C. R. DODWELL was universally recognised as one of the leading historians of medieval art with a galaxy of publications, covering the period 800-1200, to his name.
With a break of three years' war service in the Navy, Reg Dodwell was educated as a historian at Gonville and Caius Colllege, Cambridge (MA, PhD), and it remained his strength, when he took up art history, that he brought to his new subject a familiarity with medieval written sources which was unrivalled among his peers.
He began his career as Librarian of Lambeth Palace Library, one that is rich in illuminated manuscripts which had become his field. In 1958 he became a Lecturer and Librarian at Trinity College, Cambridge. These were periods of preparation for the professorship in History of Art at Manchester University which he obtained in 1966 and which he was to hold with great distinction for the next 23 years. It was a new Chair, endowed a few years previously by Margaret and Dorothy Pilkington, scions of the glass-manufacturing family, who had fought for the visual arts in Manchester in a variety of contexts since the 1930s.
Art history was still a relatively new subject in English universities in the 1960s and it was Dodwell's achievement to build up the Manchester department until it became, together with that at the University of East Anglia, the largest in the country after the Courtauld Institute. The post also entailed the directorship of the Whitworth Art Gallery which had been incorporated in the university and which flourished under Dodwell and its keeper, Francis Hawcroft. When budgetary cuts were imposed from 1981, Dodwell fought hard to preserve the department.
A considerable part of the success of the Manchester department was due to Dodwell's own international reputation as a scholar. His first book, The Canterbury School of Illumination 1066-1200 (1954), was the first important publication on English medieval art since the Second World War and it set a high standard, combining the English tradition of manuscript studies pioneered by MR James with the more art-historical approach, concentrating on the analysis of style and iconography, imported from German scholarship. The book brought to public notice for the first time one of the outstanding achievements of English art, contained in manuscripts produced in the monasteries of Canterbury and including highly inventive decorated initials as well as the full-scale illustrations of the great mid-12th- century Bibles now at Lambeth Palace and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
Equally, his treatment of the figured initials of the St Albans Psalter (1960), which analysed the relationship of biblical text, commentary and image, has remained authoritative and unchallenged. Meanwhile, he extended his expertise to other fields: when he translated and edited the 12th-century technical treatise On Divers Arts (1961) in which the monk Theophilus explains the manufacture of paintings, stained glass and metalwork.
In his book Anglo-Saxon Art: a new perspective (1982), Dodwell used his familiarity with written sources - chronicles, treatises, poems and wills - to paint a picture of the extraordinary wealth of the church and aristocracy of Anglo-Saxon England. William of Poitiers, biographer of William the Conqueror, likened the riches of England to the gold treasury of Arabia, and Dodwell's book describes in detail silver and gold church plate and the wealth of jewellery worn by Anglo-Saxon noble ladies, almost all plundered by the rapacious
Very little remains of this wealth of material and it may be that Dodwell exaggerated the validity of some of his evidence, but there can be no doubting the originality and insight of his book.
Dodwell's last publication, completed in the face of ill-health, was a completely new version of his volume in the Pelican History of Art, first published in 1971, Pictorial Arts of the West 800-1200 (1990). It is a triumph of a book, managing the almost impossible task of being both eminently readable and useful and illuminating for specialists, students and general readers alike.