Professor A.G.H. Bachrach: Turner expert and doyen of English literary studies who translated Shakespeare into Dutch

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The Independent Online

Fred Bachrach, who died just over a week after his 95th birthday, was a Dutch doyen of English literary studies and Anglo-Dutch cultural relations of the 17th century; also, in later life, he was a notable contributor to the interpretation of J.M.W. Turner's work as a painter of marine and Dutch subjects.

Of distinguished profile, ever-neat bearing and rarely ruffled courtesy, Bachrach spoke and wrote impeccable English and three other languages. He was born in Frankfurt in the early weeks of the First World War, his mother German and his father French – a professor of that subject at the university there. The latter's nationality prompted a rapid move to Amsterdam, but German was Bachrach's first language, with Dutch and French the next two. English came fourth, but he took his first degree in it at Amsterdam, with history and fine-art subsidiaries, and in 1941 became senior English master in the grammar school at Samarang, Java, then a Dutch colony.

Already a keen offshore sailor (later both in northern waters and the Mediterranean), he also briefly enjoyed this in the Java Sea before becoming a wartime liaison officer for Dutch East Indian army special forces. He was almost immediately interned by the Japanese; so, separately, were his first wife and infant son. His son died in captivity.

Bachrach passed through six camps, ending in Singapore's notorious Changi jail. Prisoners were only allowed one "holy book", but he managed to assert that his was a complete Shakespeare. This allowed him to teach fellow prisoners to such effect that, when all books were punitively withdrawn, a companion risked his life to steal it back. On liberation in autumn 1945 he weighed only 37kg (80lb), but remained in the Dutch Eastern information service (effectively a spy, he later said, to get back at the Japanese), in Batavia (Jakarta), Singapore and Saigon, until he returned to the Ministry of Overseas Territories at The Hague in 1947.

In 1949-51 his teaching work in captivity earned him a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship to study 17th-century English literature at Jesus College, Oxford, and he was the first Dutch national to gain an Oxford D. Phil. in the subject before being appointed a lecturer in English at the Municipal University, Amsterdam (1951). From there he became an extraordinary professor of English literature at Leiden University in 1953, with permanent tenure two years later.

His published work included translation of Shakespeare's sonnets into Dutch and Naar het hem lijk ("As He Liked It", 1957), which he also illustrated, a best-selling book on Shakespeare cast as letters to his friend Samuel Dresden, Leiden's professor of French literature. In 1960, the year his dissertation was jointly published by Oxford and Leiden as Sir Constantine Huygens and Britain, he founded Leiden's Sir Thomas Browne Institute for the Study of Anglo-Dutch Cultural Relations, and was its director until he retired in 1981. The following year Leiden published his edition (with RG Collmer) of the English journal of Lodewyck Huygens, covering the unsuccessful embassy of 1651-52 to prevent the First Anglo-Dutch War.

Bachrach was also dean of the Faculty of Letters in 1966-68 and held other short-term posts and fellowships in Canada (visiting lecturer at Kingston, 1971), as a Fellow of the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies (1972), and at All Souls College, Oxford (1974). After retirement, two visiting professorships, in Holland and America, followed. Leeds University awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1963 and in 1970 he was elected to the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and made an Honorary CBE. His appointment as a Knight of the Order of the Netherlands Lion came in 1980.

Overall, apart from many published papers, Bachrach wrote six books and catalogues and contributed to various others, in both Dutch and English. His more public involvements in England began when he curated "The Orange and the Rose" exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1964. This was followed in 1971 by "Shock of Recognition", on English landscape romanticism and the Dutch 17th-century school, at the Tate and the Mauritshuis gallery in The Hague. A distinguished early member of the Turner Society (est. 1975), in 1982 he became one of its first vice-presidents and its longest-serving active one so far. One of his last, ever-lucid, talks fell on his birthday, and when someone present complimented him on it as his 80th, they were gently reproved: he was, in fact, 90.

In 1986-89 he was president of the Dutch national committee for celebrating William and Mary's accession to the English throne in the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688-89. He was also a leader in the large celebratory Dutch sail-over, with a Dutch royal send-off and involvement, and a reciprocal British welcome, including a reception at St James' Palace hosted by the Prince of Wales.

In 1988 he moved permanently to Twickenham, before his long Dutch second marriage ended in 1990, when he remarried to Harriet Jillings. With her, he continued to enjoy the pleasures of music, writing and painting, though age soon afterwards forced him regretfully (but to friends' great relief) to part with the 31ft Nicholson sloop that he had continued to sail in Dutch waters.

In 1994 his last exhibition project, "Turner's Holland", splendidly combining his Anglo-Dutch and seafaring expertise, was one of the successful early series in Tate's Britain's Clore Gallery, while his last literary essay (2001) was on the 18th-century novelist Ann Radcliffe's Dutch tour. Despite Harriet's devoted support, his recent activities were increasingly limited by failing sight and the onset of fading memory. He bore these and other irritations of venerable antiquity with dignified realism and habitually self-deprecating humour.

Pieter van der Merwe

Alfred Gustave Herbert Bachrach, literary and cultural historian: born Frankfurt 9 December 1914; married 1939 Winifred MacManus (divorced 1945/6; one son deceased), 1947 Catharina Gezina de Vries (divorced 1990, one son, two daughters), 1990 Harriet Jillings; died Isleworth 18 December 2009.