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Woodall, Mary

    Full Name: Woodall, Mary

    Gender: female

    Date Born: 1901

    Date Died: 1988

    Place Born: Chelsea, Kensington and Chelsea, London, England, UK

    Place Died: Burcot, near Clifton Hampden, Oxfordshire, UK

    Home Country/ies: United Kingdom


    Museum director and Gainsborough scholar. Woodall was the daughter of Henry Woodall, head of the British Gas Light and Coke Company. Her mother was Bertha Nettlefold. Woodall attended Cheltenham Ladies’ College and then Somerville College, Oxford. She majored in history. After college she attended the Slade School of Fine Art, Shoreham, under Franklin White (d. 1975). There she studied the drawings of Gainsborough. In 1939 she was awarded a Ph.D. at the Courtauld Institute of Art, writing on Gainsborough’s landscape drawings. She briefly volunteered at the department of prints and drawings of the British Museum. When World War II was declared, Woodall accepted a position of regional administrator for the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service in 1938. In 1942 she moved to Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Supply. She secured a position as curator (“Keeper”) at the City of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, under Trenchard Cox on 1945. Cox was struggling with postwar issues of museum consolidation and bureaucracy. Woodard, with a strong administrative skill, took on the project immediately. She organized an exhibition on Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 1947, and another on the work of Richard Wilson in 1948. During this time she and Cox went about building both the collections and public reputation of the Art Gallery. In 1949 she published her Thomas Gainsborough: his Life and Work. When Cox left in 1956 to become director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Woodall succeeded him. She persuaded the Birmingham city council in 1959 to sell works from the collection, including late-19th century Birmingham School artists, Joseph Southall and Arthur Gaskin, which were ill-advised. Her edited letters of Gainsborough appeared in 1961. She elected the first woman president of the Museums Association in 1962. She retired in 1964. In her retirement she was an UK adviser to the Felton Trust, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia and a trustee of the National Gallery, London, between 1966-76. Among her firsts was the first woman fellow of University College, London. Among her staff, she was known as “Mighty Mary.” She died in a nursing home in 1988.

    Selected Bibliography

    [dissertation:] Gainsborough’s Landscape Drawings. Ph.D., University of London, 1938, published under the same title, London: Faber and Faber, 1939; Catalogue of Paintings. Birmingham: Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, 1960; Catalogue of Pictures by Richard Wilson and his Circle. Birmingham: City Museum & Art Gallery, 1948; Thomas Gainsborough: his Life and Work. London: Phoenix House, 1949.


    Garlick, Kenneth. “Woodall, Mary (1901-1988).” Dictionary of National Biography; [obituaries:] “Dr Mary Woodall: Art administrator and scholar.” The Times (London), 6 April 1988; Farr, Dennis. “Mary Woodall: A Woman in Pictures.” The Guardian (London), April 11, 1988.


    "Woodall, Mary." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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