Full Name: Fleming, John
- John Fleming
Date Born: 1919
Date Died: 2001
Place Born: Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland, England, UK
Place Died: Tofori, Italy
Home Country/ies: United Kingdom
Self-trained art historian and editor; wrote major reference books in art history with Hugh Honour. Fleming’s father was a prominent solicitor in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Fleming himself initially attempted a career in painting, applying to Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) for an apprenticeship. His father persuaded him to attended Rugby and then Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read English. As a student he discovered Italy and traveling there to study the frescoes of Piero della Francesca in Arezzo. When World War II broke out, Fleming declared himself briefly a conscientious objector before joining the Intelligence Corps in Cairo, Egypt. In Cairo he examined the early 19th century fanciful architecture during his off hours, a style he named “Cairo Baroque.” His article on the subject was sent to the Architectural Review. At the encouragement of its editor, Nikolaus Bernard Leon Pevsner, Fleming wrote more, including articles on Maltese churches and baroque sculpture and contemporary Italian painting (the latter for Penguin New Writing). The war years brought him in contact with art historian Ellis K. Waterhouse, then a colonel, though they did not get along, and expatriate German art historians such as Rudolf Wittkower. After the war, Fleming appeased his father by working as a solicitor with the John Hilton Advice bureau at Cambridge. In Cambridge Fleming met Hugh Honour, an undergraduate at St. Catharine’s College, who would become Fleming’s life partner. Though tied to his solicitor’s job, Fleming spent his holidays in Rome, at times the guest of the American art collector and curator Henry P. McIlhenny at the Villa Aurelia, owned by the American Academy. At his father’s death in 1953, Fleming quit his profession to become a freelance writer in Italy. For a while he acted as reader Percy Lubbock (1879-1965), a now blind British literati who lived in on the Gulf of Spezia, at Gli Scafari, the villa designed by the architect Cecil Pinsent (1884-1963). Through Lubbock, Fleming met the English-speaking expatriate community in Italy. These included Bernard Berenson and his entourage at Villa I Tatti. Honour joined Fleming permanently in Italy in 1954. Fleming wrote articles for The Connoisseur and other publications, demonstrating an extensive knowledge of primary sources. A commission from Country Life led Fleming to publish Scottish Country Houses, 1954, and the discovery of the Adam letters among the Clerk papers in Penicuik (Lothian, Scotland, later transferred to Register House in Edinburgh). These letters written by Robert and James Adam to their families from Italy would later become his great book on Adam. In 1957, Honour and Fleming moved from Lerici to Asolo, a town north of Venice, renting a house from the writer Freya Stark (1893-1993). There they met the publisher Allen Lane (1902-1970), the founder and chairman of Penguin Books, who was renting the adjacent Villa Bronson in Asolo. Lane commissioned the two men to oversee the most important series of short-subject art histories of the twentieth century. The Style and Civilisation and The Architect and Society and Art in Context. The two men were by now conversant with those historians who could produce serious yet brief introductory books to art history. Fleming’s book on Adam, Robert Adam and his Circle, a serious examination of the Scottish architect’s early years incorporating his letters, appeared in 1962. The same year Fleming and Honour moved to the hills above Lucca to the town of Tofori, purchasing the Villa Marchiò, where they remained the rest of their lives. There they had easy access to the library at the German Institute in Florence. For two months each winter they returned to England to research at the British Museum and Warburg Institute libraries. In 1966, they collaborated with Pevsner to produce The Penguin Dictionary of Architecture. Although Pevsner wrote about half of the first edition, the successive editions now nearly quadrupled in size, were the work of Honour and Fleming. Fleming’s interest in the history of collecting resulted in a series of articles beginning in 1973 under the title “Art Dealing and the Risorgimento.” The Penguin Dictionary of Decorative Arts appeared in 1977 as a collaborative effort, but the subject was widely known to be Honour’s more than Fleming’s. Honour and Fleming next collaborated on a single-volume art survey, appearing in 1982 as A World History of Art (Visual Arts: a History as it was published in the United States). Groundbreaking was its emphasis on Asian art at a time when standard histories focused on European. In 1991 Fleming and Honour produced the Venetian Hours of Henry James, Whistler and Sargent, an assemblage of experiences largely culled from their days with Lubbock, a Henry James disciple. Fleming’s final year was plagued by the great terror of art historians, blindness. He is buried in the cemetery of the parish church above his villa. Fleming’s research interest lay in the artistic relationship between Britain and Italy. It was the influence of Pevsner and Wittkower who shaped Fleming’s interest toward the then unfashionable topics of baroque sculpture and architecture. In his Robert Adam, Fleming broke with the provincial insular tradition of British architecture, examining Neoclassicism’s social and cultural implications as well as its artistic ones. The book further examined the relations between the Scottish connoisseurs and architects and their Italian influences in the early 18th century. Fleming’s ability to commission top scholars for the various Penguin publishing initiatives remains a lasting accomplishment. For the Architect and Society series, Fleming secured scholars as diverse as James S. Ackerman for Palladio, Hans Aurenhammer for Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, and George D. S. Henderson for Chartres; for the Style and Civilization series, John Kinder Gowran Shearman on Mannerism, John Boardman on pre-classical Greece, and Linda Nochlin on Realism. Most innovative of all, perhaps, was the Art in Context series, where authorities in the field were asked to write on a single work of art. This magisterial series included Robert L. Herbert writing on Jacques-Louis David’s Brutus, Ludwig H. Heydenreich on Leonardo’s Last Supper, and Reinhold Heller on Edvard Munch’s The Scream.
“Cairo Baroque.” Architectural Review 97 (March 1945): 75-82; Robert Adam and his Circle in Edinburgh & Rome. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962; and Pevsner, Nikolaus, and Honour, Hugh. The Penguin Dictionary of Architecture. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1966; edited, Architect and Society series, (beginning 1966), Style and Civilization series (beginning 1967) and Art in Context series, (beginning 1972); edited, with Honour, Hugh. Saxl, Fritz. A Heritage of Images: a Selection of Lectures. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970; “Art Dealing and the Risorgimento [part I].” The Burlington Magazine 115 (January 1973): 4-17, [part II] 121 (August 1979): 492-4ff., [part III] 121 (September 1979): 568-73ff.; A World History of Art. London: Macmillan Reference Books, 1982, [American title:] The Visual Arts: a History. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1982; and Honour, Hugh. The Venetian Hours of Henry James, Whistler and Sargent. Boston: Little, Brown, 1991;
Lees-Milne, James. Prophesying Peace. London: Chatto and Windus, 1977; Lees-Milne, James. Caves of Ice. London: Chatto & Windus, 1983 [Lees-Milne contains errors in the Honour-Fleming collaboration process]; [obituaries:] Boucher, Bruce. The Independent (London), June 8, 2001, p. 6; “John Fleming, Writer on Art and Architecture.” The Times (London), June 4, 2001; Penny, Nicholas. “John Fleming, 1919-2001.” Burlington Magazine 143, no. 1184 (November 2001): 694-695.