Obituary: George Levy

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The Independent Online
George Levy was one of the best known and loved members of the London antique trade, a man who combined a winning personality with great knowledge of objects and a fervent sense of public responsibility.

After school at Oundle, Levy's first job was as a taster at a biscuit factory where he developed a lifelong fondness for eating biscuits by the packet. He then moved to Ealing Studios, where he worked as a clapperboy, eventually going on to work as a cameraman on the documentary film Idlers That Work (1949), directed by Lindsay Anderson. He spoke of his early days with ease and, in a typically humorous gesture, recently faxed an old photograph of himself holding a clapperboard to a museum curator. Cinema and theatre (especially musicals) remained lifelong passions.

It was probably on account of a family connection that, in 1950, he joined the firm of H. Blairman & Sons (founded 1884), of which he was a director from 1955 until his sudden death. Philip Blairman (whose daughter, Wendy, he married in 1952) was known for his enthusiasm for Regency furniture. George Levy shared this interest and, indeed, expanded the firm's reputation in the field, but he also developed particular expertise and love of mainstream mid- to late-18th-century decorative arts, especially furniture designed by Robert Adam.

In 1975 he was joined by his son Martin, who complemented his father's interests with a passion for the late 19th century and who expanded the firm's range into French objects. Their international contacts and business were important and Levy had a loyal following among colleagues in France and the United States. He believed deeply in the value of scholarship which, among other things, led to the seminal exhibition on George Bullock (1988), organised by the firm with the National Museums on Merseyside. Father and son were an incomparable team and clients and colleagues always had a sense of being warmly embraced when visiting their elegant shop on Mount Street.

Discretion meant that Levy was not so well known for his work as a decorator of private houses. He worked on a large number of important projects in Britain and America, although little of this work is published. Clients valued not only Levy's respect for their privacy but his complete integrity and great sense of humour. They came to him for all manner of advice in which commercial considerations played no part. Above all, he was a friend.

George Levy was one of a breed of sophisticated dealers who managed to combine a belief in the essential importance of a strong London trade with an equally fervent desire to retain in the UK objects of historical significance, particularly those closely connected to important houses. He was a President of the British Antique Dealers' Association, Chairman of the Grosvenor House Antiques Fair, a Council member of the Jewish Museum and a frequent adviser to museums and arts funding bodies.

He was a well-known campaigner and letter-writer on what are now termed heritage issues, chiding the Government for its inactivity over such matters as the underfunding of museums, including the need for adequate support for the system for stopping from export abroad objects of national importance. He was a supporter of tax incentives as a means of retaining important objects and was adamantly opposed to museum charging, especially in the 1970s when the funds raised went directly to the Treasury.

Levy played an important role in particular at Kenwood House, Hampstead, where he was an active Chairman of the Friends of the Iveagh Bequest for nearly 20 years and a founder of the London Historic Houses Museums Trust, a charity established to finance acquisitions and contribute to the well-being of Kenwood, Chiswick House, Ranger's House and Marble Hill. Working closely with curators he secured the return of many important objects to Kenwood (several discovered in America) and helped to open the house to a wider public.

It was also over Kenwood that he was forced to fight (and win) a recent and much- publicised battle with Sir Jocelyn Stevens over the supervision of Kenwood by expert curators. Despite this hurtful episode he enthusiastically helped English Heritage to acquire a pair of important tables which once stood in Chiswick House.

To the surprise of many who viewed Levy as an establishment traditionalist (indeed, he was described as part of the "arts mafia"), he was a great supporter of the Victoria and Albert Museum director Elizabeth Esteve- Coll. Although he always loved the V&A unreservedly, it was only during her tenure that he became an active fund- raiser and campaigner on behalf of the museum. He believed that museums should do more to share their collections and knowledge by means of publications, gallery displays and exhibitions and that, in the V&A's case, drastic action was required. The V&A was but one of many British museums for whom Blairman's acted, always without charge, on auction purchases, valuations and other matters.

Although George Levy undoubtedly had a distinguished career, his friends, and even those who met him casually, will chiefly remember his endearing charm and gregariousness which could make even business meetings occasions for fun and enjoyment.

Christopher Wilk

George Levy, antique dealer and arts campaigner: born London 21 May 1927; director, H. Blairman & Sons 1955-96, chairman 1965-96; MBE 1992; married 1952 Wendy Blairman (one son, three daughters); died London 1 September 1996.

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