Obituary: William Fagg
Tuesday 14 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.
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