wing views. A sustained and highly personal campaign followed – led, it is sad to say, by that remarkable Times journalist Bernard Levin – which resulted eventually, in 1978, in Overy's dismissal by the then editor, William Rees-Mogg.

It was, in the eyes of many in the art world, both an unfair misjudgement and a serious loss. Though he went on for a while to write for the International Herald Tribune, Overy was effectively lost to the English newspaper reader, and in 1981 he gave up regular reviewing altogether.

An only child, Paul Overy was born in Dorchester, in Dorset, in 1940, his mother having returned to her family while his father remained in London as an air raid warden. He grew up in Hampstead, where his father had sensibly bought a seriously bomb-damaged house just after the war, and was educated at University College School, which he thoroughly enjoyed. His father, frustrated in his career as an engineer by the pre-war depression, was an avid autodidact, and no doubt his enthusiasm for learning passed readily to the schoolboy, along with whom he insisted on learning Greek.

At school, a way with words, an interest in art under the inspiration of an enterprising art master, to say nothing of a certain independence of mind, early declared themselves. He went on to King's College, Cambridge, where he read not Art History, not then a subject for a full first degree, but English and Philosophy. On coming down, after a short and unsatisfactory interval as a schoolmaster, and with the art schools then in the throes of expansion and supposed academic upgrading in the wake of the Coldstream reforms, Overy took a part-time job teaching art history at Hornsey School of Art, and was soon publishing freelance articles and reviews in the art press.

As his reviewing career fell away in the early 1980s, so his academic career revived, with stints of teaching, both full and part-time, at the Royal College of Art, the Central School, Goldsmiths' and the Slade. He settled at last, from 1992, in the post of Associate Lecturer in the History and Theory of Modernism at Middlesex University (Hornsey as was). On his retirement in 2005, he remained at Middlesex as a Research Fellow until his final illness took over.

And always there was a book to write – on Kandinsky; on "De Stijl", the Dutch art and design movement between the wars, on which he became a leading authority; on the Romanian sculptor Paul Neagu; on the designer and architect Gerrit Rietfeld; on the architect Norman Foster; and his last book of all, which he had the consolation of seeing through to publication, Light, Air and Openness, a study of modern architecture between the wars, which appeared in December 2007 to substantial critical praise.

He maintained the close contacts with artists in Eastern Europe that he had established long before the Wall came down, in Poland and Romania especially. And all the time came a stream of articles and reviews in journals, art magazines and exhibition catalogues, and contributions to television programmes, academic conferences and symposia across the range of his interests and expertise – on Mondrian; Tatlin; El Lissitzky; Matta; Van Doesburg; Albers; Futurism; Cubism; Constructivism; painting; sculpture; architecture; and design.

Exhibitions he curated included touring shows on Kenneth and Mary Martin (1970-71) and on Josef Albers (1994), both for the Arts Council; a Fernand Léger centenary show at Riverside Studios in 1981; and, the same year, a retrospective on the Scottish painter William Johnstone at the Hayward.

Overy was physically a large man but ever a gentle man in every sense, though of an engaging clumsiness and a particular propensity for knocking over his chair as he got up, earning him the nickname "Fall" Overy among his closer friends. He was charming in his affability and in his quiet, rather wistful humour, the easiest and most engaging of companions on the art-critical jaunts abroad that sometimes threw us together. I still remember, at a Venice Biennale more than 30 years ago, our climbing on to the roof of one of the larger vaporetti, moored in the inky blackness between San Marco and San Giorgio, where, quite alone above the crowded, bibulous decks below, we witnessed the most spectacular display of fireworks I have ever seen.

William Packer

Paul Vivian Overy, art historian and critic: born Dorchester 14 February 1940; married 1992 Tag Gronberg; died 7 August 2008.