Obituary: Christopher Hohler

When in the 1970s the Registrar of the Courtauld Institute asked Christopher Hohler for an account of his activities for inclusion in the Annual Report, the reply he received was as follows:

I have published no books or articles in the period mentioned. Nothing I have been working on could be called a book. What I have been doing is preparing an article on "Some Early Manuscripts of English Polyphony" and another on William of Malmesbury and Glastonbury; I am investigating, for the benefit of two PhD candidates I am supervising, the medieval calendars and litanies of churches in the ecclesiastical province of Reims . . . formally, my activities for the year in the Report will, as I think they must, appear as "nil". You know, and everyone else knows what I think of this kind of Report. The unprintable facts are, however, as above.

In fact, Hohler was one of a select band of scholars who shaped the Courtauld Institute in post-war Britain, making it for decades the most influential centre of art-historical study in the world. Yet his name is known to few except his colleagues and pupils and his publications were indeed limited to a small number of articles, but those which he did are of outstanding quality and importance.

He had no ambition to write books or to be quoted as the authority on any topic (although he was the authority on many). Rather, he found the past, especially the Middle Ages, endlessly intriguing, puzzling, attractive and funny. This he combined with a genial dislike of the modern world, especially as represented by all things American. He was by birth and by nature an aristocrat, whose opinions, although often politically incorrect, were always cogently expressed with wit and clarity.

His formidable intellect, nurtured both at Eton and at New College, was first directed towards archaeology, but, like many of his generation, his career was interrupted by the Second World War. This was mostly spent in Military Intelligence in the Middle East, where he stayed after the war to improve his Arabic. Returning to London in 1947 without a job, Dame Joan Evans the famous antiquary recommended him to Tom Boase at the Courtauld Institute and he worked there until he retired.

Hohler's reputation as a teacher derived from his vast range of antiquarian knowledge and his lateral approach to academic problems. This was never better demonstrated than on the legendary Courtauld Summer Schools, organised and largely funded by Barbara and Charles Robertson of Bath, which took students and teachers to often remote areas, studying medieval art at first hand. My first experience of these was in Apulia, where we went to Frederick II's hunting palace at Castel del Monte. This symmetrical building provides two floors of identically shaped rooms, but Hohler had worked out exactly who used each one by analysing whether the doors opened inwards or outwards, whether they had locks, the proximity of staircases and the provision of fireplaces.

Hohler expected his students to be equipped with the basic academic skills, which he regarded as the ability to read all major languages, both ancient and modern, and an understanding of all the different disciplines of medieval scholarship. Not surprisingly, these requirements were daunting to quite a lot of students and a number failed to last the course with him. However, those that did were richly rewarded and his generosity with his own learning was exceptional. A list of the doctoral theses which he supervised ranges from tombs in Bosnia to stained glass in Lincolnshire and Dominican patronage in Italy.

He contributed in a huge but largely unseen way to the publications of others. In retirement, living in Oslo, he kept in touch with his friends and former pupils through his extensive correspondence. A letter from Hohler, in his immaculate minuscule handwriting and closely covering several pages on both sides, would always provide the recipient with an amazing range of scholarly comment, new leads to follow and questions to ask.

His own research started with an unfinished dissertation on St Gilles- du-Gard and progressed through his contributions to the published study of the relics of St Cuthbert, to his work on the medieval pilgrimage to Santiago da Compostela and on Stavanger Cathedral. He was immensely widely read, especially in antiquarian research, and his knowledge of medieval texts was extensive. But all this learning was carried with an effortless charm and his friends will remember him with a Gauloise in one hand, a glass of whisky in the other, exploding with glee over the absurd antics of some little known medieval personage.

Alan Borg

Edward Christopher Hohler, historian and art historian: born 22 January 1917; Lecturer, Courtauld Institute of Art 1947-64, Reader 1964-79; twice married (four sons, three daughters); died Oslo 15 February 1997.

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