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John Pope-Hennessy papers, 1617-1995, bulk 1930-1995

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Finding aid for the John Pope-Hennessy Papers, 1617-1995, bulk 1930-1995

Biographical / Historical Note

Sir John Wyndham Pope-Hennessy (1913-1994) was a British art historian, museum director, curator, and an expert on Italian Renaissance sculpture and painting. He served as director of both the Victoria and Albert Museum (1967-1973) and the British Museum (1974-1976). In 1977, he became Chairman of the Department of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and professor of art history at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts. Sienese Quattrocento painting was Pope-Hennessy's first field of research and was marked by his monograph on the painter Giovanni di Paolo. However, his greatest contribution to the history of art is perhaps his research and writing on Italian sculpture, which profited from his decades-long work with the rich sculpture collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum. His three-volume Introduction to Italian Sculpture has remained an important reference work and was followed by studies on Donatello, bronze statuettes, and Italian plaquettes.

Pope-Hennessy was born in Belgravia, London into an Irish Catholic family. His father, Major-General Ladislas Herbert Richard Pope-Hennessy (1875-1942) was a member of the British Liberal Party. His mother, Dame Una (née Birch) Pope-Hennessy (1876-1949), was a writer, historian and biographer, whose published works include Early Chinese Jades (1923) and Charles Dickens (1945). Both were active supporters of the Irish Dominion. Pope-Hennessy's younger brother, James Pope-Hennessy (1916-1974), was also a biographer, historian and author known for works such as Queen Mary (1959), Sins of the Fathers: A Study of the Atlantic Slave Traders, 1441-1807 (1967), and Anthony Trollope (1971). Moreover, Pope-Hennessy's namesake and grandfather, Sir John Pope-Hennessy (1834-1891), who was born in Cork, Ireland, became governor of several British crown colonies, including the Bahamas, Barbados, Hong Kong, and Mauritius. Known for being a progressive and liberal governor, streets were named after Sir John and a statue of him was built in Mauritius.

The younger John Pope-Hennessy lived as a child in Washington, D.C. where his father served as a military attaché at the British Embassy. He was educated at Downside Abbey (Somerset) and read history at Balliol College, Oxford. Although he received no formal training in art history, according to John Pope-Hennessy: A Bibliography, compiled by Everett Fahy, his interest in art history began as a young boy in 1926, when he purchased Crowe and Cavalcaselle's book on North Italian painting. While at Balliol College, he was introduced to Kenneth Clark and attended Clark's lectures at the Ashmolean. In 1935-1936, Pope-Hennessy traveled extensively throughout Europe, visiting museums, private collections, and setting out to see all the known works by the Sienese painter Giovanni di Paolo, on whom he was writing a monograph. In 1938, he joined the staff of the Victoria and Albert Museum, initiating a long career at the museum, where he worked first in the Department of Engraving, Illustration and Design, then in the Department of Sculpture, before assuming the directorship of the museum from 1967 to 1973. Knighted in 1971, Pope-Hennessy directed the British Museum from 1974 to 1976. His early resignation from the British Museum and his departure from England for Tuscany and then New York has been attributed in part to his brother's tragic death in 1974. In 1977, he accepted an invitation to join the staff of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

While working at the Victoria and Albert Museum, British Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and New York University's Institute of Fine Arts, Pope-Hennessy continued to research and publish works, including Sienese Quattrocento Painting (1947), Fra Angelico (1952), The Portrait in the Renaissance (1966), Essays on Italian Sculpture (1968), Luca della Robbia (1980), Cellini (1985), and Donatello (1993).

In 1986, he retired to Florence where he was made an honorary citizen. There he wrote an autobiography of his life and career titled Learning to Look (1991). He died in 1994 and is buried in the Cimitero Evangelico degli Allori in Galluzzo, a suburb of Florence. His art collection from his home in Florence was sold at Christie's, New York, in 1996.




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