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: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all