OBITUARY : Charles McCorquodale

Alastair Laing
Monday 29 April 1996 23:02

Charles McCorquodale was one of that now much- diminished band of freelance art historians whose freedom from the point- totting treadmill to which academic life has been reduced in the last two decades allowed them to range widely over the whole gamut of art, and, above all, to communicate this in readable form to the general public.

It is thus fitting that McCorquodale's last book, The Renaissance: European painting 1400-1600 (1994), should have tackled a subject that many would have dismissed as long since exhausted. They are wrong, of course: not just every generation, but every decade or every lustrum needs reintroducing to the most creative period in Western art; and it is good that this should be done by a book that is, like this one, visually sumptuous (one can hear the echo of McCorquodale's voice in the word); that spans - as the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery does - the whole of Europe; and that, despite its title but in the spirit of its period, begins by giving proper priority to disegno.

At the heart of McCorquodale's skills as a writer for the common reader, however, lay his profound knowledge as a specialised art historian. Ironically, this was in the very area that millions of the tourists doing the obligatory round of the sights of the Renaissance in Florence every year trample visually under foot: the Florentine Seicento.

His exhibition "Painting in Florence 1600-1700", presented by Colnaghi's at the Royal Academy and the Fitzwilliam Museum in early 1979, after late rejection by the Edinburgh Festival the previous year, was not only an amende honorable for the failure of the pioneering show "The Twilight of the Medici" (Detroit Institute of Arts and Palazzo Pitti, 1974) to be given a British venue, but heralded a brief (and ultimately false) dawn in which the vitality and diversity of Baroque art in Italy would be presented to a wider public in this country than that which visits the rare Seicento rooms of museums, or the Baroque exhibitions put on by a few brave commercial galleries.

It is regrettable that the need precariously to earn a living (yet McCorquodale did it with such style that it never seemed precarious, and we always marvelled at, and were mystified by how, he did it) - by organising art tours and courses, from a base in Florence and then in London; by journalism for Art International and latterly (until a regrettable "down- sizing") for the Art Newspaper; and by writing other books - prevented McCorquodale from completing and working into a book the succession of articles on Carlo Dolci, the study of whose art had provided the nub of this exhibition; yet the books that he did publish all have value: The Baroque Painters of Italy (1979), Bron-zino (1981), The History of Interior Decoration (1983).

This last heralded a new direction in McCorquodale's interests: his own flats, whether in Borgo Pinti in Florence, or in Bury Street or Bina Gardens in London, had always seemed three-dimensional embodiments of one or other of the exquisite watercolours in Mario Praz's illustrated history of interior decoration, La filosofia dell' arredamento; and - returning to his roots - he announced a book on Scottish domestic architecture from 1500 to 1914, which failed to find a publisher.

Charles McCorquodale was born in Edinburgh in 1948, and educated at George Heriot's School. He studied under Anthony Blunt and John Shearman at the Courtauld Institute, from which he emerged with a First Class Honours degree in 1969. Marrying an Edinburgh friend, Rhoda King, shortly afterwards, they had one child, Julien, but subsequently separated and finally divorced in 1980. In his last two difficult years he was devotedly looked after by his friend David Cossart.

Charles Paul McCorquodale, art historian: born Edinburgh 29 June 1949; married Rhoda King (one son; marriage dissolved 1980); died London 16 February 1996.

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