Richard Walker: Art historian who became Curator of the Palace of Westminster

It was a characteristically modest and exact description; Richard Walker knew better than anyone the art of cataloguing, describing what he saw economically and precisely, yet evoking the picture as vividly as if you could see it.

He learned it early, and practised it for over 50 years, describing pictures, large and small, good and not so good, in many different places, never losing his enthusiasm for them and always finding something to engage his lively and curious eye.

He came of Scots stock on both sides, his father in Wolsey, the family engineering business, but also a serious sailor who once shipped Conrad as navigator. Richard, his youngest son, was born while his father was serving in the navy at Rosyth, but the family moved to Teffont in Wiltshire soon after the war, though keeping the Walker family home at Scotnish.

After school at Harrow came Magdalene College, Cambridge, and thence, prompted by the Dean, to the Courtauld Institute, where, taught by TR Boase and Anthony Blunt, his growing delight in art turned into the realisation that it was to be his life. He had just got a job in the art department of the British Council when war broke out and a life hitherto "with every advantage" came to an end.

A year before, he had joined the Royal Naval Supplementary Reserve, and now converted effortlessly to the RNVR. Six years of active service followed, first patrolling the icy waters between Greenland and Norway, boredom enlivened by brushes with the Tirpitz and PQ17, and then in the Far East. He was welcomed back at the British Council, where he spent a year couriering pictures to exhibitions organised by the Council in war-torn Europe, before moving to the Tate in time for the 1948 Paul Nash exhibition. Then, in 1949, he was appointed to the new (but half-time) post of Adviser to the Office of Works on the Government Art Collection.

There were almost no pictures to start with, but with a meagre annual £500 Walker began to build up the collection. John Piper provided nostalgic views of Britain for the Embassy at Rio. Furnishing ministerial offices could be quite a problem. Ernie Bevan had an unexpected penchant for Fragonard, Butler, more predictably, knew all about Renoir, while Churchill, returning to No 10, swept it clean, saying "No thanks, I paint me own".

The Minister of Works David Eccles was a great help, and through him Walker was allowed to commission pictures of the Coronation in 1953 from all the major British artists. Later Geoffrey Rippon put his grant up to £2,000, and he was able to buy seriously good pictures by Nash, Matthew Smith and Sutherland, and bronzes by Moore and Frink. When Heath was prime minister he was equally supportive.

Besides the Government Art Collection, Walker's brief included outposts, like Audley End, Chiswick and Wrest Park, as well as the official London buildings. He produced picture catalogues of all of them, Audley End first in 1950. As Curator of the Palace of Westminster he compiled the five-volume catalogue of its pictures, published in 1988. He also wrote Old London Bridge (1979), working from the Office of Works accounts of its building.

One of the advantages of a still nominally half-time job was that he was able to publish more, with articles in Country Life, the Burlington Magazine and elsewhere. In 1976 he formally retired, leaving the collection now some 5,000-strong. A new prime minister, former Chief Petty Officer Callaghan, appointed him a trustee of the National Maritime Museum.

But more work still waited. He was asked to take over the catalogue of the National Portrait Gallery's Regency portraits, which duly came out in 1985, and another followed on The Nelson Portraits, which won the Anderson Prize for research in maritime history. Then came Windsor and the Royal Collection of portrait miniatures of the 18th and early 19th century, still kept in the library in the cabinets designed for them by Prince Albert.

This meant more visits to other royal residences, and, in pursuit of other portraits of royal sitters, to Germany. The catalogue came out in 1992, and he was appointed CVO in 2000. Next came the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford whose miniatures he finished in 1997, then the Athenaeum Club, and finally, the National Trust; with undiminished energy he moved from house to house, and the first two volumes appeared in 2003 and 2005.

By this time Walker was nearly 90, but he hardly seemed to have changed outwardly since he went back to work after the war, his figure always upright, neatly dressed, with a ready smile for all. He took life as it came, enjoying success and always seeing the funny side of misadventures; perhaps his navy years stood him in good stead there, that and a happy family life (his wife Margot went with him, cataloguing botanical drawings while he did the miniatures). He was, he would agree, very fortunate to find people prepared to pay him for doing what he wanted to do. What they got in exchange was a rare mixture of perception and valuable work, with a great deal of enjoyment for all, not just himself.

Richard John Boileau Walker, picture cataloguer: born Edinburgh 4 June 1916; adviser to the Government Art Collection 1949–76; Curator of the Palace of Westminster, 1950–76; National Portrait Gallery cataloguer 1976–85; Royal Collection cataloguer 1985–91; National Trust cataloguer 1990–2001; married 1946 Margaret Firebrace (one son, two daughters); died Chagford, Devon 6 May 2010.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
News
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
people
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
News
i100
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot