Obituary: Sir Karl Parker
Monday 27 July 1992
IN 1934 Karl Parker succeeded Kenneth Clark as Keeper of the Department of Fine Art in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and was Keeper of the whole of the museum from 1945 until his retirement in 1962.
The basis for Parker's great achievements as connoisseur, scholar and collector of Old Master drawings had already been well laid during his work in the British Museum in the Department of Prints and Drawings with AE Popham and Campbell Dodgson. Like his great friend Jim Byam Shaw, Parker had 'studied at most Continental centres'. He edited the quarterly Old Master Drawings from its inception in 1926. From the numerous articles signed with his initials he was widely known and honoured as 'KTP'. His first catalogue of the drawings in the Ashmolean Museum, The Northern Schools, was published in 1938, and was followed in 1956 by Volume Two, on The Italian Schools, including the group of drawings by Raphael and Michelangelo which had once been part of the outstanding collection of Sir Thomas Lawrence. In his succinct introductions he brought to notice two of the great benefactors to the university in the 19th century, the eccentric Francis Douce, and Chambers Hall who had an almost infallible eye for quality.
It was on these foundations that Parker set the coping stone, creating in the Print Room one of the finest collections of drawings in the world. To it he added over 400 Italian 16th-century drawings, as well as distinguished representative groups by Guercino, Canaletto, Guardi and Piranesi, and by Watteau, on whose work he was an authority, publishing the Catalogue Complet de son oeuvre dessinee with Jacques Mathey in 1957. To the catalogue of drawings in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, he contributed the volumes on Holbein (1945) and Canaletto (1948). Among his many superb additions to the museum was a scintillating landscape by Francesco Guardi which he picked up in the Map Shop in Oxford Street in 1938 for 30 shillings (a comparable sheet recently fetched pounds 400,000) and a popular series by Samuel Palmer, the six sepia drawings done at Shoreham in 1825, bought for under pounds 400 during the Second World War, while he valued highly a large drawing on blue paper by Francois Boucher which he discovered.
Despite his quip about 'faded English water-colours', Parker did not neglect the British School but anticipated the revival of the reputation of David Wilkie, and was responsible for it by the encouragement which he gave to his junior colleague John Woodward. He also accepted the complete etched work of Sir Frank Short, Francis Dodd saying that they would be 'the Old Masters of the future'. Similarly, in 1957 he worked with Bobby Bevan, the son of the painter Robert Polhill Bevan, to establish a representative collection of the Camden Town Group in Oxford.
For all these achievements, Parker did not escape criticism. Sir John Pope- Hennessy, in Learning to Look (1991), while recognising him as 'a great connoisseur of drawings', found that 'the museum suddenly shrank into a beautifully regulated print room'. The contrary was true. Pope- Hennessy also blamed Parker for not buying more paintings, rather than drawings, but that is to underestimate the strict financial constraints under which he had to make his acquisitions. It also does less than justice to Parker's role in extending the range of the collection, not least in the applied arts, building on the legacy of CDE Fortnum. Just before war broke out he accepted the Hill Collection of musical instruments, 'which gave rise to a lot of criticism, all that lovely music locked up in glass cases', and the Ward Collection of Dutch still-lives.
During the war, when the collections were in store at Chastleton House, a Jacobean house in the Cotswolds, he arranged lively exhibitions which brought in more visitors than in peacetime. When the collections were rehung, he embarked on a programme of sensitive restoration, employing first Sebastian Isepp, and later Pepi Deliss. He also undertook a programme of reframing, finding frames which were contemporary with the paintings, a policy in which he was far ahead of his time, so that when the German art historian Claus Grimm visited the Ashmolean while writing Alte Bilderrahmen ('Old picture frames') he praised the collection of frames as one of the best in a public gallery. Thus, by 1962, an American visitor was struck by the way in which the collection of paintings, while not in the class of those in the Fitzwilliam, was so skilfully displayed that it gave the impression of being of a far higher standard than the individual components. That was achieved with the help of his assistant and successor Ian Robertson.
It was after 1945 that the collection started to grow thanks to Parker's unremitting diplomacy and courtesy. It was said that the Farrer brothers, William and Gaspard, gave their collection of silver because they were so impressed by the high standards in the galleries and the well-polished wooden floors. Containing one of the finest groups of Paul de Lamerie, it was complemented by the collection of AT Carter in 1947, making the collection of silver in Oxford one of the best outside London. Further additions were J. Francis Mallett's collection of clocks and watches, and those most exquisite of 18th-century objets de vertu, the French gold and enamelled snuff-boxes given by the Hanbury and van den Berg families.
In 1950, against criticism in the Hebdomadal Council from the President of Magdalen College, Parker accepted what the Tate Gallery had turned down, the archive of the Pissarro family, which included hundreds of drawings by Camille, etchings, letters, and the woodblocks of Lucien. From tea- chests in the basement the collection has been handsomely housed and ordered with the aid of a grant from the Getty Foundation. Six years later, he accepted HR Marshall's collection of First Period Worcester Porcelain in the face of Maurice Bowra's question 'What does the university want with a roomful of crockery?' Like Clark, Parker had a liking for ceramics and owned a group of Capodimonte and Doccia porcelain.
To the amazement, even dismay, of his friends, he refused the offer of the directorship at the Fondazione Cini in Venice on retirement in 1962 because he would not expose his beloved Pekingeses to quarantine and went instead to live in Eastbourne. For seven years he was a trustee of the National Gallery, a term which he greatly enjoyed. He was a founder member and active Vice-President of the Friends of the Ashmolean. When the authority on Greek vases Sir John Beazley died, Parker praised his 'acuity, perspicacity and scholarship', qualities which he himself retained well into old age. He took pleasure in the acquisitions which continued to come into the museum, through the reputation he had built up and the legacy of goodwill he left: the small silverpoint of a woman in a wimple which he had spotted in a house in North Oxford and correctly identified as by Holbein; Picasso's etching Minotauromachie, one of the icons of the 20th century, and a magnificent painting of a cameo by Rubens which was acquired from the estate of his friend Christopher Norris. His services to the Ashmolean were recognised when he was made an Hon D Litt by Oxford University in 1972.
Lugubrious in manner, saturnine, even daunting, with heavy eyebrows, Parker did not disguise his shrewdness and penetration. To those who got to know him he had great charm, an engaging sense of humour, a fund of reminiscence and a first- rate memory. He kept his friendships in excellent repair, and inspired devotion and loyalty in all who worked for him, not least in his admirable women gallery attendants who were more efficient than men or television cameras.
Elias Ashmole's epitaph serves KTP as well: while the museum lives his contribution to it will never be forgotten.
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