Robert Woof

Romantic scholar of imagination and vision and restless Director of the Wordsworth Trust
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Robert Samuel Woof, English scholar and museum curator: born Lancaster 20 April 1931; Lecturer, University of Toronto 1958-61; Lord Adams of Ennerdale Fellow, Newcastle University 1961-62, Lecturer 1962-71, Reader in English Literature 1971-92, Leverhulme Fellow 1983-84; Honorary Keeper of Collections, Trustees of Dove Cottage 1974-89, Honorary Secretary and Treasurer 1978-95; Vice-Chairman, Drama Panel, Arts Council 1982-88, Acting Chairman 1985-86, Vice-Chairman, Literature Panel 1983-84, Chairman 1984-88; Director, Wordsworth Trust 1989-2005; Chairman, English Touring Theatre 1993-2000; CBE 1998; FRSL 2000; married 1958 Pamela Moore (two sons, two daughters); died Newcastle upon Tyne 7 November 2005.

Robert Woof was one of the most effective and energetic voices in the public understanding of British Romantic literature and art. As Director of the Wordsworth Trust since 1989 he not only saw what had, almost literally, been a cottage industry grow into an institution of international renown. He also understood, long before it became received practice in arts organisations, the essential connection between writers and artists of the past, and those of the present.

Both Woof's parents came from farming families. He was born in Lancashire in 1931, and after Lancaster Royal Grammar School went up with a scholarship to Pembroke College, Oxford, to read English. From there he was attracted to postgraduate study in Toronto, where some of the best work on the Romantic poets was going on. Kathleen Coburn was editing the manuscripts of Coleridge, bought by Victoria College after the British Museum had refused them, and J.R. McGillivray was concentrating on Wordsworth. Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan added their own stimuli. Woof chose what he needed, and worked at his dissertation on the two major early Romantic poets.

He also courted Pamela Moore, a contemporary in the English school at Oxford who was now likewise in Toronto. Their marriage in 1958 brought not only family happiness but also an intellectual partnership of unique effectiveness, Pamela's work on Dorothy Wordsworth complementing Robert's own particular interests.

After a spell teaching at Toronto, the Lord Adams of Ennerdale Fellowship at Newcastle University was tailor-made for Robert Woof - a Lancastrian, with interests in Wordsworth; he returned to take it up in 1961. But he needed, above all, to spend long periods with the papers given by the Wordsworth family to Dove Cottage, in Grasmere. He and Pamela rented a cottage in nearby Rydal, and Robert worked his way through the boxes, a treasure-trove that was still not properly sorted or listed. While the papers were greatly respected, they were not in the best of condition: the collection was manifestly in need of professional care.

In 1962 Woof was appointed lecturer in the English department at Newcastle, and his mixture of persuasiveness and scholarly responsibility made him an obvious person to join the Trustees of Dove Cottage. In 1974 he became the collection's honorary keeper.

Led by him, the trustees applied in 1970 for a grant from the Pilgrim Trust for a long programme to repair Wordsworth's papers. The work was to be done by Sandy Cockerell, near Cambridge, and so Woof now began a period of triangular journeyings, hitching lifts (he never learned to drive) from Newcastle over the Pennines to Grasmere, from there taking batches of papers by train to Cambridge, and so on back home.

To have rescued these papers from neglect was a major achievement in itself. For Woof it was only the beginning. With the help of the architecture department at Newcastle, Dove Cottage was repaired in 1977-79. In 1978 he became secretary and treasurer to the trustees, and then in 1989 the first full-time Director.

Until then, the tranquil existence of Dove Cottage had remained largely unchanged since its purchase in 1890 by a group of enthusiasts led by Stopford Brooke and Canon H.D. Rawnsley for the preservation of the place where Wordsworth wrote some of his finest poetry and, in Brooke's words, "for the eternal possession of those who love English poetry from all over the world".

Woof took the original trustees' purpose as a challenge. The tranquillity of the cottage was meticulously preserved. There had always been a museum room. Now, new and more commodious provision to show objects and papers was created alongside the cottage in a converted barn. Facilities for readers were vastly improved in what was proving a golden age of Wordsworth scholarship. Under Woof's leadership the trustees embarked on a programme to explain to the world at large the relationship of poetry to the surrounding landscape, and how the circles of British Romantic writers interacted amongst themselves, and with the other arts.

