ALASTAIR SMART combined a twinkle in the eye, a somewhat hesitant manner and a wry sense of humour with strong elements of stubbornness and quick temper to make him a lively and challenging companion and colleague. A broadly based art historian of the old school, who published books on subjects as far apart as Giotto, John Constable and above all Allan Ramsay, Smart was an inspiring teacher, a superb lecturer and a gifted organiser of exhibitions, who used all these qualities to the full as founding Head of the Department of Fine Art at Nottingham University, where he took up office in 1956, became Professor in 1963, and retired as Emeritus Professor in 1982.
Born in 1922, the son of the John Couch Adams Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge, Alastair Smart's education was catholic and varied. After taking a war Honours degree in English at Glasgow University and service in the Army, from which he was invalided, he qualified for Anglican orders at Edinburgh Theological College, but was not ordained. There followed three years at the Edinburgh School of Art under Sir William Gillies, and then studies in the history of art at Columbia University and the Institute of Fine Arts, New York. His first art historical appointment was at the University College of Hull.
The central feature of Alastair Smart's career and work as an art historian was his involvement with the art of the great 18th-century Scottish portrait painter Allan Ramsay. The beautiful exhibition now on view in London at the National Portrait Gallery (until 17 January), and previously shown in Edinburgh, was selected and catalogued by Smart, whose new biography of the artist was published by Yale to coincide with the exhibition. Next year the same press will publish the eagerly awaited two-volume catalogue raisonne of Ramsay's portraits, thus bringing to a triumphant conclusion over 40 years of patient and penetrating research. That work began as long ago as 1949 when Smart contributed to the catalogue of the Ramsay Exhibition at the Edinburgh Festival. His acclaimed The Life and Art of Allan Ramsay was published in 1952, and has remained the standard work on the artist until superseded this year.
There were times, especially during Smart's periods of ill-health, when many doubted whether he would ever bring his work on Ramsay to a close. The doubters were not encouraged to change their opinions when the Ramsay expert launched into quite different fields. The Assisi Problem and the Art of Giotto was published in 1971 (re-issued in 1983), Constable and his Country, written with Col Attfield Brooks, in 1976, and The Dawn of Italian Painting, 1250-1400, in 1978. In addition, throughout his years at Nottingham Smart was closely concerned with the extensive programme of exhibitions held in the gallery which formed a focal element of his department.
However, in his final years, which he was able to spend happily re-settled in Edinburgh, Smart was encouraged to concentrate on Allan Ramsay, with remarkable and memorable results. The cosmopolitan and elegant Scottish portrait painter has been re-established as one of the great 18th-century artists, and the remarkable Scottish scholar who has been responsible for this confirmed his position as one of the outstanding British art historians of the post-war era.Reuse content