Obituary: Professor Michael Jaffe

People & Business

G. D. S. Henderson
Wednesday 16 July 1997 23:02

As Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, for 17 years, from 1973 to 1990, Michael Jaffe will be remembered above all for his tireless policy of acquisition: not just of the great paintings which he rescued from the threat of foreign purchase - Van Dyck's Virgin and Child, Stubbs's Gimcrack and Renoir's La Place Clichy - but of innumerable other works large and small, all of top quality and interest, from many historical periods and in many media.

This rich haul, to which was added a steady flow of bequests and endowments, was achieved largely by Jaffe's energy, taste and persuasiveness, backed by the good will of such bodies as Heritage and National Art Collections Fund.

Under Jaffe the Fitzwilliam's collections were rehung and redisplayed. The entrance hall was transformed into a spectacular gallery of early 19th-century sculpture. The museum's extension, after 12 years' building, was officially opened in 1975, and a greatly expanded programme of public exhibitions began, including shows specifically planned to the City of Cambridge's Summer Festival.

Michael Jaffe came up to King's College, Cambridge, as a scholar in 1945, after four years' service in the RNVR, and immediately entered into the spirit of Cambridge life. He became President of the Marlowe Society, and edited the Granta. He read History and then English, obtained a First, but also attended the lectures of the Slade Professor of Fine Art, and was a constant visitor to the Fitzwilliam.

After Cambrdge, his professional interest in the visual arts was focused by the classic Courtauld experience, Johannes Wilde's lectures and student access to the Seilern Collection, and later again by research at Harvard on Rubens and his contemporaries.

In the early 1950s Nikolaus Pevsner was making Cambridge itself more conducive to education in the visual arts. Jaffe became a Fellow of King's in 1952, and as Cambridge's only Assistant Lecturer in Fine Arts, from 1956, he began undergraduate teaching in the subject, including memorable classes in the Fitzwilliam.

His own ideas in the 1950s about the scope of art education were inchoate, ambitious and idealistic. His forceful personality began more and more to control his immediate environment; striking evidence of this was the still controversial decision of his college in 1961 to recast the east end of the chapel in order to accommodate Major Allnatt's altarpiece by Rubens.

Jaffe's academic plan, strongly supported by interested spectators such as Ernst Gombrich and Francis Wormald, became a reality in 1961 with the introduction of a Part II in the History of Art. From that time on, Cambridge produced a stream of art historians, curators, art dealers and critics, all stamped by Jaffe's standards and commitment.

In the 1960s he published substantial books on Van Dyck, Rubens and Jordaens. His educational vision, fired by frequent visits to the United States, was to place Cambridge University's art collections at the centre of the activities of the Teaching Department, with a Curator-Professor in control. Had Jaffe succeeded Carl Winter as Director of the Fitzwilliam in 1967 it is just possible that a creative merger of the interests of the Teaching Department and the museum staff might have been achieved.

The continuing success of the department was endorsed by the university through Jaffe's personal Readership in 1968, and the crucial decision to establish Art History as an independent department, with Jaffe as its Head, in 1970.

His formal connection with the policy-making of the Fitzwilliam began with his appointment as a Syndic, under the chairmanship of Lord Butler of Saffron Walden, in 1971. On David Piper's move to Oxford in 1973 Jaffe attained the Directorship, together with a personal Chair in the History of Western Art. Although he could not continue to be Head of the Teaching Department, his concern for the success of art- historical training in Cambridge remained a priority.

But other pressing factors intervened. Economic constraint was beginning to effect development in the university and the university's art museum. The bequest by Hamilton Kerr of the Mill House, Whittlesford, with a considerable endowment, offered Jaffe an opportunity to expand the museum's functions. By a stroke of genius he recognised the chance, in Cambridge and Whittlesford, to implement the 1972 recommendation of the Gulbenkian Foundation for the establishment in Great Britain of an institute for training in the conservation of paintings. The important national and international achievements of the Hamilton Kerr Institute, a sub-department of the museum, were celebrated in an exhibition of its work at the Fitzwilliam in 1988.

In spite of his constant resilience, Jaffe felt keenly frustrated by lack of funds, especially from the Government, to support the work of the museum as he now saw it, as an institution "of at least national importance". Fighting for the Fitzwilliam's practical and public needs certainly took toll of his original ideal of the unity of purpose of the museum and the university Teaching Department. He had little time in his later years for teaching undergraduates, although his genuine belief in the importance of art education found expression in encouraging schoolchildren to throng the museum.

In the late 1980s Jaffe realistically embraced the need to publicise the Fitzwilliam, with the establishment of the Fitzwilliam Museum Trust, and by major touring exhibitions of Fitzwilliam treasures in Japan and the US.

After retiring as Director in 1990 he continued his scholarly work on Rubens; and in 1994 he published four volumes on the collection of Italian drawings at Chatsworth. The October 1991 issue of the Burlington Magazine contained essays written as a tribute to him by some of his friends, prefaced by an editorial which eloquently touched off his achievements.

Michael Jaffe's manner and sentiments were sometimes consciously dismissive, but everyone respected his hard work and singleness of purpose, and many knew him to be a loyal and considerate friend. Although Cambridge, and King's, and the Fitzwilliam were his natural environment, he was also wholly himself in his splendid house in Somerset, Clifton Maybank, where he fulfilled other ideals, as private collector, landowner, and lavish discerning host.

Though dogged in his later years by ill-health, he coped with this in characteristically indomitable fashion. He had the benefit of a happy family life, centred upon his wife Pat, a strong personality in her own right, academically and socially.

Michael Jaffe was distinguished in appearance. It is pleasing that a bronze portrait bust of him by Elisabeth Frink is in the Fitzwilliam, as a physical reminder of a remarkable man.

G. D. S. Henderson

Andrew Michael Jaffe, art historian and curator: born 3 June 1923; Fellow, King's College, Cambridge 1952-97; Assistant Lecturer in Fine Arts, Cambridge University 1956-60, Lecturer 1961-68, Reader in History of Western Art 1968-73, Head of Department of History of Art 1970-73, Professor of the History of Western Art 1973-90 (Emeritus); Professor of Renaissance Art, Washington University 1960-61; Director, Fitzwilliam Museum 1973-90 (Emeritus); CBE 1989; author of Van Dyck's Antwerp Sketchbook 1966, Rubens 1967, Jordaens 1968, Rubens and Italy 1977, Rubens: catalogo completo 1989; editor of The Devonshire Collection of Italian Drawings 1994; married 1964 Patricia Milne-Henderson (two sons, two daughters); died Yeovil, Somerset 13 July 1997.

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