Obituary: Martin Holmes

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Martin Holmes was one of the great servants of the London Museum, where he worked from 1932 until he retired in 1965, with an interruption for service in the Second World War.

He was chosen by Mortimer Wheeler as a temporary shorthand typist in 1932. From being Wheeler's secretary, he became an assistant keeper when the London Museum was still housed in Lancaster (formerly Stafford) House, on the edge of St James's Park, the lease of which had been the gift of Sir William Lever, first Viscount Leverhulme. That lease expired in 1940. Holmes never ceased to deplore the refusal of the Foreign Office, who were allowed to use the house for entertaining, to relinquish its hold which he considered to be illegal. He also thought it contrary to the wishes of Lord Leverhulme.

Holmes's curatorial responsibilities were as numerous as they were varied. Robes of state, arms and armour, bellarmines, the topography of Elizabethan and Stuart London, "all commanded his interest and extraordinary knowledge, which he constantly purveyed to wondering colleagues without ever a hint of superiority and with an endearing blend of enthusiastic delight and sometimes Rabelaisian wit," his former colleague Francis Sheppard recalls in The Treasury of London's Past (1991). "A very considerable scholar indeed," Sheppard writes, "he was one who never used the museum to further his own career."

"Much too kind to me," demurred Holmes, but it was no exaggeration. He was the anchorman, always at hand, adjutant to Wheeler's commanding officer. He had a deep and lasting interest in Shakespeare and the Elizabethan theatre. He was entrusted with enlarging the museum's theatrical collection and with the exhibition to mark the centenary of Sir Henry Irving in 1938.

Aware of the threat of war, Wheeler and Holmes had laid their plans for the evacuation of the collections. The work fell to Holmes and to Arthur Trotman, appointed as a "boy learner" aged 14 in 1936. Within two weeks of the declaration of war on 3 September 1939, all had been completed.

With the same foresight, Holmes had enlisted, as a private, in his local territorial unit, Princess Louise's Kensington Regiment. He ended the war as a major and worked in the personnel department of the Intelligence Corps, to which the brilliant young actor Stephen Haggard, author of I'll Go To Bed at Noon (1944), was attached in Cairo. Haggard's death on 25 February 1943 has been widely held to have been suicide. From the post- mortem report, Holmes remained convinced that Haggard had been assassinated.

Returning to the London Museum, then temporarily housed in Kensington Palace, Holmes published, with Major-General H.D.W. Sitwell, The English Regalia (1953): "I always said that he was the principal authority on the jewels and he said I was." When told of the new display in the Tower of London in 1994, Holmes observed, "As a former museum official I am always keen on methods of display and I have heard that the new setting is excellent."

From the start, Queen Mary had encouraged the London Museum. Through her informal visits Holmes had become, in Sheppard's words, "an expert in the niceties of courtly conduct" and later enjoyed her "personal confidence and esteem". The first Lord Esher recorded an early visit of Queen Mary to Kensington Palace, six years after her marriage to the future King George V, in May 1899. He considered that "her exceptional memory and intelligence" would make her "a woman of much importance one day". Fifty- three years later Queen Mary was to take her granddaughter Queen Elizabeth II to look at the royal robes in anticipation of her Coronation. As Holmes put it concisely, "She doesn't suppose, she knows." Queen Mary repaid his compliment. She bequeathed him a Sevres chestnut basket.

In addition to his deep knowledge of Shakespeare, once identifying as being from Timon of Athens a quotation which had defeated two Oxford dons, Holmes was also a playwright. He proudly recalled the occasion when what he had written had caused a tear to drop from Queen Mary's eye, with the lines from the garden scene in Richard II:

Here did she fall a tear; here in this


I'll set a bank of rue, sour herb of


Holmes was the first to recognise, when it appeared on the art market, that the subject of the copper engraving, the work of Franciscus Hogenberg, on the back of the oil painting The Tower of Babel by Marten van Valckenborg, was of Moorfields in London. The copperplate was acquired by the London Museum in 1962 for pounds 1,250, and from it resulted the exhibitions "Moorfields in 1559" and "Elizabethan Maps of London". After Holmes's retirement in 1965, the London Museum united with the Guildhall Museum to become the Museum of London in new quarters in the Barbican, opened in 1976.

Martin Holmes settled in retirement into Castle Bank in Appleby, which had been his mother's family home since 1724. His devotion to Appleby was marked by his leading part in the campaign to retain the county name, Appleby-in- Westmorland, when his county was subsumed into "Cumbria". He was elected a borough councillor in October 1965, an office which he held for 25 years, serving also three times as Mayor of Appleby (in 1975, 1983 and 1984). The town's motto, "Retain your loyalty, preserve your rights", might have been his. He was revered locally, advising and warning, but he didn't believe in "backseat driving".

Surrounded by his arms and armour, and his books, in which he was adept at laying his hands on references and information, he arranged an excellent exhibition in Appleby of his father's paintings and watercolours in 1980. Sir Charles Holmes had been Director of the National Portrait Gallery from 1909 to 1916, and of the National Gallery from 1916 to 1928. His mother, Florence Hill Rivington, was a violinist and composer. From Westminster, where he was a classical scholar, Holmes went up to Christ Church, Oxford, from 1924 to 1927.

Like his father, and maternal grandfather, he was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, having been elected in 1935. Never at a loss for an apposite quotation, over lunch at the Royal Oak in Bongate, that part of Appleby where his forebears had lived in the 16th century, he quoted Lovelace: "Fishes that tipple in the deep, / Know no such liberty". That quotation he capped with one from Abraham Cowley's Anacreontics. Even those who prided themselves on their knowledge of English literature were outclassed by Martin Holmes, but he never dwelt on his antecedents or showed any pride in his sense of place, real and natural though it was.

A bad fire damaged a wing of Castle Bank last March. Although his books and papers were destroyed, Holmes withstood the loss well. His housekeeper called him "a pragmatic man". Fittingly, for Appleby and the Eden valley, with their ancient links with the Clifford family, Holmes published a sympathetic and valuable study, Proud Northern Lady: Lady Anne Clifford 1590-1676 (1975). The motto from Cymbeline which he chose for the last chapter might be his own epitaph:

Thou thy worldly task has done:

Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages.

Martin Jasper Rivington Holmes, museum curator and antiquary: born London 12 May 1905; died Appleby-in-Westmorland 4 January 1997.