Obituary: Mary Chamot

Mary Chamot, art historian and museum curator: born Strelna, Russia 8 November 1899; died Wadhurst, East Sussex 10 May 1993.

MARY CHAMOT belonged to that formidable pre-war generation of art historians and museum curators, of whom her friend and near contemporary Mary Woodall (sometime Director of Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery) was an outstanding example. Although they had much in common both in character and drive, their backgrounds could not have been more diverse. Mary Woodall came from the patrician mercantile dynasties of Birmingham, whereas Mary Chamot belonged to that now vanished Anglo-Russian colony of merchants and entrepreneurs who had settled in St Petersburg by the 1870s.

Mary Chamot's English-born father, Alfred Edward Chamot, was of French descent, her mother, Elisabeth (nee Grooten), of Dutch and German origins. He was an administrator of the Imperial Palace Gardens at Strelna, where Mary, his only child, grew up. It was a cosmopolitan household, and Mary learnt to speak English, French, Russian and German with enviable fluency, a not uncommon accomplishment for one of her milieu. She was educated privately, and began her fine art studies at Dimitry Nikolaivitch Kardowski's painting class at St Petersburg Academy (probably in 1915-16).

After the outbreak of the Revolution, Mary accompanied her parents to England, via Finland and Norway, in 1918, settling with relations in Yorkshire before coming to London. She continued her studies at the Slade School, gaining her Fine Art Diploma in 1922. Although talented as an artist, she earned her living as an occasional relief lecturer at the National Gallery (1922-24) and at the V & A Museum (1924-39), and as an Extension (extra-mural) lecturer for London University.

Her first book, English Medieval Enamels (1930), was a popular introduction to the subject: it was followed by Modern Painting in England (1937), and Painting in England from Hogarth to Whistler (1939); she also translated books and organised exhibitions. She wrote in an informed, pleasant and readily accessible style, qualities found in her articles and reviews for Apollo and Country Life; and her fluency and gift for popularising, in the best sense, served her well in preparing the brief guides to the Tate Gallery collections in the 1950s.

She served with the Allied Control Commission in Vienna for four years from 1945, where her linguistic skills were fully utilised, until in 1949 she was appointed Assistant Keeper (First Class) at the Tate Gallery. Here, she compiled the British School: a concise catalogue (1953) and, with Martin Butlin and myself, the two-volume Modern British School Catalogue (1964). She collaborated with Sir John Rothenstein on The Tate Gallery (1951), and produced the Early Works of JMW Turner (1965), an introductory essay to an artist whose work she particularly admired and which she had begun to catalogue before her retirement in 1965.

Her early days at the Slade had brought her a wide circle of artist friends and collectors, notably Stanley and Gilbert Spencer, the Carlines, Paul (Lord) Methuen, Edward Bawden and Jim Ede, who would visit her at the Tate. As her much more junior colleague, I was privileged to share an office with her for almost a decade, yet although gregarious, in many ways she was a very private person; it was a standing joke, however, that Mary had cousins and relations in every European city of note, not to mention North America. She, and 'Lulette' Gerebzov (with whom she shared a house in Kensington for many years), threw marvellously Russian parties.

She never lost her affection for Russia; in 1935 she organised an exhibition of Russian art, in 1963 she published Russian Painting and Sculpture, and she wrote the first monograph on her friend Natalie Goncharova, one of the leading pre-Revolution avant- garde artists and a famous stage designer, which appeared first in Paris (1972) and in an English edition in 1979. She had earlier contributed an essay to the Arts Council's Larionov and Goncharova retrospective exhibition in 1961.

If not greatly blessed with external beauty, Mary Chamot had grace of character and an indomitable spirit. She could be exceedingly kind and generous, yet deliciously direct in manner. Occasionally, her cutting wit could be deployed to devastating effect, not least when dealing with Soviet bureaucrats on the select tour parties to Russia she led with great verve and energy for some years after her retirement, until increasing deafness made it impossible for her to continue. She was a much-loved colleague and friend.

(Photograph omitted)

ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

COO / Chief Operating Officer

£80 - 100k + Bonus: Guru Careers: A COO / Chief Operating Officer is needed to...

HR Manager - Kent - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager / Training Manager (L&D /...

HR Manager - Edgware, London - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - Edgware, Lon...

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments