Obituary: Sir Francis Watson

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Francis John Bagott Watson, art historian and museum director, born 24 August 1907, Registrar Courtauld Institute of Art 1934-38, Assistant Keeper (later Deputy Director) Wallace Collection 1938-63, Director 1963-74, Deputy Surveyor of the King's / the Queen's Works of Art 1947-63, Surveyor 1963-72 (Adviser for Works of Art 1972-92), MVO 1959, CVO 1965, FBA 1969, Slade Professor of Fine Art 1969-70, KCVO 1973, books include Canaletto 1949, Wallace Collection: catalogue of furniture 1956, Louis XVI Furniture 1959, The Wrightsman Collection Catalogue volumes 1-5 1966-70, married 1941 Mary ('Jane') Strong (died 1969; one adopted son), died 27 September 1992.

IN MY old copy of Who's Who Sir Francis Watson, the former Director of the Wallace Collection and Surveyor of the Queen's Works of Art, lists as his only hobby Sinology. He could have added travel, gossip, cooking, and ironing, at which he was as accomplished as a laundry-maid. Sinology can be accounted for by the fact that he and his wife Jane (nee Strong) befriended a brilliant young Chinaman, Cheng, whom they assisted to pursue his studies in jurisprudence at Cambridge.

Jane Watson was an eccentric and endearing character. She shared Francis's love of works of art but in Groom Place where they lived, off Belgrave Square, objects were eclipsed by the cats (87 of them) which swarmed everywhere, turning the house into a veritable cat-sty. She even put her husband's career at risk by persuading him to smuggle a doped cat under his overcoat through the customs at Dover. Jane was given to making outrageous remarks, often at the expense of Francis, who seemed to relish them and to enjoy nothing more than hearing himself ridiculed.

After her death in 1969, Francis adopted Cheng, who has now become one of the leading barristers in Hong Kong. Never was patronage and kindness so richly rewarded, for when Francis returned to England from all the distinguished posts he had held in America, Cheng set him up as a country squire at Corton, in Wiltshire.

In August 1987, on the only occasion that I visited Francis in the country, I could have mistaken West Farm House for a Victorian vicarage. But what would a vicar have thought of the inside of the house? The sitting-room, which was conventionally furnished, contained a rich array of treasures accumulated during a lifetime. Francis was very proud of the bargains he had made and fond of quoting prices. Pointing to some beautiful Louis XV bronze, he would observe that he had bought it for pounds 2 in the Portobello Road. Not to be outdone, I boasted on some occasion that I had bought that wonderful etching The Genius of Castiglione for 10 guineas. 'Really, Brinsley, how extravagant you are,' he observed, 'I bought the same print in much better condition than yours for 10 shillings.'

The room across the hall had a museum-like atmosphere as it contained glass cases filled with Cheng's collection of oriental paintings and works of art. But the greatest surprise was a room at the top of the house which had been turned into a Buddhist temple with lacquered walls, an altar, prayer mats, and regalia of all sorts which had been blessed by the Dalai Lama.

On 24 August 1987, Francis celebrated his 80th birthday. In my letter of congratulation I recalled that we had known each other for over half a century, and I wrote that of all my friends 'you're the best preserved and as lively, gay, frivolous and gossipy as when I first met you'. I hoped that Cheng would not asphyxiate him with the fumes of too many joss-sticks or poison him by making him eat too many sharks' skins (sic).

Francis answered my letter on the 26th.

It is a pity you and Joanna weren't able to come to my octogenarian birthday on Sunday. You would have had, with 42 other guests, a perfectly sumptuous repast cooked by a chef and his assistant specially imported fron London (costing as Cheng told me - and he paid - pounds 16 a head without drink which was flowing like the fountains at Versailles). Also, which would probably have given you more amusement if not more pleasure, you'd have seen me sitting between a Duchess and a Marchioness . . . I should like to have heard Jane's comments as she leaned over the (non-alcoholic) Bar of Heaven to observe the scene.

From what I have written it might be thought that Francis, having become an octogenarian, had settled down to a sedentary existence. As the two following postcards to me, written in 1989, show, this was far from being the case, for he was constantly on the wing. In the first postcard, illustrating the terrifying and menacingly grotesque stone head above the entrance to the Elephant Caves at Bali, a head which reminded him of the monstrous one in the Orsini park at Bomarzo near Caprarola in Italy where you can enter a chamber through what is locally known as 'the mouth of hell', he writes that he has been more on the move than ever before, visiting Washington, New York, Los Angeles, Hawaii and Hong Kong for Cheng's induction as a QC, and he is about to travel south of the Equator with a young Japanese friend to Java (second visit) to see the Komodo Dragons, then to Macao and Taiwan, and thence to India. 'Not bad for 82,' he writes.

The next postcard is headed Bombay, 3 May 1989.

How can you enjoy art at 117 degrees? That was the temperature at the Ellora caves three days ago. And it was much the same at Ajanta where I had to be carried, shoulder high on a sort of primitive sedan chair, by four stalwart Hindus, up 973 almost vertical steps to see the greatest master of Indian wall-painting. My syce (attendant), a sweet little Tibetan refugee (from Woking]) who follows me on foot, tells me it will be 140 degrees in a fortnight's time. I really think Cheng should have warned me. I was only 75 when I crossed the Gobi desert to see Dun Huang. Now I'm 82. In any case India lives up to all one's worst expectations.

The last and very long letter from Francis that I received was written from the National Gallery at Washington and is dated 17 March this year. He says that he has returned to Washington for the first time in six years with the intention of completing the catalogue of the Widener French furniture which he had begun nearly a decade ago. He hoped to complete it by the beginning of May. 'Surprisingly,' he wrote, 'I find I quite enjoy returning to regular and fairly intensive intellectual work.' Although he was being cosseted by his young American friends he felt that at 85 he

shouldn't be allowed out, much less to travel abroad, without a nanny to look after me . . . My chief danger I think is being run down by the traffic here which is very ruthless. The other day I caught my toe in a projecting manhole in Independence Avenue and was only just hauled to my feet by three little Japanese girls as a host of buses travelling at 60mph was bearing down on my prostrate body.

He wrote with enthusiasm about the Guercino exhibition where he met his old and greatly respected friend Denis Mahon, who had organised it. He referred with great pleasure and pride to Cheng's success as a barrister. He ended his letter, 'Well, Brinsley, I musn't bore you with all my life and times as old men (but curiously not old women) are apt to do.' If there is one thing that Francis was incapable of doing, it was boring anybody, as he was one of the most lively, entertaining, and ever-youthful men that I have ever met.

Francis Watson was born in 1907. He was educated at Shrewsbury School and St John's College, Cambridge, where he took his degree in mathematics. It was through visiting the Fitzwilliam Museum that his interest in art was first kindled. In 1934 he obtained the post of Registrar at the recently founded Courtauld Institute in Portman Square. This brought him into touch with many distinguished scholars whose lectures he attended. Foremost amongst those to whom Watson always acknowledged a great debt for guiding his early art-historical studies and for tutoring him when he first took to writing about art was that crotchety old scholar, CF Bell, Keeper of Fine Art at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Watson repaid his debt by writing a memoir of Bell for the Walpole Society.

In 1938 James Mann, the Deputy Director of the Courtauld, was appointed Director of the Wallace Collection and Watson followed him there, where he was to remain for 37 years, succeeding Mann as Director in 1963. On becoming a junior member of the staff in 1938, Watson was instructed by Mann to catalogue the furniture. This formidable task was interrupted by the war, when Watson was seconded to the Admiralty until 1945. His catalogue, which was not published until 1956, was universally acclaimed and led to his being considered the greatest authority in this country on French furniture.

The catalogue contains not only furniture but clocks, caskets, candelabra, candlesticks, inkstands, mirrors, ewers, pot-pourri vases, fire-dogs, in fact almost everything except tapestries, for there are none in the Wallace Collection, relating to the decorative arts. The catalogue represents an amazing feat of scholarly research and erudition; for instance his account of the roll-top desk known as the 'Bureau du Roi Stanislas' occupies no less than eight closely printed pages. In his lengthy introduction Watson traces in great detail not only the formation of the Wallace Collection but also the development and changes in taste in French furniture from the 15th to the 19th century.

This was the first catalogue of its kind and in its comprehensiveness might be compared with the catalogues of different schools inaugurated by Martin Davies at the National Gallery.

As the result of the success of his catalogue Watson was invited the year after its publication to lecture in the United States. This was the first of many visits. Later visits were made at the invitation of Mr and Mrs Charles Wrightsman, whose collection (now in the Metropolitan Museum) he catalogued in five volumes.

It must have been on the advice of James Mann, the Surveyor of the King's Works of Art, that Francis Watson was appointed his deputy in 1947, and just as he had succeeded Mann as Director of the Wallace Collection in 1963, so in the same year he also succeeded him as Surveyor of the Queen's, Works of Art. It would be difficult to think of a more appropriate appointment for, as the Prince Regent and the third Marquess of Hertford were great friends, shared the same tastes, and were able to buy some of the wonderful furniture, bronzes and works of art that came on to the market as the result of the French Revolution, Watson was better qualified than anyone else to appreciate and look after them, which he did by setting up a restoration workshop in Marlborough House.

In addition to the official posts that he held, Sir Francis, as he had become in 1973, was in constant demand to serve on other bodies connected with the arts and art history. In 1964 he became the first Chairman of the Furniture History Society. Sir Nicholas Goodison recalls what an excellent chairman Watson made and the great encouragement he gave to young members of the society. In 1970 he became Chairman of the Walpole Society, to which in 1940 he had contributed an article on Thomas Patch (1725-1782) with a catalogue of his known works.

It would be a grave omission to conclude this account without some mention of Francis Watson's love of paintings and drawings, and in particular those by Venetian artists. In 1951 he organised at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, of which he was a trustee for 25 years, an enchanting exhibition, Eighteenth-Century Venice, to which be bullied me into lending 20 drawings. He wrote a book on Canaletto (1949, revised edition 1954). And in 1966 he delivered the Fred Cook Memorial Lecture, on The Guardi Family of Painters. In the paintings of Francesco Guardi, Francis must have found some affinity for they contain so much of the sparkle and brilliance that was to be found in his own character.

(Photograph omitted)