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Obituary for Michael Jaffé: As demanding of himself as he was of others

A formidable connoisseur, academic and museum director who inspired many top figures in the British art world.

Cambridge

Working with Michael Jaffé was an invigorating if sometimes bracing experience. It was just not possible not to be on your mettle all the time; otherwise the orotund favourite: “Absolutely not!” or the alarming raised eyebrows could send you reeling. A cutting irony kept his colleagues up to the mark, but once he knew you sufficiently well to relax in your company, Michael showed himself a witty, entertaining and intellectually stimulating mentor and friend.

I joined the Fitzwilliam in 1976 when Jaffé was at the height of his powers. Physically he was splendid, resembling an Assyrian bas-relief of Ashurnasirpal, with his leonine head, barrel chest and long thin legs. His voice was commanding and he had a natural air of authority. His attitude to other people was often astringent but he could also surprise and win you by his charm.

No one could deny his enthusiasm and passion for the Arts. The strength of his acquisitions at the Fitzwilliam remain an enduring memorial to the breadth of his taste and to his persistence in his pursuit of quality. Only a man with Michael’s determination could have persuaded the Syndics [governing body] of the museum to launch a public appeal to acquire a work of art and on three occasions he brilliantly succeeded, with Van Dyck’s Madonna and Child, Stubbs’s “Gimcrack” and Renoir’s “Place Clichy.” All were memorable occasions, but the image of him shaking a money-box at Newmarket races in the final stages of the appeal for Stubbs’s “Gimcrack” (a portrait of a famous race-horse) remains indelible.

His taste remains much in evidence in the internal redecoration of the museum. The bequest of Andrew Gow in 1977 enabled the walls of the Founders’ building to be clad in fabric for the first time. This monument to High Victorian taste incorporates much coloured detailing in the mosaic floors of the entrance and the scagliola columns of the galleries. It would have been easy to get it wrong; but Michael’s colour sense and verve led to a solution which looks so natural that new visitors to the museum assume that it was always like this.

His sense of what was appropriate to the architecture of the building led him to rehang the paintings in a double, or even triple, hang, taking advantage of the height of the ceilings, and adding immeasurably to the grandeur of the experience of a visit to the Fitzwilliam.

He was the first museum director to re-establish the so-called “historic hang” and his example much influenced redecoration at Manchester and Edinburgh.

Michael had catholic taste and increased the collections of all the departments of the museum. Even when it was an object of little aesthetic value (I think in particular of fragments of Anglo-Saxon coins—“milk bottle tops,” as he sometimes referred to them) his sense of historic perspective ensured that he recommended their acquisition. New galleries were opened to celebrate the purchase of the Messel-Rosse fan collection and the gift of the outstanding Korean ceramics from Mr and Mrs G.St.G. M. Gompertz. Perhaps he was most successful in his purchases of sculpture, as Pigalle’s splendid portrait of Pierre-Louis-Marie Maloët, the anonymous mid-sixteenth-century alabaster of the Adoration of the Magi and Quentin Metsys’s medal of Desiderius Erasmus witness.

His energy never flagged. Once his health began to fail (fifteen years ago) one might have expected him to relinquish some of his responsibilities, but so great was his determination and his capacity for work that he increased his obligations and during his last three years as director undertook the cataloguing of the great collection of drawings at Chatsworth. Michael’s public face never allowed him to show faiblesse and until the progress of his diabetes became marked, few knew of the continuing battle against ill health. He always put up a good front and was determined to see and be seen on public occasions.

So powerful a personality as his was bound to cause controversy and he had several public contretemps with other scholars. Not everybody liked him but with those with whom he chose to relax, his presence could be life-enhancing. His ability as a mimic was exceptional and he could laugh at himself in unguarded moments. Some of my fondest memories of him are in Japan; watching him play “paper, stone, scissors” with school children on the underground and, above all, at the end of a delectable Japanese dinner, following him round the room, dressed in a yukata, joining in a coal-miner’s dance from Hokkaido. The zest he gave to the movement when he shovelled coal over his shoulder was unforgettable. His enthusiasm for life never left him; when I visited him in hospital a few weeks before he died his first words were: “What’s the gossip?”

With his intimates and family he was a kind, thoughtful and generous man. As a colleague at work he could be very demanding, but, as he always gave unstintingly of himself, his expectations of his staff were, in a way, a compliment.

Andrew Michael Jaffé, art historian and curator.

  • Born 5 June 1923.
  • Fellow, King’s College, Cambridge 1952-97.
  • 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 Van Dyck’s Antwerp sketchbook (1967); Jordaens (1968); Rubens and Italy (1977); The Devonshire collection of Italian drawings (1994) etc.
  • Married 1964 Patricia Milne-Henderson (two sons, two daughters).
  • Died Yeovil, Somerset, 13 July 1997.