News Archive 2019

Professor Kerry Downes (1930-2019) obituary

8 Oct 2019

Although he spent the major part of his career at the University of Reading, Kerry Downes, who has died at the age of 88, remained loyal to The Courtauld Institute – its teaching and practice – throughout his life.

It was his art teacher at St Benedict’s, Ealing, who noting his passion for the history of art and his habit of tramping all over London looking at buildings, suggested that he should study art history at The Courtauld which at that time, the late 1940s, was the only English college offering a degree. Kerry, one of a group of fifteen, had, in his own words ‘wonderful teaching and as much attention as we could wish for’. He graduated in 1952 with his particular interest in the architecture of Nicholas Hawksmoor already established. During two years of national service, which as a conscientious objector he spent as a hospital porter, he had time enough for reading, and when he returned to The Courtauld in 1954 as a library assistant he continued his doctoral studies under the supervision of Margaret Whinney. It was in the library of the Institute that Kerry acquired not only cataloguing skills but also the belief that removal of book jackets allowed for the accommodation of one more book per shelf, a practice which he continued at home in his own substantial library. From 1958 to 1966 Kerry was art librarian at the Barber Institute, Birmingham University. During this period there were two events of major significance: he published his first, ground-breaking major monograph on Hawksmoor (1959), his PhD (without the ‘unpublishable’ catalogue of drawings) which unusually he was awarded the following year after the publication of the book, and he met and married (in 1962) the music librarian Margaret Walton – they shared a devoted partnership until her death in 2003.

Kerry regarded teaching and research as complementary, mutually refreshing activities, so tiring of librarianship in 1966 he joined the recently appointed Peter Fitzgerald as the second full-time art historian at the University of Reading to teach the newly-established degree in art history: the first graduates emerged in 1968. Prior to the creation of the degree, art history had been taught only as part of the Fine Art course, on one day per week. A pattern had been established of employing visiting lecturers on this course from the two major art historical institutes – Ernst Gombrich and Jennifer Montagu came from the Warburg – and Kerry and Peter continued this practice on the new degree course with a rich succession of eminent visiting lecturers from The Courtauld, including Phoebe Pool, Anita Brookner, Anthony Blunt and Neil MacGregor (who became a full-time lecturer). As the art history course developed into the History of Art and Architecture, allowing students to study both, with an emphasis on one or the other, the example of The Courtauld remained a touchstone: we were told that all that we were missing as students at Reading were the Conway and Witt photographic libraries, and in the 1970s a day-return to Paddington cost only 12/6 (63p).

Kerry continued at Reading successively as Lecturer, Reader and Professor (running the newly independent department from 1978) until retiring, Emeritus, in 1991. His teaching was exemplary, often marked by judicious silences and enlivened by his dry wit; like his mentors, he always made time: generations of students benefitted and some, along with his colleagues, became lifelong friends. His complementary activity – research – was remarkably productive and influential for a man who listed procrastination as one of his hobbies in Who’s Who. The significance of his first book, Hawksmoor, was recognised by the award of the SAH(GB) Alice Davis Hitchcock medallion in 1961. A further smaller, complementary Thames and Hudson volume, bringing this great and at the time lesser known architect to a wider public, followed in 1969, three years after his grand national survey, English Baroque Architecture, distinguished not least by Kerry’s own drawings and photographs, had laid out the full richness and variety of the subject (1966). Two books each on Wren (1971 and 1982) and Vanbrugh (1977 and 1987) followed. There was also a catalogue of Wren’s drawings for St Paul’s (1988) and exhibitions on both Hawksmoor (1962 and 1977) and Wren (1982 and 1991). While English Baroque architecture remained the prime concern of Kerry’s research, his books on it comprising his major legacy, he taught much more widely on Renaissance and Baroque art and architecture, producing a fine volume on Rubens (1980) and more modestly, the year before, a slim and elegant diversion on The Georgian Cities of Britain in which he noted: ‘Conserving the best is our duty both to our forebears’ vision and to our posterity’s expectation’. In the second edition of his first Hawksmoor (1979), Kerry took justifiable credit for bringing his subject to a wider audience, thereby stimulating the preservation and restoration of Christ Church, Spitalfields and the saving of the tower and walls of St George-in-the-East. But he was never a doctrinaire conservationist, always giving priority to architectural quality – he joined Sir John Summerson in arguing for the Mies van der Rohe proposal at the Mansion House Square inquiry (1984).

During his long career of teaching and writing, Kerry also served public roles, as a Commissioner with the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England (1981-93) and as President of the SAH(GB) (1984-88) which later honoured him as Hon.Patron (2017). He was also FSA, Hon.D.Litt (Birmingham) and was appointed OBE in 1994. Despite his eminence he remained a courteous, modest, often self-effacing man who was held in high regard and affection by all who came to know him well and were the beneficiaries of advice and anecdote in regular long letters in a just-about decipherable hand. The advent of the word-processor and then the internet not only improved legibility but also prompted a change of name. Kerry, the son of Agnes and Ralph, the eminent organist and organ designer, had been christened John Kerry Downes. But he was always known as Kerry in person and in his publications. He offered two reasons for officially changing the order to Kerry John: internet bibliographical searches would be facilitated and if, in hospital, a nurse shouted ‘wake up, John’ in his ear, he would take no notice.

Kerry remained actively involved in research long after retirement from teaching, publishing in 2009 one of his most remarkable books, the magnificent, complexly-structured Borromini’s Book – the ‘Full Relation of the Building of the Roman Oratory’ which offers a detailed commentary and a comprehensive who’s who to accompany his translation of Borromini’s description of the whole edifice, the Opus Architectonicum. The book is informed by his long engagement with the architecture of Borromini (initially stimulated by a visit to Rome and to Courtauld lectures by Blunt), with his deep understanding of (Catholic) religious practice and faith and with his sharp eye for the apparently but not necessarily tangential. In encapsulating so many of Kerry’s concerns, Borromini’s Book may stand as a monument to a great scholar and teacher.