OBITUARY : John Walker

In his autobiography, Self-Portrait with Donors (1974), John Walker reveals himself as a man of courage, grace, humour, pungency and wit. Blessed with many advantages, he had to triumph over adversity, suffering from an attack of polio when he was 13 which confined him to a wheelchair. From this position he got to know the paintings in the Metropolitan Museum in New York which determined the abiding interest of his life. He later provided wheelchairs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, when Director of the gallery, and urged even the hale and hearty to use them as being the right height for the best viewing of these paintings.

Born to wealth, Walker belonged to the fortunate group which was taught at Harvard by Professor Paul J. Sachs, as was John Nicholas Brown, whose son, Carter Brown, was to become Walker's personal assistant and successor as third director of the National Gallery. Carter Brown wrote of Walker: "Despite his legendary charm, he did not suffer fools gladly and with some staff this led to displays of temper. But [he] was one of the most stimulating people I have ever known. His summa cum laude degree from Harvard bore witness to a mental agility that was breathtaking."

After university, Walker went to I Tatti outside Florence to study with Bernard Berenson, with whom he formed a lifelong friendship. Berenson wrote to Sachs in 1933:

Why not try to get Johnny Walker III

for the post of curator or director of pictures at Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Of course he may not want to accept the offer, salary presumably being no object to him. But let not the trustees flatter themselves that they can import an Englishman or continental European who will do as well. The only charge that can be brought against Johnny Walker . . . is his age. But he is as old as Kenneth Clark who has recently been appointed director of the National Gallery.

By the way every serious paper announcing his appointment stated as his chief title that Kenneth Clark had studied for two years with Mr Berenson. So has Johnny Walker.

From I Tatti, Walker went to work at the American Academy in Rome from 1935 until 1939. He was able to further the negotiations whereby Harvard was eventually to take over I Tatti. In Rome he met and married "Margie" Drummond, the eldest daughter of the 16th Earl of Perth, then serving as British ambassador. It was also in Rome that he heard of the developments which were taking place in Washington where Andrew Mellon was planning to create the National Gallery of Art, on the Mall.

Walker wrote to Mellon's son Paul, whom he had known from childhood in Pittsburgh, to ask if there might be a post for him. In January 1939 he was appointed chief curator. He was thus intimately concerned with the completion of the classical building designed by John Russell Pope, in attracting the collections which were to fill it, in addition to the outstanding paintings which Andrew Mellon had bought from the Hermitage, and with their installation.

The knowledge, intellectual rigour, taste, logic and enthusiasm which Walker applied to his work were combined with the gift of diplomacy. In Washington the collections were arranged art-historically, by period and school without any of the legal difficulties and restrictions which proved so frequent a stumbling-block in New York. Walker made the National Gallery into an institution of world importance. No visit to Washington could be counted a success without a visit to the Genoese Van Dycks, the Vermeers, the splendid examples of the work of Claude, Poussin, David, Ingres and Degas, crowned by the addition of the enchanting small portrait of Ginevra dei Benci by Leonardo da Vinci which Walker bought in 1967. In 1956 Walker succeeded David Finley as director, retiring in 1969 as Director Emeritus. It seems surprising now that his appointment was by no means certain: "I fear Johnny has very small chance of being made director of the N.G.," Berenson wrote to Walter Lippmann in December 1955. "The dice seem heavily loaded in favour of Huntington Cairns."

Of the paintings in the Widener collection, Walker wrote a study of Bellini's The Feast of the Gods. On the receipt of Bellini and Titian at Ferrara (1957), Berenson wrote in thanks for

an unsurpassed masterpiece of impersonal, serene, detailed, philolog-

ical writing about a work of art . . .

I know of no study of a single work of Italian art treated as exhaustively and subtly . . . It overwhelms, delights and instructs me. I am very proud of you and am deeply touched by your glowingly generous recognition of what you believe I have done for you.

Berenson died in 1959. What he had given to Walker the latter fully and nobly gave in his turn to the American nation in the part which he played in establishing their National Gallery of Art.

After his retirement Walker and his wife settled in Sussex, in Amberley near Arundel, and spent the winters in Florida. On his return this spring his increasing frailty was obvious. He had devoted attendants and he died at home on 10 October after a spell in hospital at the ripe age of 88. His was a brave and gallant spirit. He gave lasting service to his profession and to his fellow Americans. Like some of the best of them, he was internationally minded, knew and loved Europe, and described himself as "a galloping Anglophile"; so people in Britain, too, may take pride in the character and achievements of Johnny Walker.

Ian Lowe

John Walker, museum curator, writer: born Pittsburgh 24 December 1906; Chief Curator, National Gallery of Art, Washington 1939-56, Director 1956- 69 (Director Emeritus); married 1937 Lady Margaret Drummond (died 1987; one daughter, and one son deceased); died Amberley, West Sussex 16 October 1995.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
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 People

Recruitment Genius: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?