Obituary: David Baxandall
Wednesday 28 October 1992
DAVID BAXANDALL was Director of the National Galleries of Scotland from 1952 until his retirement in 1970. This appointment was for him the culmination of a career as an art historian that stretched back through Cardiff and Manchester for 41 years.
Baxandall served in the Department of Art in the National Museum of Wales successively as Assistant Keeper and Keeper from 1929 to 1941, when he joined the RAF. He never spoke much about his war years, but he was attached to the section of Air Intelligence that concerned itself with the interpretation of air photographs and the penetration of camouflage.
At the end of the war he became Director of the Manchester City Art Galleries and remained there until he came to Edinburgh - setting a precedent that has become almost traditional, that Manchester staff fly on to the northern capital. At Edinburgh he succeeded Ellis Waterhouse, a hard act to follow by any standards.
For Waterhouse art had ended somewhere in the mid-1800s and the Edinburgh Trustees clearly felt that an extension of interest to 'Modern Art' was highly desirable; hence, with his reputation in this field already formed at Manchester, came Baxandall's appointment. The foundation of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, today an integral and popular department of the National Galleries of Scotland, was David Baxandall's achievement and must always remain his chief monument.
The 1930s were indeed his ideal period. He loved and was an authority on the English abstract painters, buying Ben Nicholson for example both for Manchester and for himself. He knew the painter as a friend and in 1962 published Ben Nicholson, an account of his work.
David married Isobel Thomas, daughter of a Welsh rectory and an essentially Welsh character. To go into their flat in Edinburgh was to enter an austerely white temple, inspired by David's favourite 1930s period. Carefully chosen water-colours, including Nicholsons, were hung on the walls but never in the oppressive clutter of some other art historians' homes. The Baxandall flat was elegant, David's library, files and recordings organised to the last logical degree, and Iso's kitchen her pride. Friends of all ages looked forward to an invitation from the Baxandalls.
David Baxandall might have seemed aloof on first acquaintance but he was essentially a most kindly man, always capable of great warmth of friendship. (A junior Assistant Keeper on his staff will always remember the most gentle of reprimands for wearing totally unsuitable trousers in the gallery.) He was also, unexpectedly, a very clubbable man, taking a whole-hearted part, which gave scope for his sense of humour, in an eccentric Edinburgh club which specialised in theme-inspired dressing-up.
His off-duty interests were varied. He enjoyed hill-walking in Scotland and Wales and countryside walking as long as he was able. He was a skilled and painstaking photographer and latterly made an excellent record of the Romanesque sculptures of Herefordshire churches. He also enjoyed writing poetry, both serious and parody.
His family was a constant source of happiness and pride. He is survived by his son, Michael, the distinguished art historian, by twin daughters, by grandchildren and a great-grandchild. In the end Hereford claimed him, but it is in Edinburgh that he will long be remembered with affection by his many friends.
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