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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company provides global satellite communi...

Austen Lloyd: Practice / HR Manager - Somerset

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A rare and exciting opportunity for a Practice...

Ashdown Group: HR Executive

£20000 - £23000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: An exciting opportunity...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: A mainstream Secondary school in C...

Day In a Page

A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist?

Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

Are you a 50-center?

Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

Hollywood's new diet trends

Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
6 best recipe files

6 best recipe files

Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
Ashes 2015: Steven Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Middlesex bowler claims Ashes hat-trick of Clarke, Voges and Marsh
Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Atwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works