When in 1977 Woof acquired for the trust a watercolour of Grasmere and Helm Crag by Francis Towne's pupil John White Abbott, no one could have predicted how central the importance of pictures - watercolours, oils, drawings and prints; portraits, landscapes and book illustrations - were to become to this mission. He worked constantly, with spectacular success, to add manuscripts and books to the collection; but they were only part of his vision of Romanticism. In 1982, a pioneering exhibition showed how artists discovered the Lake District from the late 18th century onwards, the beginning of a theme in which Woof was greatly encouraged by Peter Bicknell. He was to achieve one of his greatest ambitions, to see the trust acquire a record of Turner's visit to the Lakes in 1797, only a few days before his death.

Today there are hundreds of pictures in the collection. The loan exhibition of a small group of portraits of the Wordsworth circle in 1979 marked the beginning of a mutually fruitful collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery. Determined to ensure that others could enjoy and understand the collections, Woof embarked on a programme of exhibitions far beyond Cumbria.

In 1987-88 many of the trust's treasures travelled to America for " William Wordsworth and the Age of English Romanticism". In 1992 an exhibition on Tennyson (the first of a long line in which Stephen Hebron has been instrumental, with catalogues that have become essential reference works in their own right) went to Lincoln. Shelley and then Keats both went to the British Library. Grasmere gained as well, with further generous loans from the National Portrait Gallery, especially "Romantic Women Writers" in 1994 and "Hyenas in Petticoats" (Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley) in 1997. The British Library and other lenders helped generously for a magisterial survey in 2000, "English Poetry, 850-1850". Most recently, the Courtauld loaned the Spooner collection of watercolours, in an exhibition that will soon be seen in London.

As a further reminder of the international stage that the Grasmere collections now hold, this year too the exhibition catalogue on illustrators of Paradise Lost from the 17th to the 20th centuries won the AXA/Art Newspaper award for the best catalogue of the year. The accompanying book by Pamela Woof was a key to its success.

Much of Woof's Newcastle life revolved round Morden Tower, and the opportunities it gave for poetry and theatre readings. He took leading parts in encouraging theatre in Newcastle and Keswick alike, and in Grasmere he delighted in developing programmes to bring contemporary artists and poets to work where their predecessors had once been. Gallery space was found for exhibitions, and weekly poetry readings each summer drew people from considerable distances. The summer and winter conferences on Wordsworth were joined by weekends for book collectors. The programme for schools has repeatedly won awards, as children, too, have been introduced to a mingling of poetry and art.

The opening of the Jerwood collections centre by Seamus Heaney in June, a building that manages both to sit in and enhance the fragile landscape, means not only that the historic collections can, at long last, be looked after and made available as they deserve, but also that there are now yet further opportunities for explaining and sharing them with everyone.

It was not simply that Woof was possessed of imagination and vision far beyond others. This was a team effort. Care of the collections was placed in the professional hands of Jeff Cowtan. From four people in the early 1970s, there are now almost 50 employed at Dove Cottage, many of them at the beginning of their careers. With no regular public funding, and scarcely any endowment, money has always remained tight. Every year, fresh money had to be raised.

Woof's own restless energy made him the best of all possible advocates in winning friends, and he worked ceaselessly alike in the local politics of Cumbria and in the labyrinths of arts funding locally or in London. He revelled in making introductions. Stories abound of his unmindfulness of his appearance - of forgotten meals, of leaping into a taxi for an early-morning train with his shirt-tails still hanging out, of shaving in the entrance hall of one of the large London museums just before a meeting. But this dishevelment was no guide to his acute strategic sense, his astonishing memory of people and the vision that he always carried with him.

Just as Grasmere was the inspiration for writers and artists in the past, so Robert Woof built on what he first saw when, at the age of 18, he had cycled the 37 miles from Lancaster to Dove Cottage and for the first time saw what was to become much of his life's work.

David McKitterick

Comments