Obituary: Professor Charles Mitchell

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Charles Mitchell, art historian; born London 25 January 1912; lecturer, Warburg Institute 1945-60; Professor of History of Art, Bryn Mawr College 1960-75 (Emeritus), Andrew Mellon Professor in the Humanities 1975-80; Edith Cleaves Barry Visiting Professor of Art History and Criticism, Bowdoin College 1980-82; Clark Professor at Clarke Institute, Williams College 1982; Kress Professor at the Centre for Advanced Studies in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington 1984-85; married 1935 Prudence Yalden- Thomson (died 1940; one son), 1944 Jean Flower (one son); died Oxford 23 October 1995.

Charles Mitchell will be remembered for his contribution to the study of the revival of classical studies in Renaissance Italy and for creating an outstanding graduate school in Renaissance art history at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania. As chairman of its art-history department from 1963 to 1975 he introduced to the United States the traditions of the Warburg Institute at London University, where he had been a lecturer from 1945 to 1960.

At Bryn Mawr he was ably assisted by James Snyder and Charles Dempsey, and together they formed an impressive team. He had an unrivalled ability to inspire young people to engage in research, and was the midwife of a surprising number of important books and articles. Possessed of a frail physique, the result of his determined fight against physical disability, the after-effects of polio, he none the less moved in a sprightly fashion, especially in libraries. He had an unruly shock of tousled curly hair, perpetually descending spectacles and an ever-enquiring good-humour.

He was born the eldest son of an artist-accountant, Stanley Mitchell, from whom he inherited an infectious enthusiasm for the art of William Morris, his father having been a pupil of W.R. Lethaby. From Merchant Taylors' School he went to St John's College, Oxford, to read History. He later changed to read PPE, because he wanted to study philosophy. The relationship between art and philosophy was always to be one of his concerns, particularly Neoplatonism in the Italian Renaissance and how it informed the enigmatic imagery of one of the greatest Renaissance monuments, Alberti's Tempio Malatestiano at Rimini.

At Oxford he was a contemporary of John Pope-Hennessy, the future Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, in London; they were the "aesthetes" as opposed to the rugger hearties. As an undergraduate he asked Sir Karl Parker in the Ashmolean print-room if he could study art history. Though surprised at the idea of having a student, Parker consented. Under his guidance Mitchell wrote a BLitt thesis on Grunewald and the Isenheim Altarpiece, a thesis also unofficially supervised by Fritz Saxl at the newly arrived Warburg Institute, in London. This may have been the first thesis in art history at Oxford.

Charles Mitchell's first position was at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, from 1935 to 1939, where he acquired a knowledge of marine painting, and in later years when visiting collections he could attribute marine landscapes with unusual accuracy. He had a passion for Nelson and for Norfolk, where he had a small cottage at Burnham Overy, and one of his most remarkable articles was to be on Nelson, written for the festschrift for Rudolph Wittkower, a close colleague during his Warburg years. Even when in Naval Intelligence he claimed to have applied art-historical principles to the analysis of German uniforms.

While at Greenwich Mitchell was inspired by the Warburg Institute, and after the Second World War he joined their staff. It was in these early years of the institute that German art historians gave a new impulse to the study of English art history, which stimulated Mitchell's publications on Hogarth and 18th-century English history painting. In those years Saxl was his mentor, but he also found directions for future research in Aby Warburg's library and photographic collection.

One of his many students at the Warburg was Bernard Smith, later first professor in art history at the Power Institute, Sydney, whose pioneering book European Vision and the South Pacific (1960) was one of the many written as a thesis under Mitchell's supervision. Later at Bryn Mawr Mitchell supervised Smith's pupils including Margaret Manion and Virginia Spate, who were to give Australian art history an international distinction.

In his scholarly writings Charles Mitchell was concerned with the relationship between the revival of classical culture and art. He wrote a number of classic articles on such subjects as Giotto and Assisi, on the Tempio Malatestiano, and the most famous novel of the Renaissance, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499).

His principal books focused on the Quattrocento Renaissance antiquaries Cyriac of Ancona and Felice Feliciano, who recorded the physical remains of the ancient world in such a way that they inspired Renaissance artists like Mantegna and Alberti. Mitchell was, with Edward Bodner, responsible for the first serious editions of Cyriac's writings. Their edition of a Renaissance biography of Cyriac will be published next January.

Mitchell's varied interests are exemplified by his book- titles - Hogarth's Peregrination (1957), A Fifteenth-Century Italian Plutarch (1961), Pirro Ligorio's Roman Antiquities (with Erna Mandowsky, 1963), Cyriacus of Ancona's Journeys in the Propontis and the Northern Aegean, 1444-45 (with Edward Bodner, 1976), Lewis Carroll's Hunting of the Snark Illustrated by Henry Holiday (with M. Gardner and S.H. Goodacre, 1981).

His last years in Oxford were impaired by ill-health, when he was devotedly looked after by his wife Jean.