Giles Waterfield, the director who modernised Dulwich Picture Gallery, has died

Art historian, independent curator and lecturer, he wrote eruditely and amusingly about museums

The art historian, curator and novelist, Giles Waterfield (1949-2016), rejuvenated the Dulwich Picture Gallery, which he led for 17 years from 1979 until 1996. When he arrived there was “a staff of five, two resident custodians (one a carpenter) who hadn’t spoken to each other for three years, and the only activities were those organised by the Friends. Otherwise nothing happened, no exhibitions, no conservation programme", Waterfield recalled in a typically dry way. The small, historic gallery in south London, which is home to one of the finest collections of Old Masters in Britain, was "a very quiet, sad place”, he wrote. It was also in a financially parlous state. Waterfield handed over to his successors an institution restored to financial health with a higher profile, increased attendance, an award-winning education department as well as a new level of independence after the appointment of its first board of trustees. He had prepared the ground for the restoration and expansion of Sir John Soane's purpose-built gallery.

After Dulwich, Waterfield became an independent curator, taught art history, including as an associate lecturer at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art, and was influential behind the scenes as an advisor to numerous museum and heritage organisations, including the Heritage Lottery Fund. He also wrote about museums and galleries, both real and fictional, in an erudite and amusing way. As well as books including The People’s Gallery, which chronicled the ups and downs of Britain’s municipal museums in the 19th and early 20th century, which was published by Yale University Press last year, Waterfield wrote an entertaining comic novel about Brit, a fictional Museum of British History. In The Hound in the Left-hand Corner (2002), a long-suffering director has to manage an overbearing chairman who is keener on building a curatorially vacuous new contemporary wing, or the “nowness of now”, than caring for the historic collection.

As an independent curator, Waterfield organised scholarly exhibitions, including Art Treasures of England at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1998, featuring the pick of the nation’s regional collections. Last year he co-organised The Painting Room: Artists at Work in the 18th Century at Gainsborough’s House, in Suffolk, based on his research into the history of artists' studios.

In his role as the longstanding course director at the Attingham Trust and the Royal Collection Studies, Waterfield helped numerous curators from the UK and abroad to immerse themselves in the history and collections of Britain’s palaces and great country houses. In 2003, he co-organised Below Stairs, the National Portrait Gallery's first exhibition to focus on the men and women who worked in them as domestic servants.