Amateur scholar of British sculpture and collector; sculpture dictionary author. Gunnis was the son of Francis George Gunnis (1862-1932), a merchant, and Ivy Marion Streatfeild (Gunnis) (1869-1960). As a boy, he was fascinated by church monuments. After graduating from Eton in 1916, he worked as the secretary to the last commissioner of the British South Africa Company (1923), and then entered the colonial (foreign) civil service. He was the private secretary to the governors of Uganda (1923-1926) and then Cyprus (1926-1932). In 1932 he became inspector of antiquities for the Cyprus Museum, writing Historic Cyprus: a Guide to its Towns and Villages, Monasteries and Castles (1936). He returned to England during the World War II (1939) where he was left a small fortune at the death of his aunt, the widow of General Sir Francis Lloyd. He bought Hungershall Lodge, a mansion in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, where he and his life partner, then referred to as his "Cypriot manservant," Namuk Kemal, lived in style. Gunnis began collecting eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English sculpture. Gunnis began assiduously compiling data on sculpture around 1942, visiting churches, libraries, and archives throughout Britain. He intended his index to be part of a projected book, Dictionary of British sculptors in England by Katharine Esdaile. Apparently Esdaile suggested Gunnis widen his research to include sculptors from the British Reformation to the Great Exhibition. During these years, Gunnis worked in tandem with another art-dictionary compiler, Howard Montagu Colvin; Colvin on a biographical dictionary of architects. The two shared Gunnis' limousine on jaunts to archives throughout Britain. Esdaile died without completing her project. Gunnis published his Dictionary of British Sculptors, 1660-1851 in 1953 and Colvin's Biographical Dictionary of English Architects 1660-1840 appeared in 1954. Gunnis compiled a revised edition in 1964, which was published posthumously in 1968. He also collaborated with Margaret Whinney on a catalogue, The Collection of Models at University College by John Flaxman (1967). He died in the vicinity of Reading, England, UK of a heart attack at age 66 and is buried in the Streatfeild Mausoleum in Chiddingstone churchyard, Kent. Most of his sculpture collection was bequeathed to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Gunnis's Dictionary of British Sculptors 1660-1851 was...the work of a connoisseur and collector attempting to garner the lives and works of British sculptors much as Colvin was doing at the same time for English architects." (Summerson). Gunnis was, like Colvin, an "archives man" who insisted on documentation for his lists. Though the public quibbled with some attributions, Gunnis' work stood the test of time. His approach to the objects was one of connoisseurship.
Dictionary of British Sculptors, 1660-1851. London: Odhams Press, 1953; and Whinney, Margaret. The Collection of Models by John Flaxman, R.A. at University College London. London: Athlone P., 1967.
Knox, Tim. "Portrait of a Collector: Rupert Gunnis at Hungershall Lodge and his Bequest to the Victoria and Albert Museum." Sculpture Journal 2 (1998): 85-96; Summerson, John. "Margaret Dickens Whinney, 1894-1975." Proceedings of the British Academy 68 (1982): 640; [obituaries:] "Mr Rupert Gunnis." Times (London) August 2, 1965, p. 10; Whinney, Margaret. "Rupert Gunnis." Burlington Magazine 107, no. 753. (December 1965): 634.