Obituary: E. Clive Rouse

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The Independent Online
E. Clive Rouse devoted the greater part of his life to the uncovering, recording and conservation of wall paintings in churches throughout Britain.

He had an almost uncanny ability to interpret the subject matter of fragmentary remains of partly uncovered wall paintings - based in part on his profound knowledge of the stories, signs and symbols of the medieval saints; the prime source being The Golden Legend as written by Jacobus de Voragine in 1270, first published c1470 and "Englished" by William Caxton in 1483.

A typical example of his skills of observation and interpretation was the rescue of the "Doom" painting in Penn, Buckinghamshire: by pure chance he observed some ancient timbers in the pile by their adze marks and upon gently rubbing one of the timbers with a little spit on his pocket handkerchief he revealed a tiny face, which he recognised as belonging to a rather rare survival of a "Doom", or Last Judgement, painted on wood. A parishioner then realised he had similar timbers blocking up a hole in a pigsty. As a result, the majority of the painting has been saved and it has been returned to its original position, on the east wall of the nave.

Clive Rouse was born in 1901 in Acton, west London. His father's family had been furniture-makers, based in Stroud and then Acton, while his mother's had been dairymen to Buckingham Palace. He was educated at Gresham's School, in Norfolk, and at St Martin's School of Art.

His interest in wall paintings led to work with E.W. Tristram, Professor of Design at the Royal College of Art, and being introduced to conservation. Tristram pioneered the acknowledged techniques of the day, which included coating the paintings with wax after they had been cleaned. He was emphatic about the necessity of recording things: he was compiling the most comprehensive survey to date of English medieval wall painting of the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries, published as the multi-volume English Medieval Wall Painting over the years 1944-55.

Encouraged by his mentor, Rouse learnt the value of measured water-colour drawings. They require close study and meticulous accuracy. Through his application of this discipline Rouse developed his exceptional skill for identifying the subjects of fragmentary paintings. (He sometimes liked to boast that his drawings were even more accurate than Tristram's because of his inferiority to Tristram as a creative artist.)

This skill he put to critical use in the Second World War, during which he served with the Royal Air Force interpreting photographs at the Central Interpretation Unit (Intelligence). In addition to the identification and activity monitoring of important targets such as U-boat pens in western France and the damage inflicted upon them, he also identified camouflaged launch sites for the V1 flying bombs and V2 rockets.

The selection of sites for the insertion and recovery of agents was a further task and Rouse often recalled the weighty responsibility of determining a clear airstrip for the landing of a small plane. In 1946 he was appointed MBE for his wartime services.

At the Central Interpretation Unit Rouse worked with many other archaeologists and many friendships were formed. Each scholar gave informal talks about his or her speciality; Rouse would fascinate his listeners with the subject of heraldry.

After the war Rouse resumed his work on wall paintings, with the daunting realisation that the wax coatings that had been applied as a preservative had the disastrous effect of destroying the porosity of the paintings: any damp developing behind them was forcing the paintings off the wall. Rouse was taking on commissions for work which countered much of what had been practised before the war. He and his assistants spent many years removing, or at least reducing, wax coatings from the damp walls of English churches and devising new methods for conserving the paintings using materials the same as the original, namely slaked lime.

A great deal of Rouse's work was educational. He was an inspired lecturer. He worked particularly hard to educate clergy and architects in the care and appreciation of wall paintings. His genial manner and genuine kindness endeared him to clients and assistants (to his assistants he was always known affectionately as "Sir") and he provided the encouragement which led many young people to an interest, or even a career, in the field of archaeology and historic buildings.

While an enthusiastic and wide-ranging traveller, apart from his schooldays and wartime service Rouse spent all of his life based in Gerrards Cross. He did much to publicise the artistic and historical treasures of Buckinghamshire and for many years he was president of its Archaeological Society.

In 1969 he was elected as President of the Royal Archaeological Institute. For a long time he was also on the Council of the Society of Antiquaries of London. In 1983 he was awarded an honorary DLitt by Sussex University, an appropriate honour considering his many years of service on the Chichester Diocesan Advisory Committee for Fabric. His knowledge of the churches of southern England was phenomenal.

Rouse published numerous articles and several books. Discovering Wall Paintings, first published in 1968, had run to four editions by 1991, when it was retitled Mediaeval Wall Paintings. It was reprinted in 1996.

He was a collector of Chinese armorial porcelain and at one time owned what was probably the largest collection in private hands. He gave away many of his most important pieces, including some to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. His large collection of his own measured drawings he donated shortly before his death to the Society of Antiquaries, Burlington House.

Clive Rouse loved reading and bird-watching and sailing in friends' boats. He had been a competent golfer and a sought-after dancing partner. He had a passion for islands and had visited most of those around the British Isles and many further afield. He never learnt to drive but rode his bicycle until well into his eighties.

Although he never married he had a very wide circle of friends and colleagues who frequently visited him either to seek his advice or merely to enjoy his engaging company and ever benign sense of humour. He was at ease with all types and ages and never more so than with the very young. Children loved him.

Jane Rutherfoord

Edward Clive Rouse, archaeologist: born Stroud, Gloucestershire 15 October 1901; FSA 1937; MBE 1946; FRSA 1968; President, Royal Archaeological Institute 1969-72; President, Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society 1969-79; died Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire 28 July 1997.

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