A huge smiling pussycat

Tom Boase (1898-1974) Photo: Courtauld Institute

Nikolaus Pevsner might have been expected not to care for Thomas Sherrer Ross Boase, second director of the Courtauld Institute. He had regarded Boase’s predecessor W. G. Constable with some suspicion , and when appointed in 1937 Boase was not a professional art historian in any sense that Pevsner would have recognised. He was in fact a medieval historian, an expert on the Crusades, who was appointed to the Courtauld by Viscount Lee of Fareham precisely because he had few links with the inbred English art establishment of the 1930s.

 Boase was a close friend of Anthony Blunt, who succeeded him as the third director of the Courtauld when Boase moved to become President of Magdalen College, Oxford. He was a man of smooth manners, detested by Maurice Bowra on the grounds of pomposity and pretentiousness and described by him as ‘a man of large public virtues and small private parts’. (Bowra, aware that Boase hated roses, talked a rich American patron into installing a rose garden opposite Magdalen and dubbed it the ‘Boase Garden’.)  To Antonia Fraser he was ‘a huge smiling pussycat of a man but…perhaps more tiger than domestic pet’.  (He had put her down without mercy when, as a nervous sixteen-year-old, she had ventured a rash remark about Trollope over dinner at High Table.) 

 But Boase was also a champion of refugee scholars, associated with the work of the World Council of Churches in its concern for the fate of academics in Germany under Hitler, and Pevsner was one of those for whom he intervened.  ‘A young art historian of exceptional analytical power and range of learning,’ wrote Boase to the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning in 1934, and twelve years later he would be one of Pevsner’s sponsors for naturalisation.

 Even though the Oxford History of English Art, edited by Boase, might have been seen as a competitor in some respects for Pevsner’s Pelican History of Art – often criticised for giving too much space to English art – the two men remained friends all their lives. Boase, as a former Vice Chancellor of Oxford, played a major role – or so Pevsner belived – in securing him the Slade Professorship in 1968.

 ‘A great scholar,’ wrote Pevsner in 1970, returning the compliment Boase had paid him some thirty-five years earlier. He was writing to the research library at Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, asking for its facilities to be extended to Boase  – ‘a very charming man’.

  1. thank you – yes, a typo, and I’ll fix it !

    • Mike
    • February 25th, 2011

    I believe Tom Boase died in 1974 not 1947 as shown above.

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