Obituary: Jeremy Maas

Interest in Victorian art never wholly died in the 60 years after Queen Victoria's death, but if its revival can be dated it must be to 1961, the year that Jeremy Maas held his first Pre-Raphaelite exhibition.

There was nothing in Maas's antecedents or upbringing to account for an interest so essentially English. His father, the son of a Dutch diplomat, had a rubber plantation in Malaya, which his cultivated American mother found rough-going. She preferred to travel, and her son spent his youth journeying all over Europe. She was, however, determined that he should have an English education, so he went to Sherborne and, after National Service, to Pembroke College, Oxford, where he read English.

It was the Union at Oxford with its Pre-Raphaelite frescos, that, and William Gaunt's 1949 book Aesthetic Adventure, which first opened Maas's eyes to Victorian art, but when he went down it was to a job in advertising which he disliked. He then worked for a printing firm, Balding and Mansell, moving to Bonham's the auctioneers, where he started their water-colour and drawings department. After three years, he decided to set up on his own, and in December 1960, with very little capital, the Maas Gallery opened its doors at 15a Clifford Street, in London.

At that time it was not so much difficult to sell Victorian art as impossible: there was no demand and no supply. The major Victorian paintings hung in public collections, where most visitors hurried past them. The market centred on 1800; only a few long-lived figures, Brabazon, Campion, Callow, went on well into the 19th century. It was a landscape market too: genre, moral or religious pictures, let alone fantasy, were unknown. After a modest beginning with a Chinnery exhibition, drawings all from one portfolio, Maas put on, just before Christmas 1961, "The Pre-Raphaelites and Their Contemporaries", the first ever commercial showing of the PRB in the 20th century.

The impact of this exhibition is, to all who saw it, as vivid now as it was 35 years ago. It contained 126 drawings and 13 paintings, including substantial works by Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Holman Hunt, William Morris (two lovely sheets of illuminated initials), Millais, Ruskin and Ford Madox Brown. But there were others too, Watts, Poynter, Egg, Dadd, Sandys, Leighton, hardly remembered then, and the lesser Pre-Raphaelites, Hughes, Clifford, Solomon and Brett. Some of them came from prescient collectors, Sir Geoffrey Mander, David Gould, L.G. Duke; others from descendants of the artists or early owners (discovering them was to be Maas's forte). Diana Cuthbert (nee Holman Hunt) was the chief of these, and a liberal lender; Mrs Rossetti Angeli, then and later, provided work by Dante Gabriel and his ill-starred wife Elizabeth Siddall, whose drawings have their own unique spell. Figure drawings, biblical scenes, Millais illustrations for Trollope novels, above all the romantic and emblematic subjects that delighted Burne-Jones and Rossetti, opened new windows in the subject-matter as well as style of English art in the 19th century.

Another similar exhibition, memorable for Rossetti's drawing of his wife in a wing chair and Watts's The Mid-Day Rest, followed next year, and a pattern was established. The "new" Victorian pictures were amplified by a regular series of exhibitions of more conventional British drawings. The small, elegant catalogues (Maas's wife, Antonia, designed the covers) are their memorial.

It was not just the pictures, but the people you met, waiting anxiously on the first day to get in before the others when the door opened at 9.30. Charlotte Frank, Sir John Witt, the Handley-Reads, Sir David Scott, were all "regulars", but you were as likely to see Reginald Bosanquet or Vincent Price. John Betjeman came and bought a wonderful Mulready, L.S. Lowry Rossetti's study for Morning Music. All were captivated, too, not just by what they found at the gallery but also by its proprietor. Learning (there was no byway of Victorian history and society, not just art, that escaped him), enthusiasm, above all sympathy, particularly for those too poor to buy what they wanted (he was never rich) - all this made Clifford Street magnetic.

It was a centre, too, for the few scholars in the field. Virginia Surtees and John Gere, authors of famous books, became friends for life. The Tate Gallery and National Portrait Gallery became customers, and their staff regular visitors. Collectors and museums all over the world came to know Maas's talents, his eye as sure for any period of art as the 19th century. Paul Mellon was an early, discriminating and generous patron, buying Turner's Fire At the House of Commons and much else. The Metropolitan Museum, New York, bought a spectacular Pietro da Cortona; the Ashmolean and British Museum acquired drawings (the latter a famous Fuseli drawing), the Cecil Higgins Gallery a Dyce painting and Rossetti's Tristan and Yseult Drinking the Love Potion.

Exciting things always happened to Maas. There was the time he discovered Waterhouse's St Cecilia, perhaps the most beautiful painting that ever went through his hands, rolled up in a house in France; and the extraordinary time when he was asked to find a million pounds' worth of pictures "of national importance" in a month for a dying client (he did it just in time, finding an unsuspected El Greco). But the most exciting event was the story of Leighton's Flaming June. Bought in 1963 for pounds 1,000 from a man who had got it from his barber for pounds 60, it was almost unsaleable; Maas finally persuaded Luis Ferre to buy it for pounds 2,000 for his museum at Ponce in Puerto Rico. One of those who saw it was Sir David Scott, who said "I remember it well." Maas, who knew it had been lost for over 60 years, was incredulous. "Oh yes," said Scott, who was born in 1887. "I saw it at the RA in 1897."

