Obituary: John Irwin

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The Independent Online
The work of a devotee, said an Indian sage, brings glory to knowledge and makes him the cosmic yogi.

John Irwin may have known such mottoes during his researches in Indian arts and during his 19-year tenure as Keeper of the Indian Section at the Victoria and Albert Museum, but he brought to his findings the pragmatism of his English temperament: he related all abstruse ideas to concrete facts. Apart from his principal texts on Indian arts, he was able to communicate his knowledge in eloquent writing and the spoken word to both learned and lay audiences.

Born in Madras in 1917, the son of a coffee planter, he was educated from early childhood in England, at Canford School, in Dorset. He then chose to be a journalist, working for various publications including the New Statesman under the radical editor Kingsley Martin.

On the declaration of war in 1939, he joined, as sub- lieutenant, the Gordon Highlanders, where he was promoted to the rank of captain. He was demobilised in 1942 when he injured a leg while training a company in motorcycle riding; this made him limp slightly in later years.

Intelligent, aware of the various facets of Indian life, and with liberal humanist predilections, he was chosen in 1942 to be ADC to the Governor of Bengal, Sir Richard Casey. Irwin had the advantage of sharing with Mrs Casey, an unusually cultured colonial lady, his own findings about creative activities in Bengal.

He frequently visited the studio of the folk painter Jamini Roy and, in collaboration with the young progressive poet Bishnu Dey, he wrote the first book on this legendary artist, Jamini Roy (1944).

This brought him into contact with leading figures in Indian art history: Dr Stella Kramrisch, the doyenne of Indian art history, Professor Nihar Ranjan Ray, of Calcutta University, and Professor Shahid Surawardy. Irwin was deeply impressed by the 2nd-century BC sculptures of Barhut and some Asokan relics which he saw in the Calcutta museum.

He toured the alleged birthplace of Buddha in Lumini, below Nepal, where he admired the inscribed Asokan pillars, put up by the Maharaja Asoka, a Buddhist convert. Subsequent visits to Sarnath, in Uttar Pradesh, to see the domed shrine of the Stupa of the Buddha, put up on the site where Gautama delivered his first sermon, made such a great impression upon Irwin that he later undertook research in stupa architecture. The vision of the classic Sarnath image of Buddha was another image which made him turn, again and again, to the mastery of sculptural form achieved in the first six centuries AD in India.

Like E.B. Havell and Ananda Coomaraswamy, who had penetrated into the deeper foundations of Indian craft culture, Irwin became absorbed, especially through the craft of Bengali weavers, in the exquisite colours of Indian textiles. Before he returned to Britain in 1945, Irwin had taken down many research notes which were to be worked upon during leisure hours after his arduous duties as Assistant Keeper from 1946 in the Indian Section of the Victoria and Albert Museum. These researches later resulted in two exquisite books, Kashmir Shawls (1955) and Origins of Chintz (1970).

As a pioneer in the area of textiles research, Irwin was invited by the organisers of the Calico Museum in Ahmadabad, Gautam and Gira Sarabhai, to help to catalogue the finest collection of Indian textiles. This connection brought him to India several times and he edited the books Indian Painted and Printed Fabrics (1971) and Indian Embroideries (1973). These are precious records of the unexcelled weavers' and dyers' crafts in India.

Apart from Irwin's duties in the V&A, in 1947-48 he organised the Royal Academy's "Winter Exhibition of the Arts of India and Pakistan" and wrote the introduction to the catalogue, which greatly extended the appreciation of Indian heritage.

Irwin, unlike many scholars based in the library or museum, devoted most of his time after retirement to lecturing, in Britain, India and the United States, holding question-and-answer sessions, to rapt audiences.

The affability of John Irwin's temperament and his capacity for communicating warmth built up many friendships between him and Indians; in the new cultural life friendships could be realised between Indian and Englishman not achieved in the earlier period of E.M. Forster and A Passage to India. John Conran Irwin, museum curator: born Madras 5 August 1917; Private Secretary to the Governor of Bengal 1942-45; Assistant Keeper, Indian Section, Victoria and Albert Museum 1945-59, Keeper 1959-78 (with responsibility for Oriental Department 1970-78); married 1947 Helen Scott (nee Fletcher; three sons); died 23 January 1997.