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Pope-Hennessy, John, Sir

    Full Name: Pope-Hennessy, John, Sir

    Other Names:

    • Sir John Pope-Hennessy

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 13 December 1913

    Date Died: 31 October 1994

    Place Born: London, Greater London, England, UK

    Place Died: Florence, Tuscany, Italy

    Home Country/ies: United Kingdom

    Subject Area(s): Renaissance

    Career(s): curators


    Director of the both the Victoria & Albert and British Museums, London and curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; scholar of Italian art and major proponent of connoisseurship in art history. Born to an upper-middle class family; his grandfather and namesake, John Pope-Hennessy (1834-1891) had been a minor Conservative member of Parliament and later a successful colonial governor of Hong Kong. His father, Maj. Gen. [Ladislaus Herbert] Richard Pope-Hennessy (1875-1942), was a career officer and his mother, Dame Una Birch (Pope-Hennessy) (1876-1949), a noted writer. The younger Pope-Hennessy lived in Washgington, D. C., as a child when his father held a post as military attaché at the British Embassy there. He was educated at Downside Abbey (Somerset) and then Balliol College, Oxford, where he met Kenneth Clark, then at the Ashmolean. As a young man, he witnessed morning discourses on the Bergsonian-style aesthetics of enigmatic Matthew Stewart Prichard at the Gargoyle Club. Pope-Hennessy spent the 1935-1936 year touring Europe. He met Bernard Berenson, though the two did not initially get along. Herbert Read, then editor of the Burlington Magazine, encouraged Pope-Hennessy to write reviews and “Recent Research” pieces for the magazine in 1936.

    Pope-Hennessy applied to a position at the National Gallery the same year, but was turned down. In 1937 his book on Giovanni di Paolo appeared (dedicated to Clark). In 1938 Pope-Hennessy had secured a position in the Department of Engraving, Illustration and Design at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. His second monograph, on the Siennese artist, Sassetta, appeared in 1939. During World War II, Pope-Hennessy worked for the Air Ministry as part of the national defense. Returning to Europe in 1944, he was one of the first British to report (in print) on recent work of Matisse and Picasso in the Salon d’Automne in liberated Paris. After the war, he requested a transfer in the V&A to the department of Sculpture, hoping for a larger profile than he had been able to establish in the print division. The writings of Jenö Lányi, especially on Donatello, helped him develop the acumen for this new medium within his field. Pope-Hennessy set about rewriting the catalog of sculpture previous issued by Eric Maclagan and Margaret Longhurst. The assuming of the editorship of the Burlington Magazine by Benedict Nicolson (from Nikolaus Bernard Leon Pevsner) in 1947 started a celebrated row between Nicolson and Pope-Hennessy. Pope-Hennessy was on both the editorial board and consultative board of the magazine, and let his criticisms of Nicolson be known. Nicolson ultimately prevailed and retained his editorship; Pope-Hennessy ceased to contribute to the magazine.

    He was appointed Keeper to the Department of Sculpture in 1954. By that time, he was already good friends with the high-profile New York collectors Jayne and Charles Wrightsman. The first volume of Pope-Hennessy’s introduction to Italian sculpture, on the Gothic, appeared in 1955. That same year he was a visiting professor at Yale University. The retirement of Leigh Ashton in 1955 led to speculation that Pope-Hennessy should succeed, but the position was given to Trenchard Cox. Pope-Hennessy’s interest in small bronze statuettes resulted in the 1961-1962 show in Florence and Amsterdam. He taught at Williams College during the same academic year (1962-1963). He delivered the Mellon Lectures in Washgington, D. C. in 1963. His tenure at the V&A included the acquisition of Bernini’s Neptune and Triton (1620) and Giambologna’s Samson Slaying a Philistine (1561-2). In 1964 the new catalog of the V&A Italian sculpture collection appeared. That year he published his commissioned work on the Kress Collection of Italian bronzes. One result of this was the further commission to write the catalog to the Frick Collection’s (New York) fine holdings in bronze statuettes in 1966 (appeared in in 1970). In 1965 he delivered the Wrightsman lectures at New York University. Pope-Hennessy succeeded Cox as the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1967. The following year he was purportedly offered the directorship of the National Gallery, a job more suited to him, but he declined. His tenure at the V&A was marked by strong support of staff research and plans for new 20th-century galleries and a reinstallation of the Indian and Far Eastern collections, the latter two unfulfilled by his successors.

