Skip to content

Fagg, William Buller

    Full Name: Fagg, William Buller

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1914

    Date Died: 1992

    Place Born: Upper Norwood, Croydon, Greater London, England, UK

    Place Died: London, Greater London, England, UK

    Home Country/ies: United Kingdom

    Subject Area(s): African (general, continental cultures), Ancient African, Ancient West African, ethnology, face masks, Ife (ancient Nigerian style), masks (costume), Nigerian, sculpture (visual works), and Yoruba (culture or style)


    Historian of Yoruban and Nigerian art; Keeper of Ethnology at the British Museum; pioneer in the systematic study of African art. Fagg was the eldest son of an antiquarian book dealer, William Percy Fagg (d. 1939), Lilian Buller (Fagg). He studied Classics at Magdalene College, Cambridge University, graduating in 1936. The following year he received an additional B.A. degree in Archaeology and Anthropology. In 1938 he was appointed Assistant Keeper in the Department of Ethnography at the British Museum, where he spent his entire career. During the war years 1942-45 he worked for the war effort at the Board of Trade monitoring cloth output. The Museum was restructured with curators given more control for departments. Fagg, who had returned in 1946, was given curatorial responsibility for Africa, purportedly because few others wanted it. Though he had had limited experience in Africana, he immediately selected the best objects from the collection for a post-war exhibition. His friendship with major African art dealers, such as Charles Ratton in Paris and early collectors, such as Josef Mueller of Switzerland, developed a level of connoisseurship in him not otherwise common among ethnographers. He assisted the eminent collectors William and Margaret Plass in their collecting of the art of French-speaking Africa. Eventually, they donated their holdings to the Museum. His art sensibilities were furthered by his friendship with artists such as Jacob Epstein, Henry Moore and the artist and art historian Roland Penrose. Fagg traveled and researched in Nigeria (then the Belgian Congo) between 1949 and 1950 and again in 1953. In 1955 he became Deputy Keeper of the Department. The Museum of Primitive Art, New York (today part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art), named him a consulting fellow in 1957 (through 1970). His brother, Bernard Fagg (1915-1987), a colonial officer in the region, established the first museums in Nigeria and headed the federal department of antiquities in Lagos, 1957-1963. William Fagg made an extensive trip, 1958-1959 as an agent of the Nigerian government, purchasing Benin art work for the newly founded Lagos museum. His 1958 Sculpture of Africa became a landmark on the subject, as was his Afro-Portuguese Ivories book (1959). He followed this in 1963 with Nigerian Images, which many consider the definitive account of the art history of Benin. He was the first to recognize Owo, Nigeria, as the center for art located between Ife and Benin. These ideas were formulated in the exhibitions he organized on Nigerian art at the First World Congress of Black Arts and Cultures in 1966 in Dakar. He suffered a mild stroke in 1967. In 1969 he was appointed to Keeper of African art department. He and his deputy Keeper, Bryan Cranstone (1918-1989), supervised the move of the entire collection to a new facility at Piccadilly in 1972, Museum of Mankind. Upon his retirement in 1974, he worked as a consultant for Christie’s. His final books, Yoruba: Sculpture of West Africa (with John Pemberton) [1982] and Africa and the Renaissance (with Ezio Bassani) [1988] date from this time. Fagg suffered another stroke and died at his home. Fagg, for better and worse, approached African sculptures in the western tradition, i.e., as the works of individual artists, which he identified through a combination of documentation, fieldwork and conjecture, rather than conceiving it as the accomplishment of “primitive” collective endeavors. He was among the first to devote rigorous art-historical scholarship to African art–connoisseurship and sociological explanations–contending that masterpieces from that continent needed no qualification on their greatness. A devout Roman Catholic, he viewed the non-western art as the embodiment of religious expression. Among his greatest accomplishments, he resoundingly disproved the notion that the realistic bronze heads of the Benin were not because of Portuguese (i.e. Western) influence, but rather an indigenous African development. Fagg devised a serious chronology of the Benin, the first serious attempt to understand African art historically and stylistically. He insisted, however, on terming the art “tribal,” despite cries from later scholars that the art was not created from peoples organized in that manner. The controversies of British anthropology interested him less, insisting that it was the discipline’s role to appreciate the achievements of other cultures as much to analyze them. His gifts as a scholar were diminished through a plodding pace (frustrating some colleagues) and a notably dull lecture style.

    Selected Bibliography

    “In Search of Meaning in African Art,” African Arts 7 (July 1973): 164-170; African Sculpture. Washington, DC: International Exhibitions Foundation, 1970; and Wilkinson, Alan G. African Majesty: from Grassland and Forest: the Barbara and Murray Frum Collection. Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1981; and Plass, Margaret. African Sculpture, an Anthology. London: Studio Vista, 1964; African Tribal Images: the Katherine White Reswick Collection. Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1968; The Art of Western Africa: Tribal Masks and Sculptures. London: Collins/UNESCO, 1967; Divine Kingship in Africa. London: British Museum, 1970; The Living Arts of Nigeria. London: Studio Vista, 1971; Eskimo Art in the British Museum. London: British Museum, 1972; Nigerian Images: the Splendor of African Sculpture. New York: Praeger, 1963; and Pemberton, John. Yoruba, Sculpture of West Africa. New York: Knopf/Random House, 1982; Tribes and Forms in African Art [Congress for Cultural Freedom exhibition at the Berlin Festival, 1964]. London: Methuen, 1965; and Pemberton, John. Yoruba Beadwork: Art of Nigeria. New York: Rizzoli, 1980.


    Tomes, Jason. “Fagg, William Buller.” Dictionary of National Biography; [obituaries:] Picton, John, et al. “A Tribute to William Fagg.” African Arts 27 (July 1994): 26-33; The Daily Telegraph (London), July 15, 1992: 21; The Times, July 14, 1992; Willett, Frank. “William Fagg.” The Independent (London), July 14, 1992, p. 25; Waterfield, Hermoine. “Out of the Art of Africa: William Fagg.” The Guardian (London), July 16, 1992, p. 35.


    Contributors: Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen


    Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen. "Fagg, William Buller." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

    More Resources

    Search for materials by & about this art historian: