Richard Walker: Art historian who became Curator of the Palace of Westminster

By Nicolas Barker
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:04

It was a characteristically modest and exact description; Richard Walker knew better than anyone the art of cataloguing, describing what he saw economically and precisely, yet evoking the picture as vividly as if you could see it.

He learned it early, and practised it for over 50 years, describing pictures, large and small, good and not so good, in many different places, never losing his enthusiasm for them and always finding something to engage his lively and curious eye.

He came of Scots stock on both sides, his father in Wolsey, the family engineering business, but also a serious sailor who once shipped Conrad as navigator. Richard, his youngest son, was born while his father was serving in the navy at Rosyth, but the family moved to Teffont in Wiltshire soon after the war, though keeping the Walker family home at Scotnish.

After school at Harrow came Magdalene College, Cambridge, and thence, prompted by the Dean, to the Courtauld Institute, where, taught by TR Boase and Anthony Blunt, his growing delight in art turned into the realisation that it was to be his life. He had just got a job in the art department of the British Council when war broke out and a life hitherto "with every advantage" came to an end.

A year before, he had joined the Royal Naval Supplementary Reserve, and now converted effortlessly to the RNVR. Six years of active service followed, first patrolling the icy waters between Greenland and Norway, boredom enlivened by brushes with the Tirpitz and PQ17, and then in the Far East. He was welcomed back at the British Council, where he spent a year couriering pictures to exhibitions organised by the Council in war-torn Europe, before moving to the Tate in time for the 1948 Paul Nash exhibition. Then, in 1949, he was appointed to the new (but half-time) post of Adviser to the Office of Works on the Government Art Collection.

There were almost no pictures to start with, but with a meagre annual £500 Walker began to build up the collection. John Piper provided nostalgic views of Britain for the Embassy at Rio. Furnishing ministerial offices could be quite a problem. Ernie Bevan had an unexpected penchant for Fragonard, Butler, more predictably, knew all about Renoir, while Churchill, returning to No 10, swept it clean, saying "No thanks, I paint me own".

The Minister of Works David Eccles was a great help, and through him Walker was allowed to commission pictures of the Coronation in 1953 from all the major British artists. Later Geoffrey Rippon put his grant up to £2,000, and he was able to buy seriously good pictures by Nash, Matthew Smith and Sutherland, and bronzes by Moore and Frink. When Heath was prime minister he was equally supportive.

Besides the Government Art Collection, Walker's brief included outposts, like Audley End, Chiswick and Wrest Park, as well as the official London buildings. He produced picture catalogues of all of them, Audley End first in 1950. As Curator of the Palace of Westminster he compiled the five-volume catalogue of its pictures, published in 1988. He also wrote Old London Bridge (1979), working from the Office of Works accounts of its building.

One of the advantages of a still nominally half-time job was that he was able to publish more, with articles in Country Life, the Burlington Magazine and elsewhere. In 1976 he formally retired, leaving the collection now some 5,000-strong. A new prime minister, former Chief Petty Officer Callaghan, appointed him a trustee of the National Maritime Museum.

But more work still waited. He was asked to take over the catalogue of the National Portrait Gallery's Regency portraits, which duly came out in 1985, and another followed on The Nelson Portraits, which won the Anderson Prize for research in maritime history. Then came Windsor and the Royal Collection of portrait miniatures of the 18th and early 19th century, still kept in the library in the cabinets designed for them by Prince Albert.

This meant more visits to other royal residences, and, in pursuit of other portraits of royal sitters, to Germany. The catalogue came out in 1992, and he was appointed CVO in 2000. Next came the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford whose miniatures he finished in 1997, then the Athenaeum Club, and finally, the National Trust; with undiminished energy he moved from house to house, and the first two volumes appeared in 2003 and 2005.

By this time Walker was nearly 90, but he hardly seemed to have changed outwardly since he went back to work after the war, his figure always upright, neatly dressed, with a ready smile for all. He took life as it came, enjoying success and always seeing the funny side of misadventures; perhaps his navy years stood him in good stead there, that and a happy family life (his wife Margot went with him, cataloguing botanical drawings while he did the miniatures). He was, he would agree, very fortunate to find people prepared to pay him for doing what he wanted to do. What they got in exchange was a rare mixture of perception and valuable work, with a great deal of enjoyment for all, not just himself.

Richard John Boileau Walker, picture cataloguer: born Edinburgh 4 June 1916; adviser to the Government Art Collection 1949–76; Curator of the Palace of Westminster, 1950–76; National Portrait Gallery cataloguer 1976–85; Royal Collection cataloguer 1985–91; National Trust cataloguer 1990–2001; married 1946 Margaret Firebrace (one son, two daughters); died Chagford, Devon 6 May 2010.

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