    In 1974 he retired from the V&A, and was replaced by the 38-year-old director of the (British) National Portrait Gallery, Roy C. Strong. Pope-Hennessy succeeded Lord Wolfenden of Westcott (1906-1985) as director of the British Museum the same year. The British Museum was a vastly different enterprise and he never felt his successes forthcoming. When his brother James, (1916-1974), also a homosexual, was beaten to death by a lover in 1974, Pope-Hennessy looked for a change in life venue. This came in 1977 when Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Hoving lured him to New York to be “Consultative Chairman” to the Department of European Painting. At the same time Pope-Hennessy jointly held a professorship at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. At the Met, he rehung the entire European painting collection and instituted a more informative labeling system. His acquisitions included Rubens’ Self-portrait with Helene Fourment and their Son, Peter (1630s) and Guercino’s Blinding of Sampson (1619), both gifts of the Wrightsmans. He hired a young art historian, Walter Liedtke, who became at the museum one of the eminent curators.  In those years he authored monographs on individual sculptors, including Luca della Robbia, 1980, Cellini, 1985, and Donatello in 1993. The latter two were in biographical form, but are, in fact, full studies of the artists. Although never wealthy, in the 1980s he sold two personal pictures, Domenichino’s Christ Carrying The Cross to the Getty Museum for $750,000, a work he had paid £38 for in 1946, and Annibale Carraci’s Vision of St. Francis to the National Gallery of Canada for £100,000, which he had originally purchased for £28. In New York, Pope-Hennessy met Michael Mallon, a young scholar attending Pope-Hennessy’s Frick lectures. Pope-Hennessy secured him an internship at the Metropolitan and Mallon became Pope-Hennessy’s life partner. The two retired to Florence in 1986. He was succeeded at the Metropolitan by Everett Fahy, Jr. Pope-Hennessy died in Florence at age 80 from complications from a liver ailment. He is buried in the Cimitero Evangelico degli Allori in Galluzzo, a suburb of Florence. His art collection from his Florence home was sold for £1.03 million at Christie’s, New York, in 1996.

    Pope-Hennessy did not have, nor did he ever apparently seek, formal training in art history. The hallmark of his methodology was connoisseurship. His important rewriting of the V&A catalog, which focused more on provenance and aspect of the sculpture than previous catalogs had, relied on material supplied by R. W. Lightbown. His introduction to Italian Sculpture was in fact the critical catalog to the V&A’s collection many had hoped his revisions would be (Radcliffe). His legacy to the dual worlds of academic and museum art history was to emphasize the importance of the object and eschew rank speculation as much as possible. Pope-Hennessy possessed a particularly difficult personality. Those who respected him termed him “abrasive,” “unrealistic” and “impatient.” The difficult relationship at the V&A with the curator of sculpture Terrence Hodgkinson is well documented. His caustic opinions of fellow art historians, both in print and verbal, are both legion and famous. He was unaccountably hard on Lightbown whose assistance on the 1964 V&A sculpture catalog was considerable; acerbic toward the work of Leo Planiscig, one of his few forerunners in the field of sculpture, and “unremittingly hostile” (Fenton) toward the American sculpture historian Charles Seymour, Jr. Pope-Hennessy’s aristocratic upbringing, which opened many doors among art museum officials and collectors, accounted in large part for his success as a museum curator and director. His universal nickname, a mixture of respect and the autocratic fear he instilled, was “The Pope.” The last director of the V&A who could could allow himself to be concerned only with scholarship issues, no one reportedly dared ask him when the roof was reported leaking, to have it fixed. His brother was the British royal family biographer and documentarian James Pope-Hennessy (1916-1974).


    Selected Bibliography

    Sienese Quattrocento Painting. Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1947; The Drawings of Domenichino in the Collection of His Majesty the King at Windsor Castle. London: Phaidon Press, 1948; Fra Angelico. New York: Phaidon/Garden City Books, 1952; An Introduction to Italian Sculpture. 3 vols. New York: Phaidon: 1955-63; and Lightbown, Ronald. Catalogue of Italian Sculpture in the Victoria and Albert Museum. 3 vols. London: H. M. Stationery Office, 1964; The Portrait in the Renaissance. New York: Bollingen Foundation, 1966; The Study and Criticism of Italian Sculpture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980; Luca della Robbia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980; Cellini. New York: Abbeville Press, 1985; Italian Paintings. volume 1 of, The Robert Lehman Collection [Metropolitan Museum of Art]. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Princeton University Press, 1986; Learning to Look. New York: Doubleday, 1991; The Piero della Francesca Trail. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1992; On Artists and Art Historians: Selected Book Reviews of John Pope-Hennessy. Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 1994.


    Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Modern Perspectives in Western Art History: An Anthology of 20th-Century Writings on the Visual Arts. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971, p. 67 cited; [correspondence:] Peter Quennell, ed.  Pope-Hennessy, James. A Lonely Business: a Self-portrait of James Pope-Hennessy. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981; Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Research Guide to the History of Western Art. Sources of Information in the Humanities, no. 2. Chicago: American Library Association, 1982, pp. 50-51; Pope-Hennessy, John. Learning to Look. New York: Doubleday, 1991; Bayley, Stephen. “Vitrol & Ambition: It’s One of the World’s Great Museums [etc.].” Independent (London), July 28, 2000, p. 1; [obituaries:] C.M.E., and Radcliffe, Anthony, and Christiansen, Keith. “John Pope-Hennessy (1913-94).” The Burlington Magazine 137, no. 1102 (January 1995): 34-37; Wilson, David. “Mandarin of the Museums.” The Guardian (London), November 2, 1994, p. T17; Boucher, Bruce. The Independent (London), November 2, 1994, p. 14; Fenton, James. “More of a Sleuth than a Mandarin.” Independent (London). November 7, 1994, p. 16; The Times (London), November 2, 1994; Russell, John. “Sir John Pope-Hennessy, 80, Art Expert, Dies.” The New York Times, November 1, 1994, p. 8.

    Contributors: Lee Sorensen


    Lee Sorensen. "Pope-Hennessy, John, Sir." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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