PETER CORBETT, Yates Professor of Classical Art and Archaeology at University College London from 1961 to 1982, and former President of the Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies, was one of the acutest critics of ancient Greek sculpture and painting of his generation, and one of the most influential.
The volume of Corbett's published work is small in comparison with his reputation, for he was a perfectionist who could never bear to let an article or a book leave his hands until he was quite satisfied with it. But he was no squirrel; on the contrary, he was vastly generous with his ideas and his hard-won knowledge, and most of his best work had its impact in conversation with colleagues and in lectures - a form of publication at which he was a master, and which, being provisional rather than definitive, did not offend his ideal of perfection.
Corbett was born in 1920. From Bedford School he won a scholarship to St John's College, Oxford. His firsts in Classical Mods and Greats straddled a wartime interlude, first in the Royal Artillery and then for four years in the freer medium of the air. He flew Mosquitoes and used to claim, with more modesty than truth, that the only time he was in danger was when he came within three inches of Rouen Cathedral. In fact the lonely concentration of the RAF pilot made a lasting impression on him, reinforced by his early post-war experience as Macmillan Student at the British School of Athens, when archaeological research had to be pursued in the crossfire of the Greek civil war. Beneath the banter Corbett was deeply serious, conscious always of the winged chariot and the need to use his time.
In 1949 Corbett was appointed Assistant Keeper in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum, then under the aegis of Bernard Ashmole, whom he was later to succeed (at one remove) at University College. He revered Ashmole, for his unmatched combination of precise scholarship, his artist's eye, and a limpidly clear and stylish gift of communication. It was a lively department: with Reynold Higgins and Donald Strong for colleagues, the intellectual sparks flew.
It was also a time when liveliness was needed, when the museum groaned under the weight of its heritage, stored away for the war and now to be brought back on exhibition in a more modern mode than before. The Elgin Marbles took pride of place; and the years of close observation involved in preparing them for the new Duveen Gallery gave Corbett the opportunity, and the inspiration, for his first book, his deceptively modest King Penguin The Sculpture of the Parthenon (1959). It was, a discerning reviewer wrote, 'almost faultless . . . at once lively and scrupulous'.
In those years also, Corbett undertook the exhibition and proper labelling of the vast study collection of Greek painted pots, shoulder to shoulder in huge cases upstairs. It was, he told the Director and Principal Librarian, who saw the display as less than trendy even then, a library of Greek mythology; and the frown vanished.
The other achievement of this period was the recomposition of the frieze of the temple of Apollo at Bassae, in Arcadia, which was displayed in a magnificently lit exhibition. This, and his efforts to have the frieze republished, proved to be Corbett's life's work. Not among the greatest of Greek art, a generation later than the Parthenon in date and carved by provincials, the frieze consists of separately composed blocks of random length and with almost no overlaps, representing the two hackneyed subjects of Greeks in combat with Amazons and with Centaurs, and found jumbled upon the ground. The challenge is akin to that of a jigsaw puzzle in three dimensions. More closely than anyone, Corbett had studied the material both in the museum and on site - the latter with his unrelated namesake GUS Corbett - and he was, besides, in total command of the reports and drawings of finders and excavators in the early 19th century.
His reconstruction may not be quite right, though it has withstood the determined assaults of younger scholars, even those fortified by the results of excavations made since Corbett's days in Greece. The republication of the frieze, with the detailed reasoning behind his arrangement of it, occupied Corbett's energies to the end of his life. But there were loose ends to be tied, and the work remains unpublished though virtually complete.
In 1961 Corbett left the museum for University College London. Bernard Ashmole, who held the Yates Chair from 1929 to 1948, for a decade in plurality with the British Museum Keepership, declared it the research scholar's ultimate sinecure. Corbett found that he loved to teach, and transformed the professor's role, taking a leading part in negotiations to start a new BA degree in Archaeology, hitherto regarded in London as a purely postgraduate preserve.
Characteristically, his syllabus was to take four years, not three, in effect combining a full Classics degree with a full course in Archaeology. To teach it, in those expansionist post- Robbins days, he was able to enlarge the staffing of the department from one to two. At the same time, he devoted long hours to postgraduate supervision, which he enjoyed. Corbett served both college and university as Dean of the Arts Faculty, and undertook much else which inevitably kept him from his research - and allowed others to pursue theirs. Convivial, an amusing conversationist and raconteur, he was always a popular figure in the Common Room; but he never lingered.
Corbett married twice. The death, from cancer, of his first wife, Bertha Yates, left him emotionally shattered, and with two young children. In 1962 he married Margery Martin, a distinguished Renaissance scholar, whose sense of a common enterprise restored his strength. Their riverside home in Barnes became a Mecca for archaeologists and art historians, who came to enjoy not only their hospitality but Corbett's encyclopaedic knowledge of fields far beyond the bounds of his own.
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