John Gere was more than an art historian who clarified understanding of Italian art, he was also a civilised human being who enhanced the life of those around him.
It is indeed ironic that he should have died at the moment when the recent publication of the catalogue of the Italian Old Master drawings in the Devonshire collection has served as a reminder of how much our knowledge and, particularly crucial, appreciation of Italian drawings is due to Gere. Just how true this is was not always fully recognised when he was alive.
Gere's whole life was dedicated to the British Museum. And unlike many contemporary art historians, he resisted both the seductions of the saleroom and the temptation to pose as a pundit and meddle in politics.
In 1946, after Winchester and Balliol College, Oxford, Gere joined the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum as Assistant Keeper. He remained there for his entire career, rising to Deputy Keeper in 1966 and Keeper in 1973; he retired in1981.
Gere was very much in the mould of other great keepers of the Department, such as his immediate predecessors Arthur Ewart Popham and Edward Croft-Murray. Any suggestion that he was a dry museum man would be wholly wrong. Gere was very human, was witty and could be whimsical. Art he genuinely loved, and his eye was shrewd not just with Italian drawings, but equally with French 19th-century oil sketches. In 1948, with Robin Ironside, he published Pre-Raphaelite Painters, and his love of the Pre-Raphaelites continued throughout his career.
With his wife Charlotte, herself a distinguished historian of jewellery, he understood that detailed knowledge and the civilised way of life were inseparable. When Gere joined the British Museum he found himself registering a collection of drawings formed by the great portrait painter Sir Thomas Lawrence. It consisted of approximately 2,000 drawings, the majority by secondary Italian artists of the 16th and 17th centuries. The direction he was to pursue throughout his life was set.
Gere came into daily working contact with Philip Pouncey, who had joined the Department of Prints and Drawings the year before him. Much later Gere described his working relationship with Pouncey as "the most valuable part of my entire education". While this was undoubtedly true, the statement could be misleading. The collaboration between Gere and Pouncey that ensued was one of the most fruitful in the whole history of the study of Italian art.
Together by 1962 they had completed Volume III of the catalogue of Italian Drawings in the British Museum, dealing with Raphael and his circle. It was to be followed in 1983 by Volume V of the catalogue dealing with Artists Working in Rome c1550-c1640, upon which they again collaborated. Both remain standard works. This is not just for their detailed content, but also has much to do with the standards of cataloguing Gere and Pouncey established.
They were nothing if not meticulous. After Pouncey had officially left the Department of Prints and Drawings, he continued to work with Gere, by now Keeper, for two or three days a month. Gere's door was usually kept shut and, undisturbed, the two men alternated vigorous discussion with an equally devoted attention to detail, although the actual writing, editing and indexing was done by Gere.
It would be wrong to think of him as exclusively working with Pouncey. Taddeo Zuccaro: his development studied in his drawings (1969) was very much Gere's own and he organised and catalogued exhibitions, notably the "Mostra di disegni degli succari (Taddeo e Federigo e Raffaellino da Raggio)" held in Florence, at the Uffizi, in 1966. There were also articles in learned journals, notable among them the Burlington Magazine and Master Drawings, on artists ranging from Correggio to Pirro Ligorio, PellogrinoTibaldi, Perion de Vaga and others, while an important work of collaboration, this time with Nicholas Turner, was Drawings by Raphael in English Collections (1983).
John Gere was both an FBA and FSA and his expertise was in demand until the end.
Terence MullalyReuse content