Obituary: Professor Hugo Buchthal

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Under a warm Athenian night sky, illuminated by lights suspended in the pistachio trees of the garden of the Byzantine Museum, stood the silver-haired and slightly stooping figure of Hugo Buchthal. Not far off stood the more upright but equally silver-haired figure of Kurt Weitzmann. The occasion was the Fifteenth International Byzantine Congress in 1975.

Professors Buchthal and Weitzmann, both by that date retired, had been figures of legendary authority in the history of Early Christian, Byzantine and medieval art since the 1930s. Around each stood a posse of former students, mainly Americans, from among whose ranks the great men gazed out benevolently like proud godfathers. For an impressionable graduate student it was an unforgettable first encounter.

Both scholars continued to research and publish into old age. Kurt Weitzmann died at Princeton in 1993 at the age of 89. And with the recent death of Hugo Buchthal at his home in London at the age of 87 a heroic age in the history of art has ended.

Buchthal was closely associated throughout his long career with only two institutions: the Warburg Library and Institute, first in Hamburg, and then from 1934 in London; and the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, where he taught from 1965 to 1975 (latterly as Ailsa Mellon Bruce Professor).

He was born into a well-to-do Berlin family in 1909, Jewish by origin (and by Nazi race laws) but fully assimilated. He spoke little about his family, but was interested to discover in the 1980s that his parents' house had survived the war, and become the home of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. He studied for his doctorate at the University of Hamburg, where he fell under the spell of two of the most mesmerising and powerful minds of our century: Erwin Panofsky, then professor of art history in the university, and Fritz Saxl, head of what was at that time the private Warburg Library.

Everything changed in 1933 as the Nazis began to purge universities, the professions and public offices of Jews. Panofsky had taken up a visiting professorship in New York, but returned briefly to Hamburg in that summer to examine his students orally and by dissertation for their doctorates. Buchthal had just two weeks to prepare the text of his thesis on the Paris Psalter. Subsequently he was able to revise and expand this work, which appeared in 1938 in the "Studies of the Warburg Institute" series. It remains a fundamental point of reference for the understanding of Byzantine art.

Saxl foresaw some at least of the disaster that the Nazis promised for scholarship in Germany. With the goodwill and generosity of Samuel Courtauld (principal benefactor of the Courtauld Institute) and others, the Warburg Library was shipped to London in 1933. Round it duly gathered a galaxy of refugee and British intellectuals. The Warburg Library is one of the great intellectual achievements in the humanities, and Buchthal did much, both as librarian for most of the 1940s, and as scholar, to keep it responsive to the needs of research.

Buchthal published numerous fundamental articles (some reprinted in a volume of selected studies in 1983) and books, primarily on illuminated manuscripts, but never for a wide public. His single greatest scholarly achievement is unquestionably the volume Miniature Painting in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (1957). Starting out from the Psalter in the British Library that he identified as made for Queen Melisende of Jerusalem (died 1143), he assembled a series of illuminated manuscripts which he argued were made in the Crusader Kingdom in the 12th and 13th centuries.

As a demonstration of the power of visual analysis, combined with effective use of liturgical, palaeographical and all other manner of historical analyses, the book remains a model of its type. (In it he received notable assistance from Francis Wormald, then Director of the Institute of Historical Research in London, of whom he always spoke with particular warmth.) The book's arguments were triumphantly vindicated when a few years later Kurt Weitzmann, in his work on the icons at St Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai, found a large number of "crusader" panels which fitted neatly into the schema Buchthal had proposed.

Buchthal's publications are remarkable not only for their originality, but for the extraordinary clarity and concision with which they are argued. All the most important are in English, which he spoke with a slight Germanic lilt, and which he took infinite pains to write elegantly. He did his own typing, redrafting with the help of scissors and sticky tape, and further editing in a small but clear and regular script. He worked whenever possible directly from the sources, usually the visual sources, examining manuscripts systematically in libraries throughout Europe and the Near East. He had an extraordinarily acute memory and could call to mind images in manuscripts he had seen 40 years before. The broad empirical foundation of his work has helped to ensure its continuing relevance.

While at the Warburg in London, Buchthal lectured regularly at the Courtauld Institute, and also supervised a few distinguished doctoral students, the first of whom, Professor Michael Kauffmann, was later to become Director of the Courtauld. His relationship with teaching and supervision changed radically, however, when he went to New York in 1965. There he found himself lionised (not to say hounded on occasions) by able and ambitious students who wished to study with him. Established scholars, eager for his advice, also sought him out. His warm response to this enthusiasm endeared him to them to an extraordinary degree. So many senior posts in medieval and Byzantine art history in US universities are now occupied by his former students, or those who took him as their mentor, that it is hard to believe he was in New York for only 10 years.

On returning to London in 1975 he and his devoted wife Maltschi (Amalia, who survived him by only a week) moved into their small terraced house in Highgate, where they lived simply, surrounded by few possessions. They shared a profound enthusiasm for music, and in part through Maltschi's brother, Rudolf Serkin, enjoyed privileged access to many great musicians.

Buchthal continued to work with full vigour into his early eighties. His later publications he would describe, with a twinkle, as ``senilia''. But he did eventually cease publishing, anxious perhaps to ensure that all his work would pass the strictest scrutiny. He remained active, however, receiving publications sent in homage from around the world, and corresponding and conversing on art-historical topics. It was typical that he always wanted to know what people were working on, and when visiting the Warburg would go first to the shelves of new publications.

In the house in Highgate is a portrait of Hugo Buchthal aged about 10. He confronts the painter and the viewer with an implacably piercing gaze. There is nothing soft or childish about the expression. It is unmistakably Buchthal. In his retirement, when I knew him, he could be charming and anecdotal. But I do not suppose that anyone meeting him doubted for a moment that for him the world of scholarship and intellectual endeavour fully merited a lifetime of intense work.

The scholars who fled from Nazi persecution were profoundly grateful to their hosts. They sought by their scholarship to repay the welcome they had received, and in the process transformed the world of British academe. We have all been beneficiaries. They were like a living yet mythic part of that classical tradition many of them studied: human certainly, but somehow heroic and superhuman as well. To know such people was a privilege as well as an education.

John Lowden

Hugo Buchthal, art historian: born Berlin 11 August 1909; Librarian, Warburg Institute 1941-49; Lecturer in History of Art, London University 1944-49, Reader 1949-60, Professor of the History of Byzantine Art 1960- 65; FBA 1959; Professor of Fine Arts, New York University Institute of Fine Arts 1965-70, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Professor 1970-75 (Emeritus); married 1940 Amalia Serkin (died 1996; one daughter); died London 10 November 1996.