William Prosser: Lawyer and administrator who bestrode both the legal world and the artistic scene of his native Edinburgh

Prosser also had an often ill-concealed disdain for politicians

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The Independent Online

William Prosser led two significant public lives, in the law and the arts. From 1983 until 1986 he was Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, and then a Senator of the College of Justice in Scotland and Lord of Session until 2001. It was the consensus of legal Edinburgh that as judge of the High Court he was one of the most formidable inquisitors of the age, and a very, very good lawyer (the two do not always go together!).

His second public life was in the arts. From 1990 until 1995 he was Chairman of the Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland, and from 1987-92 Chairman of the Royal Lyceum Theatre Company. Visitors to the Edinburgh International Festival should know that the delightful and historic little Lyceum Theatre, tucked in behind the Usher Hall, would not be in existence today but for Prosser’s drive and skill after those previously in charge had been disheartened by problems of renovation and repair.

I am among those of Prosser’s friends who surmise that by the 1990s the arts had become more important to him than the law. What is certain is that after he retired from the bench in 2001, unlike many of his eminent colleagues he declined to undertake any temporary legal work, or to “fill in” when the High Court found itself short of judges.

He was the son of David Prosser, who had won the Military Cross at Ypres, and after the First World War had become a Writer to the Signet and a partner in his own firm of solicitors. Amazingly, his actual birth took place at the celebrated Nursing Home run by Miss Butter and Miss Munro, ladies who entered Edinburgh folklore, at No 9 Randolph Crescent, and the Prosser’s home for many years was two doors up at No 7.

At Edinburgh Academy, first under the rectorship of Lionel Smith, who had turned down the headmastership of Eton, and then Clarence Seaman, Prosser was given a scholarship-winning foundation in Classics by three remarkable teachers, BL Peel, GW Rowe and M Longson. He was then commissioned into the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

Perhaps younger readers of The Independent – by which I mean those under 75 – may not fully comprehend the lasting effect that National Service often had those who went through it. Prosser went with the Argylls – whom he grew to like – to the then British Guyana.

This experience did two things: it sparked his interest in other cultures; and the grotesque infighting between Cheddi Jagan, representing the indigenous community, and Forbes Burnham, representing immigrant East Indian interests, sparked Prosser’s often ill-concealed disdain for politicians.

From the sweltering heat of the Demerara river Prosser was plunged into Corpus Christi College, Oxford. For a 21-year-old reading Greats – in which he was to achieve a good First Class degree – no Oxford college at that time could have been more suitable.

The President of Corpus was Sir Frank Hardie, not only an Edinburgh Academy boy himself, but also the son of Professor WR Hardie, legendary Professor of Humanity at the University of Edinburgh and a family friend of the Prossers. It was Sir Frank, author of the authoritative 1936 Study in Plato, who recommended to Prosser’s family and school that he should read Greats.

“I was spoiled,” Prosser told me. And so he was. His first and leading supervisor was another Scot – the then young Robin Nisbet, the greatest ever authority on the Odes of Horace and later to be Corpus Christi Professor of Latin from 1970-92 and a lifelong friend.

Other supervisors were (Sir) Roger Mynors, an important wartime Treasury civil servant who gave young Prosser an insight into the realities of government and from 1953 Corpus Christi’s Professor of Latin Language and Literature; Hugh Lloyd-Jones, EP Warren Praelector in Classics at Corpus Christi from 1954-60 who was to become Regius Professor of Greek; and Frank Lepper, scholar of the nefarious deeds of ancient history.

If his obituarist dwells on these details, it reflects the importance that Prosser himself attached to his time at Oxford. And the impression should not be given that he was wedded to his studies – in 1957 he was Treasurer of the Junior Common Room.

