Obituary: Dr Pamela Tudor-Craig

by
05 January 2018

Formidable forensic qualities: Dr Pamela Tudor-Craig

Formidable forensic qualities: Dr Pamela Tudor-Craig

Gordon Marsden MP writes:

SOMEONE encountering Dr Pamela Tudor-Craig was unlikely to forget her in a hurry. She was tall (with an angular face echoing the poet Edith Sitwell), accentuated often by robes with an ecclesiastical air, evocative of the proud medieval scholar that she was. Any severity was softened by her beautifully modulated voice, and a smile and embrace for visiting friends.

Her 1986 BBC TV series, The Secret Life of Paintings, brought her already formidable forensic qualities to a much wider audience. I saw her then, for the first time, dramatically striding across the screen as she peeled back the multiple meanings of Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors. I resolved, as a young editor of History Today, to recruit her for our special issue on the Royal Academy’s blockbuster Age of Chivalry exhibition, to which she contributed. It was the start of a deep 30-year friendship.

Dick Foster, her Secret Life of Paintings producer, has likened her to “a Catherine wheel with ideas flying out like sparks in all directions”. But the prodigious interdisciplinary cast of mind which produced her TV success was founded on the bedrock of more than 30 years of scholarship, much of it hands-on.

That encompassed a Courtauld Institute doctorate sweeping aside her tutor Anthony Blunt’s reservations on medieval art, recruitment at 23 to the committee organising a Society of Antiquaries exhibition, then election as a Fellow, and an involvement spanning seven decades.

Long and fruitful association with Westminster Abbey and cathedrals countrywide, plus 1960s country-house custodianship with her first husband, James Tudor-Craig (who died in 1969), at Ickworth in Suffolk, was juxtaposed with teaching American students and founding the annual Harlaxton symposium, a significant transatlantic contribution to medieval scholarship.

For Pamela, living during the 1980s with her second husband, Sir John Wedgwood (who died in 1989), in an Anglican community at Little Gidding, seeing was also believing. Her strong Christian faith and empathy with the medieval mind were all of a piece with her quickness of wit.

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In her 1987 wall-paintings article for History Today, she flits serenely between medieval art, theology, sermons, and poetry, nimbly connecting iconography with the transmission of new religious ideas from the Franciscans. She weaves the arcane with the everyday, connecting visual representations of the Seven Ages of Man with Shakespeare’s lines about them in As You Like It, she remarks wryly: “He need only have whiled away a sermon by gazing at a wall painting.”

As chairman of the Sussex Historic Churches Trust, she gave bravura in situ talks about such paintings in a cluster of Downs churches, but also with a keen eye to sourcing teas accompanying them.

To mount steep steps through a cottage garden to her door in Lewes, with a yellow leopard (reputedly from Heal’s) gazing on, was to enter a whirl of books, Arts and Crafts furniture, and paintings, some by her artist daughter, Lil. Recipients of Pamela’s hospitality might find themselves discussing iconography, conservation, and the future of art education, alongside local recycling initiatives.

Animals, especially dogs, were never far from her thoughts. She had a succession of dogs, the last named (with a turn of phrase worthy of Elizabeth I) Toad. After that, she retained a guest basket for visitors’ dogs, including mine and my partner’s.

The fibrosis that restricted her mobility and breathing never cramped her mind. In her final months in Lewes, she ranged animatedly from her chair about images of St Francis’s stigmata, as well as symbolism in Mary Tudor’s portraiture.

Animals feature prominently in her final article for the Church Times (Arts, 22/29 December). She produced it in extraordinary circumstances just weeks before her death, on 5 December, aged 89, in a sudden burst of providential energy, from her hospital bed.

It is quintessentially Pamela Tudor-Craig. Where else would you find a seventh-century gilt-silver hen with her chicks illustrating scripture (Matthew 23.37) and given by a Lombard queen to an Italian cathedral, accompanied by Pamela’s farmyard observations and remembrance of a childhood wooden toy replicating it?

Those spending time with her in hospital were privileged with an outpouring of anecdotes. I heard one about playing tennis with “Ben” and later encounters with him and “Peter” (Britten and Pears) — reminders of her deep acquaintance with creative genius beyond the visual as at the end of her article, invoking the 15th-century paean to the Virgin “I sing of a maiden”.

Though physically reduced, Pamela attained a luminous serenity without surrendering any sharpness or curiosity — moving testimony to a medieval concept that she was familiar with, “the art of dying well”.

Perhaps it’s not too “fair a fancy” to imagine her now interrogating some of the saints with the same precision as in life she investigated their images, accompanied, at Peter’s gates, by the jangle of a favourite dog’s collar.

Glyn Paflin adds: Pamela Tudor-Craig’s writing for the Church Times began when, as a distinguished scholar and adviser to cathedral fabric committees, she was consulted in 1989 by the new editor, John Whale, about increasing the paper’s coverage of the arts. This had not been attempted since Alan Shadwick’s articles in the early 1970s.

She was always keen to put other writers forward, while her own contributions would often cover new commissions, such as David Wynne’s statue of the Virgin in the Ely Lady chapel (which chimed with her historical interests), and artists who were well known to her; but there were also two annual fixtures: her review of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, which tended to be an occasion for lament, and her Christmas article, with its often surprising associations of ideas.

Both could be a challenge to illustrate: the items that she pinpointed in the summer were usually off-menu for RA publicity purposes; and the pictures for Christmas could be anything. If you were lucky, Pamela had used her phenomenal powers of persuasion on a curator, or had a postcard from somewhere in Italy. If you weren’t, a photocopy from an art monograph would arrive. Accustomed to writing for scholarly journals, Pamela would write at extraordinary length and include long verbatim quotations. She became increasingly philosophical about being cut.

She could spring other surprises, too. Once, she suggested that I would make a suitable match for a friend of hers who was repining in the north of England. Another time, we met by chance in the crypt restaurant at St Martin-in-the-Fields, and she insisted on giving me a lift home and would brook no refusal. Though the journey on the 77A bus would have been quite straightforward, ours included reversing across a piece of waste ground next to the now departed gasholder near Battersea Power Station.

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