Obituary: Sir Roger de Grey

Norman Rosenthal@DoctorNorman
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:07

Roger de Grey, President of the Royal Academy from 1984 to 1993, was one of the academy's greatest presidents of this century, admired by its staff and its membership, and was, with Sir Hugh Casson, responsible for the flowering of the institution over the last two decades.

De Grey was, in all probability, the most influential member of the so- called "Royal College of Art Gang", a group of artists, many of whom were teachers of the Royal College in the heady London days of the early 1960s that witnessed, among many things, the birth of Pop Art and who succeeded in being elected to the academy, then a moribund and artistically reactionary institution whose very existence was under threat. Other members of the "Gang" included Hugh Casson, Carel Weight, Colin Hayes and de Grey's cousin Frederick Gore, all of whom contributed to the academy's renaissance.

Roger de Grey was a man of energy and exceptionally intelligent vision and served as the first chairman of a revitalised Exhibitions Committee and then as the academy's astute and imaginative Treasurer, before succeeding Hugh Casson as president in 1984. It seemed a hard act to follow. He did it brilliantly.

He demonstrated extraordinary qualities of leadership in an institution associated with the Establishment at a time when such institutions were under attack and constantly on the defensive. He was never defensive. It was he, as much as anyone, who developed the international contacts of the academy that have enabled it to stand with the great art exhibition centres of the world: such as the Grand Palais in Paris, the Metropolitan in New York, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

He was prepared to take enormous financial risks, that a state-subsidised institution could never have allowed itself, and in consequence London was able to see marvellous exhibitions initiated under his influence. Monographic shows of the highest quality were devoted to great masters including Mantegna, Frans Hals, Poussin, Goya, Monet, Chagall, Sickert and Henry Moore, and equally spectacular were the ambitious, synoptic exhibitions such as "The Genius of Venice" (1983-84), "The Age of Chivalry" (1987-88) and "The Art of Photography" (1989), as well as many devoted to aspects of 20th-century art, of which he was the most passionate defender. To all these projects he brought love and attention to detail, playing an invaluable lead in making decisions about posters, wall colours, catalogue design and the hanging of the works themselves. He was generous in allowing others, myself included, to have their head, but to artists, scholars and administrators he was invariably decisive in judgement and was perfectly capable of becoming intensely angry if he felt things were not as they should be. Lack of style or disloyalty and small things such as cleanliness in the galleries, the standard of hospitality, or the flower arrangements were all of intense importance to him.

If I speak particularly of the ambitious loan exhibitions that took place under his presidency, it is because I worked most closely with him on them. But he was equally meticulous about the Annual Summer Exhibition, continually striving to bring it up-to-date yet, at the same time, fully cognisant that, like any old lady, it should not be upset too easily. He never wished to rock the apple-cart of the academy, that is to say of its membership, but he was passionate about its new intake, encouraging artists and architects on the side of modern culture including Blake, Hockney, Kitaj, Ayres, Hoyland, Phillips, Medley, Foster, Rogers and Stirling to become members, many against their initial inclination. Real artists are always suspicious of joining institutions and the apparent inherent conservatism of the academy was an image not easily shaken off.

De Grey, more profoundly than most, realised that the academy was only as good and progressive as its membership. Beyond that, he was an indefatigable fund-raiser, hosting breakfasts, lunches and dinners in London and abroad, particularly in the United States, where he actively encouraged the American Associates of the Royal Academy.

He was in the United States for the academy's Chagall exhibition, in Philadelphia, in 1985, when he first met the great American philanthropist Arthur M. Sackler. They took a shine to each other and it was above all with Sackler's financial help and encouragement that de Grey achieved his most lasting memorial within the academy: the Sackler Galleries, designed by Sir Norman Forster and opened in 1991. De Grey contributed decisively both in design and realisation to the project, which has won many international prizes. His enthusiasm for it was such that he would lead eminent visitors in hard hats on hair-raising climbs through the half-built galleries still open to the sky. The galleries owe at least as much to de Grey's energy as they do to their architect and donors. His childlike pleasure at going up and down in its spectacular lift was something he loved to share with friends and members of the public alike.

He had other commitments to which he was devoted with passion no less than that he gave to the academy. He was one of the great British post- war art educationalists. After serving with distinction in the Second World War, he became a lecturer in 1947 at Newcastle School of Art, during which time it became one of the most advanced art schools in Britain, and where his teaching colleagues included Victor Pasmore, Lawrence Gowing and Richard Hamilton. He was Reader in Painting at the Royal College of Art between 1953 and 1973, during which time the Royal College achieved its near-legendary status as a trend- setting institution. From 1973 until his death he was Principal of City and Guild Art School, in Kennington, which, as well as teaching painting and sculpture, was committed to training in advanced techniques of conservation of buildings, fabrics and materials.

De Grey was also a landscape and still-life painter of real distinction, much inspired by Czanne maybe, but his art had a very particular, competent and professional grandeur. It was amazing to me to note over the last 10 years, given his own punishing schedule, not only that he found time to paint but more, that his paintings became ever stronger and more vital. Ultimately it was the making of art that gave him strength to do everything else.

In 1942 he married Flavia Irwin, a distinguished painter herself and a source of great strength to him. His three children, Spencer (an architect, who worked with Norman Foster on the Sackler Galleries), Robert and Emilia, gave him great satisfaction. He was a happy family man capable of spreading love and affection to them and to all those with whom he came into personal contact.

He last appeared in public four weeks ago at the memorial service for the painter Robert Medley, who had been his teacher at Chelsea School of Art in the 1930s. On that occasion, as on so many others, his amazingly youthful, slight figure could be seen bounding up the stairs wearing trainers and brightly coloured socks, a familiar sight to visitors to Burlington House.

Norman Rosenthal

Roger de Grey, artist, administrator: born Penn, Buckinghamshire 18 April 1918; Lecturer, Department of Fine Art, King's College, Newcastle upon Tyne 1947-51, Master of Painting 1951-53; Senior Tutor, later Reader in Painting, Royal College of Art 1953-73; ARA 1962, RA 1969; President, City and Guilds of London Art School 1973-95; Treasurer, Royal Academy 1973-84, President 1984-93; trustee, National Portrait Gallery 1984-95; KCVO 1991; married 1942 Flavia Hart (ne Irwin; two sons, one daughter); died London 14 February 1995.

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