Director of the National Gallery, London, 1973-1986; historian of 17th and 18th century art. Levey was born to devout Catholic parents, the Irishman O. L. H. Levey, a civil servant at the Air Ministry, and Britisher Gladys Mary Milestone (Levey). He attended a succession of Catholic boarding schools most notably the Oratory in Reading, where he demonstrated a strong religious faith. Levey was drafted into the Army in World War II, stationed initially in Egypt, rising to captain in the King's Shropshire Light Infantry, 1945-1948. As part of the Royal Education Corps, he was eventually demobilized with the rank of acting major general. Levey attended Exeter College, Oxford, studying under the Chaucer scholar Neville Coghill (1899-1980), obtaining a B.A. in 1950 after only two years. While assisting a girlfriend with her application to a keeper position at the National Gallery, London, he submitted one himself and was hired over her as an assistant keeper in 1951. At the Gallery, Levey served under assistant keeper Martin Davies, and with the other assistant (and legendary) keepers Cecil Gould, Neil MacLaren and Keeper William Pettigrew Gibson. In 1954 he married the novelist and critic Brigid Brophy (1929-1995). As assistant keeper he completed Museum's catalogs of the 18th-century Italian school (1956), and the German school (1959). He delivered the 1962 Charlton Lecture on Tiepolo's "Banquet of Cleopatra." Cambridge University appointed him its Slade Professor of Fine Art, 1963-1964, whose lectures were published as the book Rococo to Revolution, 1966. Levey rose to deputy keeper the same year.
A commissioned volume for the Penguin (publishers) Style and Civilization series, The Early Renaissance, 1967, won the Hawthornden Prize, never previously awarded to a work of non-fiction. Levey was appointed keeper at the Gallery in 1968, the same year his art general-readership volume, History of Western Art, appeared. He delivered the Wrightsman Lectures, New York University also in 1968, published in 1971 as Painting at Court. Levey was appointed director of the National Gallery in 1973 over more senior colleagues, but after the Board's unanimous first choice, Edmund Pillsbury. As director, Levey was a skilled administrator who, for example, allowed keepers to hang their own galleries. He created new galleries within the existing building, supporting the long and controversial planning of what became the Sainsbury Wing of the Museum. He also instituted a department of education for the museum. Acquisitions under his aegis included the Gallery's first purchases of Klimt, Matisse and Picasso. Levey also authorized the cleaning of many paintings. In 1972 he and Wend von Kalnein wrote the volume in the Pelican History of Art on eighteenth-century French art. High Renaissance, another book for a general readership, appeared in 1975. In 1981 he delivered the Neurath Lecture, "The Painter Depicted," and received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth. His wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1984. After publicly complaining about the low budget the Gallery had for acquisitions, Levey caught the attention of John Paul Getty II, who donated $25 million for acquisitions. He retired from the Gallery in 1986, stating a need to care for his declining wife. He was succeeded at the Gallery by Neil MacGregor, then the editor of The Burlington Magazine, after the American Edmund Pillsbury of the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth turned the position down. In retirement, Levey wrote Gianbatista Tiepolo: His Life and Art in 1987, which was awarded the Banister Fletcher Prize. Levey held the other Slade Professor of Fine Arts chair, at Oxford University, 1994-95. An updated version of his Pelican History of Art volume, solely on French eighteenth-century art, was issued by Yale University press. He died of a stroke late in 2008.
Levey commanded an excellent writing style and his works were accessible to the general reading public; he never was formally educated in art history. Understanding that a reputation in art history in the 20th century required constant publishing more than original scholarship, his name was constantly in print with novels, literature reviews and biographies. His art history, rooted in connoisseurship and formalism, reflected his admiration for Walter Pater, the subject of one of his many books. In the 1960's, his Rococo to Revolution became a target for "New Art History" historians. In a 1967 open letter to Levey in the Burlington Magazine, Anita Brookner contrasted his methodology with the need for examining social and political aspects of art. His outspoken wife, highly anti-religious and a bisexual, presented a foil to his elegant demeanor. Levey's directorship was one characterized by cultivation of internal staff rather than outside hires; his own advancement at the National Gallery was without competition.
- Painting in Eighteenth-Century Venice. London: Phaidon, 1959;
- Rococo to Revolution: Major Trends in Eighteenth-century Painting. New York, Praeger, 1966;
- The Eighteenth Century Italian Schools. London: National Gallery, 1956;
- Painting at Court. London: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1971;
and Kalnein, Wend von. Art and architecture of the Eighteenth Century in France. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1972;
- Painting and Sculpture in France 1700-1789. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993;
- The Chapel is on Fire: Reflections of Growing Up. London: Jonathan Cape, 2000.
- [obituaries:] Grimes, Michael. "Sir Michael Levey, 81, Art Historian, is Dead." New York Times January 3, 2008, p. A16;
- "Sir Michael Levey, Director of the National Gallery and Talented Interpreter of Works of Art." Times (London), December 31, 2008, p. 51;
- Mullaly, Terence. "Sir Michael Levey: Leading figure in the British art world and former director of the National Gallery." Guardian (London) December 30, 2008, p. 32.
- [methodological discussion:] Brookner, Anita. "From Anita Brookner to Michael Levey--an Open Letter." Burlington Magazine 109 (May 1967): 308-310; Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Research Guide to the History of Western Art. Sources of Information in the Humanities, no. 2. Chicago: American Library Association, 1982, p.120 mentioned;Gould, Cecil. "Michael Levey: A Tribute." Apollo 124 (October 1986): 369 [no biographical information];
- Levey, Michael. The Chapel is on Fire: Reflections of Growing Up. London: Jonathan Cape, 2000;
- Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series 25: 276-7;