15 March 2012
Professor John Steer died on 20 February aged 83. Michael Liversidge, Emeritus Dean of Arts, remembers the man whose appointment as the first Lecturer in European Art at Bristol in 1959 marked the effective birth of the University’s Department of History of Art.
John Richardson Steer was born in Bournemouth, attended Clayesmore School in Dorset, and took his first degree in History at Oxford (Keble College). He decided to go on from there to the Courtauld Institute of Art when he graduated as a result of visiting the Ashmolean Museum and hearing some lectures on Venetian art by a visiting scholar from the Courtauld, Johannes Wilde – one of the great generation of immigrant art historians who helped to establish the subject in Britain when they were forced to leave Germany in the 1930s, an exodus that brought, among others, Sir Ernst Gombrich and Sir Nikolaus Pevsner to this country.
John Steer stood out at the Courtauld, and after three years at the City Art Gallery in Birmingham he was appointed as an Assistant Lecturer in the Department of Fine Art at Glasgow, and then Lecturer in European Art at Bristol. His department when he started here in 1959 was German, presided over then by Professor August Closs who was determined to introduce the subject to Bristol despite the Department of History’s refusal at that time to let it across the threshold, on the grounds that art history was not a serious university discipline. It was greatly to John Steer’s credit that he persuaded his more sceptical colleagues in the Faculty of Arts (not only in History, as it turned out) otherwise, and was able to grow the subject. He even managed to infiltrate History, of which History of Art had become a sub-department by the time he left a few years later, with three lecturers and a new joint honours degree, combining the two subjects equally, due to start.
By then, John Steer’s reputation as an inspirational teacher with a vision of how the subject could contribute to the humanities generally had taken him to St Andrews, whither he was enticed as the first Professor of History of Art in 1967, and so founded his second department and also created its highly successful Visual Arts Centre. In 1980 he moved from St Andrews to Birkbeck College (as it then was) in the University of London, following Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as its Professor of the History of Art.
Following his retirement from Birkbeck, Professor Steer became a Trustee of the Victoria and Albert Museum, was appointed to the Royal Fine Art Commission, and served a term as Chair of the Association of Art Historians. He had other interests as well, having in his Bristol days been a prominent supporter of the Arnolfini Gallery in its earliest formative years (when it occupied premises on The Triangle), and also of the Western Theatre Ballet which later transplanted itself and became the Scottish Theatre Ballet, of which he was for a time Vice-Chairman. He also directed a number of plays, having a particular interest in those by Schiller.
John Steer made his mark as an academic art historian with a number of publications, notably the bestselling (still, after 40 years) Thames and Hudson ‘World of Art’ volume Venetian Painting: A Concise History, a monograph on the 15th-century painter Alvise Vivarini, and a pioneering Atlas of Western Art History: Artists, Sites and Movements from Ancient Greece to the Modern Age, which he conceived and co-authored with Anthony White. He has left behind a significant legacy, not least in Bristol, and will be remembered with affection and admiration by many former students and colleagues. We send our condolences to Peter Chapman, John’s devoted partner for more than 30 years.
(With thanks to Jerome Farrell and Ray Batchelor)
Professor John Steer