Professor Martin Robertson
Scholar of classical art and archaeology
Monday 03 January 2005
Charles Martin Robertson, scholar of classical art and archaeology: born Cambridge 11 September 1911; Assistant Keeper, Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities, British Museum 1936-48; Yates Professor of Classical Art and Archaeology, London University 1948-61; Lincoln Professor of Classical Archaeology and Art, Oxford University 1961-78 (Emeritus); FBA 1967; married 1942 Cecil Rice (died 1984; four sons, two daughters), 1988 Louise Berge (née Holstein); died Cambridge 26 December 2004.
Martin Robertson was a giant in the study of the art and archaeology of Ancient Greece, and a much-loved friend of many in the field. His magisterial A History of Greek Art (1975) still holds prime position 30 years after publication for its breadth of learning and deep understanding, and assures his place at the forefront of scholars of classical art and archaeology.
Robertson was born shortly before the First World War into the centre of Cambridge academia, where his father, Donald, was to become in 1928 Regius Professor of Greek. After education at the Leys School and graduation from Trinity College, in 1934 Robertson went out to Athens as a student of the British School of archaeology there. The director at that time was Humfry Payne, and other budding scholars working at the school numbered such future luminaries as Romilly Jenkins, Nick Hammond, John and Robert Cook, A.H.S. (Peter) Megaw and Tom Dunbabin. Now the last survivor of that cohort has gone.
In 1936, after his time at the BSA, Robertson was appointed Assistant Keeper in the Greek and Roman Department at the British Museum. Here he stayed (apart from the war years) until 1948 when he succeeded Bernard Ashmole as Yates Professor of Classical Art and Archaeology at University College London. While holding that post he had the misfortune to choose to grow a beard - the college authorities soon put a stop to that. "Art" may have been in the title, but the Professor must not show any "arty" tendencies.
During the 1950s UCL fielded a strong team of professors; besides Robertson, Tom Webster was the Professor of Greek and Otto Skutsch the Professor of Latin. In 1961 Robertson was appointed Lincoln Professor of Classical Archaeology and Art in Oxford, again in succession to Bernard Ashmole, and served the university for the next 17 years. On retiring he returned to his home town of Cambridge.
Under the influence of (Sir) John Beazley, who held the Lincoln chair from 1925 to 1956, the study of Greek vase-painting, particularly in the attribution of unnamed paintings to specific hands, flourished in the scholarly community, and Robertson was in many ways Beazley's heir. His work in Athens led to an early series of articles on vase-painters, and all through his long career there was a steady stream of closely argued and finely written studies, not only in the area of attribution but also in iconography.
His first book was Greek Painting (1959) in which he used vase-paintings and work in other media to try to recreate the lost wall-paintings that were known only through textual references. His work on Athenian red-figure vase-painting finally culminated in The Art of Vase-Painting in Classical Athens (1992), an astonishing book for a scholar in his eighties. Indeed his retirement was a productive period, with important articles on the vases and fragments that were acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu.
Robertson's interest was not wholly centred on vase-painting. He wrote also on mosaics, jewellery and, above all, on sculpture, and 1975 saw the publication of a sensitive study, The Parthenon Frieze, and, what for many is his magnum opus, A History of Greek Art.
A masterly treatment of the vast canvas stretching over 1,000 years, the book is written in his graceful style, with learning lightly borne and enviable knowledge of the later European tradition. Indeed, a characteristic of Robertson's was to make subtle reference to later painters when seeking to illuminate the style of the Athenian craftsmen, an approach also used by Beazley. The abridged version, which he reluctantly edited, A Shorter History of Greek Art (1981), while seized upon by students as a short-cut to the basic facts, is a pale and rather bloodless imitation that fails to reflect the quality of the original and the personality of the author.
It was a mark of the man that Robertson was ready to put aside his own work and render assistance to others. He was instrumental in seeing the second volume of Humfry Payne's excavations of Perachora published in 1962, when tragedy had not only removed Payne himself but also succeeding editors.
But more important than this task was the work that he carried out, along with Dietrich von Bothmer, after Beazley's death in 1970, on Beazley's updating and enlarging of his earlier lists of painters, a task brought to conclusion in 1971 (Paralipomena: additions to Attic black-figure vase-painters and to Attic red-figure vase-painters). He also took it upon himself to explain and defend in an even-handed way Beazley's method of working, at a time when that method and its influence were coming under attack. Whilst convinced of the validity of Beazley's approach, he wished to see what truths the new polemicists had introduced.
Robertson's altruism is also shown by his willingness to bear the burden of extra committee work, particularly by his chairmanship of the Managing Committee of the British School at Athens from 1959 to 1968.
He was elected Fellow of the British Academy in 1967, and other honours followed: an honorary Doctor of Literature from Queen's University Belfast (1978), Honorary Fellow of UCL and of Lincoln College, Oxford (1980), Honorary Member of the American Institute of Archaeology (1985), Honorary Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge (1987), the Kenyon Medal from the British Academy (1987).
He was blessed with two happy marriages, first to Cecil, who bore him six children, and then to Louise who cared tenderly for him until the end and made the home in Parker Street a joy to visit. It is no surprise that, away from his scholarly pursuits, Robertson was also a poet of rare distinction, and A Hot Bath at Bedtime (1977) presents a collection of lyrical poems composed over a 40-year span.
To his many friends Martin Robertson was a genuine, generous and amusing companion. To the scholarly world he was a master of his field and a writer with an elegant style and the telling phrase. At a time when modern publications are often presented on a computer screen and consist of statistics and theory, it is a pleasure to return to his books and articles; they personify the man as well as the scholar.
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