Another person who saw it said it would make a wonderful book-jacket. In 1969 it did. Maas's Victorian Painters, constantly in print since, was a glorious picture book, packed with learned fact and acute observation, all knit together with an irresistible romantic enthusiasm. Other books followed: Gambart, Prince of the Victorian Art World (1975) was the deeply researched life of a dealer who, like Maas, put his money on what his eye chose; The Prince of Wales's Wedding (1977) and Holman Hunt and the Light of the World (1984) were illustrated histories of a single picture each by Frith and Hunt. The Victorian Art World in Photographs (1984) was based on Maas's extraordinary collection of carte-de-visite portraits. This was only part of the vast library of books and documents that Maas put together, the basis of his learning, for he read it all, letters, memoirs, the whole of the Art Journal.

"High Art and Homely Scenes", "A Day by the Sea", "Stunners" (a favourite Maas word, as it had been to the PRB) - these were the titles of the exhibitions that familiarised the subject-matter of Victorian painting. "The Pre-Raphaelite Influence" contained the Millais drawing for a window that Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber bought and has since realised, full-size, in stone. Single- artist exhibitions included one devoted to all Gregory's drawings and preparatory sketches for Boulter's Lock, and "The Victorian Venus", a tribute to W.E. Frost's figure drawing. Gradually, the larger paintings came to Maas, though it was always a problem to get them into the constricted space at Clifford Street. The presence of the large version of The Light of the World from St Paul's in the 1984 exhibition was a triumph of mind over matter.

In 1977, Maas's talents were put to a new use: Sir Hugh Casson, always a supporter, invited him to celebrate the Queen's Silver Jubilee with an exhibition at the Royal Academy. "This Brilliant Year" was devoted to Queen Victoria and art. Windsor was a generous lender, notably of the sizzling Winterhalter head-and-shoulders that Victoria commissioned for the Prince Consort's dressing-room. The exhibition opened the eyes of a still wider public to the universality of art in Victorian society. Maas did it for free, or nearly: he was thenceforth allowed to park on the academy forecourt.

This was to become sadly more useful. His great height needed a lot of support. He liked his pipe, which was not good for him. His back gave trouble, and arterio-sclerosis, which eventually carried him off, set in. But no discomfort or pain could still his enthusiasm or the ribald humour. Making up alternative names for Marcus Stone pictures, the causes of death of Victorian painters, all these were "good for a laugh", a favourite and sometimes mordant phrase. "A rose from a dunghill" was another, applied to a glorious Sandys hedgerow scene, worth a drive through the snow to an uncompromising sale in Torquay. Gossip delighted him, and so deep in it was he once that someone stole a Rossetti drawing off the wall six feet away without his noticing.

He refused to be quenched, not even by the huge prices paid for things that once he alone had been prepared to buy. In 1987 he paid pounds 60,000 for Hughes's Twilight Fantasies, one of the most famous of "fairy paintings", and almost broke the firm. Indeed, it was briefly acquired by Harlech TV in 1988, but in 1993 he was able to oversee its repurchase by his son Rupert. A great Ruskin exhibition in 1991 and annual shows of Victorian engravings testify to the gallery's vitality. "Fairy Paintings" in 1978 (another first) was succeeded by another in 1995 and the RA is about to stage a full-scale exhibition on that quintessential Victorian theme. Maas had been its inspiration; it is now to be dedicated to his memory.

But it was not all old pictures. His second exhibition in 1961 was of the work of a contemporary artist, Elinor Bellingham Smith; recently, John Sergeant, Richard Shirley-Smith, James Lynch and Tobit Roche have all been shown. But his longest-standing and closest friend, the subject of many exhibitions, was John Ward. In 1994, Ward wrote a perceptive article on how much the artist can owe to the dealer who represents him. Maas was moved to thank him and to reflect on his own career:

Like so many dealers, I really began as a collector, but I had no money, so I had to buy and sell to satisfy the urge. But I have always been hampered by three main failings. Firstly, I am colour-blind (actually, it's a red/green deficiency only). Secondly, I am almost completely innumerate. Thirdly, despite any appearance to the contrary, I am regrettably very very shy. It was often agony talking to strangers in the gallery . . .

I suppose I mainly survived by strong convictions, loving what I was doing, the thrill of discovery, the satisfaction of sales, the ability to actually make a reasonable living from something I liked doing.

Jeremy Stephen Maas, art dealer: born Penang, Malaya 31 August 1928; married 1956 Antonia Armstrong Willis (two sons, one daughter); died Amberley, Sussex 13 January 1997.

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