OBITUARY:Professor Andrew Martindale

John Onians
Monday 05 June 1995 23:02

Andrew Martindale's sudden death at the age of 62 calls for reflection on the relation between his life and his chosen field of activity, the history of art.

When Martindale was appointed by Anthony Blunt to teach at the Courtauld Institute of Art, in London, in 1959, art history was a little-known and little-valued academic subject. Now, at the time of his death, after 30 years at the University of East Anglia, the last 20 as Professor of Visual Art, the discipline is established as one of the most dynamic fields of the humanities, represented at nearly 50 institutions of higher education in Britain, at many of which its practice sets standards internationally. In this process Martindale was an exemplary figure, whose active role was significant in setting standards and determining direction.

Few people could match the style of someone who, as the son of an Archdeacon of Bombay, understood that social privilege carried the obligation of social service. Few, too, could match Martindale's affinity with the medieval world. This was the result of his familiarity with the magnificent church at Ashwell, the parish in Hertfordshire to which his father retired; with Westminster, where he went to school; and with New College, Oxford, where he read History.

Rigorously trained in the interpretation of written documents, he had an instinctive sense of the relationship between objects and their context. He could write so perceptively of the court art of the 14th and 15th centuries because he looked at it with the same discrimination as its princely patrons and shared with painters, sculptors and architects an understanding of their paymasters' often eccentric demands. Out of this sympathy emerged The Rise of the Artist (1972), his brilliant study of the surprising hierarchies within the medieval castle, which revealed the Gothic artist as a humble craftsman able to achieve social distinction chiefly as a designer of practical jokes. Later he went on to document the cultural background to the learned pageantry in Mantegna's Triumphs of Caesar (1979) and to reconstruct from fragments the altarpieces, and the life, of the exquisite Simone Martini (1988).

Most recently, having spent more time in the Gothic palaces of Europe than any of his contemporaries (often with his wife, Jane, also a medieval specialist) and being on better terms with their builders, he was engaged in a survey of their decorations from Westminster to Venice and from Milan to Prague.

Martindale brought something of both the values of the medieval courts and craftsmen he so enthusiastically studied to his years at the University of East Anglia. This was physically palpable in his appearance as Public Orator at Congregation ceremonies. It gave elegance and decorum to his manner and to each clause of measured praise. But courtly values were most evident in his role as Professor and as Dean. His bond of mutual loyalty with each member of the school was exceptional. It allowed him to bring out the best in the most diverse and divisive individuals. Certainly without his careful lordship the School of World Art Studies would not have achieved its reputation for variety, energy and equality, attributes which will survive Martindale's death precisely because under his generous protection they flourished and developed deep roots.

Martindale's scholarship gave authority to his wider involvement with the discipline. A founder member of the Association of Art Historians, he helped this new professional body to emerge as an organisation able to function as a central institution, highly successful at representing and extending the interests of its members, especially through its annual conferences, its Bulletin and above all its journal, Art History, first published in 1978, which he substantially conceived. Subsequently, as the University Grants Commission's adviser on art history, he further strengthened the subject's position, particularly by his judicious handling of the crucial first Research Assessment exercises.

Most remarkable was his ability to meet, at his own pace, the urgent challenge presented by the extraordinary gift to his university of the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection and of the Sainsbury Centre, Norman Foster's first public building, responding courageously to the compelling arguments of beautiful objects and new forms. In the last 15 years he presided over the transformation of a traditional Western art history department into the School of World Art Studies and Museology, the first institution in Europe to deal with the art of the world as a whole and the first anywhere to ask fundamental questions about the origins and nature of artistic activity.

Andrew Martindale well understood the physical drive behind making and moulding. He was hard-working, a rapid mover, an elegant calligrapher, a passionate pianist and a Herculean gardener. He and Jane transformed their Elizabethan farmhouse into a residence dedicated to civilised values, where they practised with generosity and distinction the art of entertaining.

John Onians

Andrew Martindale, art historian: born Bombay 19 December 1932; Lecturer in Medieval and Renaissance Art History, Courtauld Institute 1959-65; Senior Lecturer, History of Art, University of East Anglia 1965-74, Professor of Visual Art 1974-95; married 1959 Jane Brooke; died Norwich 29 May 1995.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments