Peter Tomory: Distinguished art historian

Art history took Peter Tomory all over the world, just as earlier Scots expatriates travelled as engineers and medical men in the service of Empire. Indeed, because his father was in the Royal Army Medical Corps, Tomory was born in Hong Kong and partly brought up in India. He was at school near London, and regular visits to the Tate and British Museum, as well as one to the Alte Pinakothek gallery in Munich while on a skiing trip in 1938, kindled his interest in art history.

The Second World War intervened and Tomory soon joined the Royal Navy, into which he was commissioned and served for five and a half years, part of the time on patrol along the North African coast and also on the Murmansk run. In 1946 he started as an undergraduate at Edinburgh University, and by a close scrutiny of the university regulations managed to make art history his major subject.

Tomory's visit to Munich and his knowledge of Peter Thoene's Penguin Modern German Art were to serve him well on graduation, as they impressed Hans Hess, the formidable curator of York City Art Gallery, where Tomory began as Assistant Curator in January 1950. He was thrown in at the deep end, being given immediate responsibility for organising the exhibition "Masterpieces from Yorkshire Houses", the gallery's contribution to the Festival of Britain in 1951.

On his appointment, Hess told Tomory that he did not expect him to stay more than two years; at the same time he made sure that Tomory had a thorough grounding in all aspects of museum management, and as a result he was appointed to a more senior post at Leicester Art Gallery at the end of 1951. Hess knew the leading figures in the worlds of contemporary art and of art history, many of whom came to York, and this laid the foundation of the wide range of contacts which Tomory built up. In the middle of 1954 he moved on to the Arts Council in London, working on touring exhibitions, and in 1956 he took up the post of director of Auckland City Art Gallery.

Tomory was at the Auckland Gallery until 1964. During that time he built up the gallery's collection, making major acquisitions of modernist works as well as New Zealand art, and turning the gallery into a greatly respected institution. He was in particular the champion of the New Zealand artist Colin McCahon, who was for a time on his staff.

At the same time he realised that many European works of art whose significance had not been recognised had been taken to New Zealand. In a remarkable coup, he acquired for Auckland a cache of 37 drawings by Henry Fuseli from a family in Dunedin; he published these in his study of the artist, The Life and Art of Henry Fuseli, which Thames & Hudson published in 1972. After leaving the Auckland Gallery, Tomory moved into teaching, first in Auckland and then as associate professor at Columbia University in New York. His final job in galleries was as senior curator of baroque art at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida, and his catalogue of their Italian paintings before 1800 was published in 1976.

In 1972 Tomory returned to Oceania as Professor of the History of Art at La Trobe University, Melbourne. His 15 years' tenure of the post was immensely fruitful, and he served the wider cause of his subject as a fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities from 1974 and a member of its council from 1984 until 1986, as an adviser to the National Gallery of Victoria, and one of the founders of the Art Association of Australia.

It was, however, as a teacher that Tomory left his most enduring legacy. His museum background made him realise the importance for the young not only to see slides of objects but to handle them, and with the help of the London dealer Christopher Mendez, he built up an impressive collection of prints, principally of baroque interest, to aid his teaching. He was not only a dedicated teacher but also a great encourager, and his pupils include many in universities and museums, such as David Marshall at Melbourne University or Mark McDonald in the British Museum. Tomory was very hospitable, but not everyone found him an easy colleague.

After 38 years abroad and three marriages, Tomory returned on his own to Britain in the early 1990s in order to be nearer his two sons. He settled in a flat in the middle of Wareham in Dorset, within walking distance of a railway station and the train to London. He continued to develop his interests and to contribute to a range of periodicals; one of his last articles, in the Journal for British Art, was on a 19th-century British picture which he had not forgotten from his time in York, and he contributed a number of articles to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (in which, incidentally, his old mentor, Hans Hess, inexplicably failed to find a place).

One of the last holidays he took was a coach tour of Scotland, where he had spent so little time. He suffered from osteoporosis, and although he had a number of visitors he led a solitary life. He kept up his contacts, and was very pleased when in 2004 Auckland Art Gallery acquired 124 of the prints which he had bought to aid his teaching. In his final couple of years he was, however, unable to live on his own.

David Alexander

Peter Alexander Tomory, art historian: born Hong Kong 3 January 1922; Director, Auckland City Art Gallery 1956-64; Professor of Art History, La Trobe University Melbourne 1972-87 (Emeritus); three times married (two sons); died Rhayader, Powys 25 March 2008.

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