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Forsdyke, John, Sir

    Image Credit: The British Museum

    Full Name: Forsdyke, John, Sir

    Other Names:

    • Sir Edgar John Forsdyke

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1883

    Date Died: 1979

    Place Born: Bermondsey, Southwark, London, England, UK

    Place Died: Golders Green, Barnet, Greater London, England, UK

    Home Country/ies: United Kingdom

    Subject Area(s): museums (institutions) and prehistoric

    Career(s): directors (administrators) and museum directors


    Director, British Museum, 1936-1950, and scholar of the prehistoric era. Forsdyke was son of Frederick Palmer Forsdyke and Mary Eliza Sainsbury. He was educated at Christ’s Hospital and Keble College, Oxford, graduating in 1906. A scholar of classical studies, he joined the British Museum in 1908 as an assistant in the department of Greek and Roman Antiquities. In 1910 he married a forty-two-year-old widow (he was twenty-six) Frances Beatrice Mumford Gifford. Forsdyke worked closely with Arthur J. Evans, contributing to Evans’ work the Palace of Minos. He edited the Journal of Hellenic Studies between 1912 to 1923. He served in the Royal Artillery during World War I 1914-1919, in France, Macedonia, and Spain. After the war, his major work, a catalog of the Aegean pottery appeared in 1925. He and Henry Beauchamp Walters wrote three fascicules of Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum the same year. At the suggestion of Arthur J. Evans, he was sent to Crete to finish excavating the cemetery near Knossos in 1927. In 1932 he was made Keeper of the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities. As keeper, he dealt with Joseph Duveen (1869-1939), the difficult donor of the new wing to house the Elgin marbles. When George Francis Hill retired as Director and Principal Librarian in 1936, Forsdyke was appointed his replacement. The following year he was knighted. Duveen pressured some museum official to “clean” the marbles. Though Forsdyke discovered and prevented further damage, the incident hung over the museum and damaged his reputation. A similar “cleaning” had also occurred at the National Gallery. As tensions with Nazi Germany made it clear the war was inevitable, Forsdyke developed the evacuation plan for the treasures of the museum. His able administrative skills are credited with saving many of the museum’s objects during a time when labor, adequate storage and time were in low supply. The Duveen gallery and parts of the Library were destroyed in the Blitz. Following his first wife’s death in the 1930s, he married Anna Amadea Leonie Dea Gombrich (1905-1994) in 1942, the sister of E. H. Gombrich. After the war, Forsdyke invested heavily in microfilming the collection, not so much as a preservation tool, but as outreach to the broader scholarly community. He retired in 1951. He died at home of bronchitis exacerbated by heart disease. Neither a notable scholar nor an easy man to get along with, he is principally known for his war-time saving of the British Museum.

    Selected Bibliography

    and Walters, Henry Beauchamp, and Smith, Cecil Harcourt. A Catalogue of the Greek and Etruscan Vases in the British Museum. 4 vols. London: British Museum, 1925 ff.; Greece Before Homer: Ancient Chronology and Mythology. 1931 Annual Lecture on Aspects of Art, Henriette Hertz Trust of the British Academy. London: Max Parrish, 1956; Minoan Art. London: H. Milford, 1931; Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum. Great Britain. British Museum, Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: British Museum, 1925, fascicule 5; “Harvester Vase of Hagia Triada.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 17 (January 1954): 1-9; “Minos of Crete, the Chieftain Cup.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 15 (January 1952): 13-19.


    [obituary:] Sir John Forsdyke Director of British Museum in War Time. The Times (London). December 8, 1979; p. 14.


    "Forsdyke, John, Sir." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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