Obituary: Mary Chamot

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The Independent Online
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)