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.

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

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

HR Business Partner (Maternity Cover 12 Months)

£30000 - £34000 Per Annum 25 days holiday, Private healthcare: Clearwater Peop...

Project Manager (Procurement & Human Resources)

Unpaid: Cancer Research UK: If you’re a professional in project management, lo...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star