Obituary: Jack Hillier

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The Independent Online
Jack Ronald Hillier, scholar of Japanese art: born Fulham 29 August 1912; married 1938 Mary Louise Palmer (one son, one daughter); died Redhill, Surrey 5 January 1995.

Jack Hillier was the leading authority in Europe on the Japanese woodblock print, not only the well-known broad-sheet Ukiyo-e "pictures of the floating world" of the urban society of 17th- to 19th-century Japan, but also the lesser-known printed books ofthe other "schools" of artists of the time. His numerous books on these subjects were written with an admirable clarity, reflecting his orderly mind and carrying lightly his vast knowledge.

Hillier's first book on things Japanese was Japanese Masters of the Colour Print (1954), published by Phaidon, who were also to publish his monographs Hokusai (1955), Utamaro (1961) and Hokusai Drawings (1966). Masters remains one of the finest introductions to the subject; the other books have been overtaken by further research as interest in Japanese art in the West grew. This interest, at the lowest possible level in the 1940s when Hillier's interest was first aroused, was largely fostered by Hillier's own work.

As cataloguer of Japanese prints at Sotheby's for some 25 years, Hillier saw and remembered a vast array of works. His knowledge and eye for a good object was put to good use in the assistance he gave to the formation of several fine collections, most notably, perhaps, that of Sir Chester Beatty, now the property of the Irish State. The collections of prints and drawings of Mr and Mrs Richard Gale and the collection of paintings of the late Ralph Harari were largely formed with his help, and he publishe d both in 1970. Perhaps his most important catalogue was that of the collection of Henri Vever, which he catalogued first for three Sotheby's sales and then reissued as a book in 1976.

It was his later work that was the most interesting; The Uninhibited Brush (1974) told the story of the Shijo school of painting and this was followed by two books of books (as he called them), The Art of Hokusai in Book Illustration (1980) and the magisterial The Art of the Japanese Book (1987).

Hillier was a quiet, modest man, though he could be stimulated to display his gifts as a raconteur by good talk. His learning, with which he was generous, was all self-taught. Having left school at 15, he worked for an insurance company until 1967, serving in the RAF during the war. In 1938 he married Mary Louise Palmer, later an authority on toys and dolls. He learnt to draw and to make woodblock prints, publishing a charming book, Old Surrey Watermills (1951), illustrated with his own drawings.

An avid collector, first of Japanese prints until he could no longer afford them, then of later Japanese painting and finally of Japanese illustrated books, he was as generous with his collections as with his learning; his collections of Nanga and Shijo paintings (the latter the basis for The Uninhibited Brush) were both sold to the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, on more than generous terms; his books went to the British Museum. Academically, he was invited to give the 13th annual Cohn Memorial Lecture in Oxford in 1977, the only speaker ever who had neither an academic nor a museum post. His work was recognised by the Japanese government, who, in a ceremony in London attended by many of his friends and admirers, awarded him the order of the Rising Sun withGold Rays and Rosette. Many of these same friends had contributed to a festschrift, on the occasion of his 70th birthday, in 1982, edited by Matthi Forrer.

Oliver Impey