A stellar legal career ensued. At Edinburgh University’s Law School he studied under Archie Campbell, the great Professor of Jurisprudence, and Professor John Mitchell, Britain’s most authoritative scholar of European law. At the distinguished solicitors, Dundas and Wilson, he was taken under the wing of the then young partner, Kenneth McLellan. He became an Advocate in 1962, Standing Junior Counsel in Scotland for the Board of Inland Revenue (1969-74), QC in 1974, Vice Dean of the Faculty of Advocates (1979-83) and Dean from 1983-86.

Lord Hope of Craighead, who succeeded him as Dean, and was to become Deputy President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, told me, “Willie Prosser was a brilliant thinker and master of language who brought an unusual breadth of thinking to the problems we faced. He created many fruitful links with the European Bar and his many judicial contacts in The Hague, Bruges and Paris.” Lord Hope vividly recalled Prosser’s play-acting of Scottish trials under the rules and evidence of French jurisprudence.

Prosser’s relationship with the Arts was encapsulated to me by James Holloway, Keeper of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (1997-2012): “He was a very regular attender at private views across Edinburgh; he would not just turn his back on the paintings with a glass of wine in his hand, but would look hard at the pictures on display, seek out the artist and really try to understand the work on show. Consequently he was very welcome and well-known in the artists’ community.”

For a decade, from 1988-98, Prosser was Chairman of the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust, and from 1994-2007 of the Scottish Architectural Education Trust, and of the Edinburgh Sir Walter Scott from 1993-96. I have been told by members of all three organisations that he was commendably expeditious in carrying out the duties of a chairman.

But his most important role was as Chairman of the Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland, sadly now defunct but which from 1927 until 2005 was an effective watchdog against undesirable development. My wife Kathleen Dalyell, a Commissioner throughout the five years of Prosser’s chairmanship, would often come home and observe wryly, “Willie does not suffer fools gladly.” Nor did he.

It was clear that in the “fools” category were developers who concealed the environmental consequences of their proposals, planners who had not much thought about the unintended consequences of what they planned, and self-regarding civil servants unacquainted with being thwarted and whose procrastinations Prosser would criticise.

Kirsteen Borland, for 10 years a member of the Royal Fine Art Commission and herself a distinguished Glasgow architect and planner, reflected: “Willie commanded the huge respect of architects, simply because he understood so much about architecture and its histories. He was firm – uncomfortably firm – with planners who came in front of us with sloppily thought-out proposals.”

So firm, in fact, that developers who had with good reason been thwarted got together with Scottish Office civil servants to deny Prosser the customary second five-year term. The Commissioners considered resigning en bloc but were persuaded by Prosser to remain for the good name of the Commission.

Yet on most occasions Prosser was far from negative. Charles Prosser – no relation – Secretary of the Royal Fine Art Commission from 1976-2005, recalled that Prosser could often persuade witnesses that they had thought of a solution that was pleasing both to themselves and the Commission and that would be of greater benefit to Scotland than the idea they had originally proposed; he used his position to be a constructive improver.

Prosser was a member of the Franco-British Council, and its Trustee from 2002-07, and President of the Franco-British Lawyers’ Society. He was also honoured as an Officier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2007. But Sir David Edward QC, Judge of the Court of Justice of the European Communities 1992-2004, told me that while Prosser struck up many friendships with senior members of the French judiciary, he wondered whether Prosser’s real interest was not in understanding the role of the French judicial system as part of French culture.

In 1964 Prosser married Vanessa, elder daughter of Sir William Lindsay, Chief Justice of Sudan, in what was to be an outstandingly close and happy marriage. For years their house was the venue for “bread and cheese” lunches which brought together so many people from the arts, academia and the law who would otherwise probably never have met, and their golden wedding party, at a restaurant in Randolph Place, was a never-to-be-forgotten event.

William David Prosser, lawyer and arts campaigner: born Edinburgh 23 November 1934; educated Edinburgh Academy; Corpus Christi College, Oxford; Edinburgh University; a Senator of the College of Justice in Scotland and Lord of Session 1986–2001; Chairman, Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland 1990-95; married 1964 Vanessa Lindsay (two daughters, two sons); died Edinburgh 22 March 2015.