Professor J.B. Trapp

Humane Director of the Warburg Institute
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The Independent Online

The arrival of the Warburg Institute in London in 1933 brought with it a vision new to its adopted country. The Courtauld Institute had only just been founded and with it the study of art history. The Warburg added something more, a co-ordinated vision of text and image transcending the conventional boundaries of time and space. It was a vision that took root and flourished under the hand of Warburg's first librarian, Fritz Saxl. His successors enlarged and transmuted it. The institute was naturalised by adoption into London University in 1944, but its German accent remained, agreeable but alien. It was J.B. Trapp, who, succeeding the great Ernst Gombrich as Director in 1976, assimilated the Warburg definitively in its adopted home.

Joseph Burney Trapp was not himself a native, coming from New Zealand. He was born at Carterton, in the southern part of North Island, in 1925. His mother's parents had founded the agency for distributing and registering land tenure, which his father, Burney Trapp, had joined. As a boy he went to Dannevirke School, a small state boarding school further north, where his elder sister was head of English. From there he went with a national scholarship to Victoria University College, as it then was, at Wellington in 1943. Already fascinated by the Classics and with a good grounding in Latin, he now added Greek, its rudiments picked up from his sister, but largely self-taught.

By the time he graduated MA in 1947, he had already started work at the Alexander Turnbull Library, then as now an independent institution, with an outstandingly good collection, notably of Milton. The four years that he spent there taught him a lot about libraries and the way they work, but he was still thinking of an academic career, and was glad to return to Victoria as a junior lecturer in 1950. His range of teaching was perforce wide, including a course on the classical background for English students. There he might have remained, but for the chance that led Donald Gordon, Professor of English at Reading University, to advertise in New Zealand a new short-term post as an assistant lecturer in his own department.

Trapp applied for the post and got it. The long journey from the Antipodes brought him to Reading for the new academic year in 1951. But, before his post there expired, another, as Assistant Librarian at the Warburg, came up. Gordon, who admired Saxl greatly, urged him to apply: "It's just your sort of place," he said. And so it proved to be, for over 37 years. He arrived in London in 1953, and the 10 years from 1966 he spent as Librarian were, perhaps, the happiest working years of his life.

He began to spread his wings. He was early associated with the Yale edition of the complete works of St Thomas More, undertaking the volume devoted to The Apology of Sir Thomas More. It was not completed until 1979, but it remains a model of its kind, as sound on More's English as on the classical and biblical allusions, pursued with patient care. This led to a visiting professorship at Toronto in 1969, and a hectic but enjoyable visit to Dartmouth, where the US "Oxford Anthology of English Literature" (he was responsible for Medieval English Literature, 1973) was planned.

Succeeding Gombrich in 1979 was a surprise to him, as also to some others. The series of Germanic heroes, Saxl, Henri Frankfort, Gertrude Bing and Gombrich himself, seemed to predicate another in that mould. But Gombrich himself and others in the institute had had time to observe how efficiently the library ran, new acquisitions amplifying its original strength. Not only that, they saw the real scholarship in Trapp's work, his articles, short or long, carefully and imaginatively expressed. But, more important than all these, they recognised one on whom they could rely to maintain the old Warburg tradition, but lead it into closer connection with London University.

This was not an easy task. The Warburg was surrounded on all sides by the university, now Proteus, now the Hydra. Without being in any way insular, the Warburgers fiercely defended their individuality, and were determined neither to be changed nor swallowed up. It needed all Trapp's patience and diplomacy, suffering long meetings (which he could not bear) in a good cause, overcoming obstacles laid in the path by the acquisitive or disapproving, rallying the very varied troops on his own side, to bring this off. But he did it. The staff were given positions within the university (he was himself Professor of the History of the Classical Tradition).

He was never one to be overwhelmed by mere administration; if he knew that time could be better spent (and that prompted the odd outburst, more endearing than alarming), he always found time for what mattered, whether his own or other people's work. Apart from his edition of More, he had to wait for retirement, in 1990, to get his own work out. The rise of "the portrait of the author" became his Gray lectures at Cambridge in 1990, and as Lyell Reader at Oxford (1994) he dealt as vividly with the illustration of Petrarch. Essays in the Renaisssance and Classical Tradition (1990) was followed by his Panizzi lectures at the British Library, Erasmus, Colet, and More (1991). With Lotte Hellinga he edited The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, 1400-1557 (1999).

Although he was increasingly lame from arthritis, most days saw Joe Trapp's little car parked outside the Warburg; he never intruded on his successor, but welcomed the many who called to ask for advice and help. He was always glad to see them, even if they interrupted his work. Visitors at home were welcomed by his wife Elayne, who had heard those lectures on "the classical background" at Wellington long ago. They found him the same, even if his mane of hair went from dark to white. The Eeyore grunt of sympathy if things were not as they should be, the delighted chuckle when they were, were worth coming for, but there was much more: facts unknown, drawn from his vast reading, advice on organising work, sympathy and encouragement. Humanity came naturally to one to whom the humanities were second nature.

Nicolas Barker