Obituary: William Willetts

William Willetts leaves a legacy of scholarship which inspired many in the now established field of South-East Asian art studies. It was typical of this talented and temperamental character that he should have made his most significant mark in a field of study that turned out to be a lifelong detour from his chosen rendezvous with Chinese art.

He was born in 1918, near Swindon, and educated at Rendcomb College in Gloucestershire. Although he read biology at Bristol University, as the first recipient of the Dulverton Open Scholarship, he decided that the study of Chinese culture was to be his vocation. At 16 he had seen the great International Exhibition of Chinese Art, held at Burlington House, London, in 1935-36, an experience he later described as "a turning-point of my life". During the Second World War he studied Chinese art at the Courtauld Institute of Art, in London, and took an MA under Professor K. de B. Codrington at London University in 1946. In 1950 he completed an Honours degree in Classical Chinese at Oxford.

Willetts published his influential two-volume Chinese Art in 1958 with Penguin Books and on the strength of the royalties sailed for China. En route his ship called at Madras and Willetts, engaged by the extraordinary strength of south Indian culture, decided to take a closer look. He stayed six years. A series of scholarly articles on Indian temple arts and China's maritime links with southern India was the result.

1963 saw a new chapter open in Willetts's life. He was invited by the Chancellor of the University of Malaya to become the founding curator of the University Art Museum, Singapore. With his combination of connoisseurship and acumen he built an important collection of Chinese and South-East Asian art, appropriate to the aspirations of the newly emerging independent nations of the region. Of equally lasting importance was the creation of the South-East Asian Ceramic Society which Willetts, as founding president, launched in 1971 with an inaugural exhibition at the University Art Museum.

This exhibition was the first presentation of the then little-known ceramic traditions of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam and caused a stir amongst the oriental ceramic cognoscenti. His pioneering catalogue Ceramic Art of South-East Asia inspired a generation of younger scholars and stimulated the interest of government archaeological departments throughout South- East Asia. In the UK, however, his catalogue was reviewed with reluctant praise, and Willetts's contributions patronisingly dismissed by those who failed fully to grasp the significance of these developments for ceramic art history.

Willetts's pursuit of a somewhat rakish life style (which he later described as "reading, thinking and drinking") offended some sensibilities. In 1972 he was invited to be founding curator at the University of Malaya, in Kuala Lumpur. Over the next decade he created the Museum Seni Asia, from which he retired in 1982. He remained in Kuala Lumpur, where he served as chairman of the South-East Asian Ceramic Society West Malaysian Chapter. He organised exhibitions and lectured throughout South-East Asia to the ceramic societies which had subsequently emerged in Jakarta, Manila and Hong Kong, inspired by the example of the Singapore ceramic society. His last important publication, Chinese Calligraphy (1981), signalled a desire to return to his study of Chinese aesthetics.

Willetts never got to China, but it has to be said that the unquestionable loss to Chinese art history was a gain for South-East Asian studies. His contribution went beyond his academic publications: he gave direction to collectors through his connoisseurship and led by example in the formation of important public collections in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. The establishment of South-East Asian ceramics as a respectable field of inquiry was perhaps his most lasting legacy.

John Guy

William Willetts, art historian and museum curator: born Purton Stoke, Wiltshire 1918; died Kuala Lumpur 30 January 1995.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
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 Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there