Obituary: William Fagg

William Buller Fagg, ethnologist and historian of tribal art, born 28 April 1914, Assistant Keeper of Anthropology British Museum 1938-40, seconded to Industries and Manufactures Department Board of Trade 1940-45, Assistant Keeper of Anthropology British Museum 1945-55, Deputy Keeper 1955-69, Keeper Ethnography Department (from 1972 the Museum of Mankind) 1969-74, Consulting Fellow Museum of Primitive Art New York 1957-70, CMG 1967, Consultant in Tribal Art Christie's 1974-90, books include The Sculpture of Africa 1958, Afro-Portuguese Ivories 1959, Nigerian Images 1963, African Tribal Sculptures 1967, The Tribal Image: wooden figure sculpture of the world 1970, Eskimo Art in the British Museum 1972, Africa and the Renaissance 1988, died London 10 July 1992.

WILLIAM FAGG was the world authority on the sculpture of Africa. Through a very long series of publications, all of them written to the most exacting scholarly standards but free of jargon and thus accessible to everyone interested in the subject, he influenced scholars, students, collectors and dealers alike throughout the world.

Although he was a shy man and very slow of speech, 'Bill' Fagg formed warm friendships with anyone interested in African art, notably such artists as Sir Jacob Epstein, Josef Herman and Fred Uhlman, whose collections he catalogued and exhibited, and Leon Underwood, from whom he learnt a great deal about the technique of bronze-casting. He was always very generous in sharing his knowledge with others, a characteristic from which I have not been the only one to benefit, from student days onwards.

Educated at Dulwich College and Magdalene College, Cambridge (for which he rowed), he studied Classics, taking prizes for Latin hexameters and Latin epigrams, before going on to take a second degree in Archaeology and Anthropology in 1937. He then joined the Department of Ethnography at the British Museum, where he remained till his retirement in 1974, except for the the period when he was concerned with the wartime production of corduroy for the Board of Trade. From 1957 to 1970 he was also Consulting Fellow in African Art for the Museum of Primitive Art founded by Nelson D. Rockefeller in New York City (now absorbed into the Metropolitan Museum). After his retirement he became consultant in tribal art to the auctioneers Christie's, in London, until 1990.

At the British Museum Fagg was put to cataloguing collections from all over the world, but in 1945 he was given charge of those from Africa. The exhibition galleries had been destroyed in the War so he had to reorganise the displays once the building had been repaired. At that time all displays were regarded as permanent. He found an outlet for his talents by organising a series of exhibitions elsewhere, some of which travelled widely, both in Europe and in the United States.

His scholarship found expression in the accompanying catalogues and in a number of books that grew from them, as well as in articles in scholarly publications. In 1960, for example, he organised for the Arts Council an exhibition to mark Nigerian independence. It was shown in London, Manchester, Bristol, Munich and Basle. This led to his book Nigerian Images (1963: recently reprinted) which won him the Amaury Talbot Prize for African Anthropology. In 1966 he organised an exhibition of Nigerian art for the First World Congress of Black Arts and Cultures in Dakar, where his writings gained him the Grand Prize for the best work on African art. His work for this exhibition led to the award of the CMG in 1967.

In 1969 he was responsible for the transfer of his department to Burlington Gardens, where it became the Museum of Mankind. Here he was able to implement his ideal of having changing exhibitions, beginning with a magnificent one showing the British Museum's collection of Benin art, set in a partial reconstruction of the Benin Palace. This collection was one of the main focuses of his research. His more general contribution lay in the identification of styles, initially of 'tribes', but subsequently of villages, workshops and individual artists. A great deal of this was based on field-work conducted in 1949-50 in Zaire and Nigeria, 1953, 1958-59, 1971, 1974 and 1981 in Nigeria, 1966 in Cameroon and 1969 in Mali. Everywhere he reinforced a phenomenal memory with his Rolleiflex camera. These negatives and the related documentation he gave recently to the Royal Anthropological Institute so that others may benefit from them.

Despite his specialised interests Fagg worked hard for anthropology as a whole, especially to promote its study as a unified field at a time when archaeology and physical and social anthropology were being hived off as separate disciplines. He served the Royal Anthropological Institute as Honorary Secretary from 1939 to 1956, as Honorary Editor of Man from 1947 to 1965, as councillor in 1966- 69, 1972-75 and 1976-79, as Vice-President in 1969-73 and as Honorary Librarian from 1976. This dedicated service earned him the Patron's Medal in 1966. Twenty years later he was one of the first two recipients of the Leadership Award of the Arts Council of the African Studies Association of America.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the world's leading suppliers and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Multiple Apprentices Required

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Apprentices are required to join a privat...

Sauce Recruitment: HR Manager

£40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is an exciting opportunity for a HR...

Ashdown Group: Interim HR Manager - 3 Month FTC - Henley-on-Thames

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established organisation oper...

Day In a Page

Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy