Home Arts In memory of Richard Verdi, art historian and longtime director of the Barber Institute, who died at the age of 81

In memory of Richard Verdi, art historian and longtime director of the Barber Institute, who died at the age of 81

by godlove4241
0 comment

In the week before Richard Verdi’s death, an advance copy of his latest publication…Velazquez (Thames & Hudson, 2023) – was delivered to his bedside. In life he was incapable of rest. Since retiring as director of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts at the University of Birmingham in 2007, he had also written books on Rembrandt and Poussin and edited an earlier volume on Cézanne. An incomplete manuscript on his beloved Rubens remains on his desk.

The publications of the last ten years reflect his teaching of the previous forty. Since joining the University of Manchester’s Department of Art History in 1968, from his 17 years at York University to 17 more at Birmingham, Verdi has held students in check. It was not without trepidation that you enrolled in one of his courses. He had a reputation for being demanding, which I now realize he absolutely encouraged. It was his way of sorting out those he considered serious students – basically those who wanted to study the old masters. He made no apologies for calling himself “a dinosaur” – in his expectations of students and in what he taught. Even if it was impossible to match his fervor, one had to try. Heaven help you if you come to a seminar unprepared. Verdi would have no qualms calling everyone back the next day for another two-hour session.

At the Barber Institute, where he launched a series of public lectures, the amphitheater buzzed with crowds lining up to hear him speak. Gasps, sighs, laughter, the audience latched onto every word of this gifted speaker

His teaching was rigorous, direct and above all passionate. Despite years of familiarity with the works, he would still be visibly moved by the subject – brought to tears by Rubens garden of love or cackling with laughter in front of a peasant scene by Adriaen Brouwer. There was no room in his classes or in his life for mild enthusiasm, only ardent admiration or disgust. Students were not the only beneficiaries of Verdi’s inspiring teaching or witnesses to his character. At the Barber Institute, where he launched a series of public lectures, the amphitheater buzzed with crowds lining up to hear him speak. Gasps, sighs, laughter, the audience clung to every word of this gifted speaker. In a similar vein, the staff of the institute fell silent as Verdi moved swiftly through the corridors or galleries, leaning slightly forward, arms outstretched along the sides, hands shaking in anticipation. Until the last second, we would be uncertain whether his reaction to the thing presented – a new hanging, a poster for marketing or a writing – would be ecstasy or revulsion.

passionate nature

Richard Verdi attributes his passionate nature to his Italian ancestry. He was born in New York in 1941 to Italian-American parents but later naturalized as a British citizen. His past seems to have been a source of both pride and discomfort. He often referred to his Sicilian roots but had an ambivalent relationship with the United States. Gay life in post-war America had been difficult for him. Although more at home in Britain, he said he often felt like a foreigner. While his students, staff, and audiences adored him, and his reputation for publications and exhibitions grew, he never felt quite comfortable among the art establishment and did not attract their attention.

It is all the more remarkable that he organized so many national and international exhibitions. A number of them featured his favorite artist, Nicolas Poussin (the subject of his 1970 thesis at the Courtauld Institute in London, under the supervision of Anthony Blunt). These included Cézanne and Poussin: the classic view of landscape (National Gallery of Scotland, 1990), for which he won a National Art Collections Fund Award for an Outstanding Contribution to the Visual Arts, Nicolas Poussin: “Tancred and Erminia” (BirminghamMuseum and Art Gallery, 1992), and the landmark Nicholas Poussin (Royal Academy, 1995). Indeed, he became so well known in the museum world and got to know UK public collections so thoroughly that in 1998, again for the Royal Academy, he co-curated Art treasures from England: the regional collections alongside Giles Waterfield.

A perfectly formed sequence of exhibitions at the Barber Institute followed in which a single work from the collection became the focal point around which a thesis would be built. Among these shows are Matthias Stom: “Isaac blesses Jacob” (2000), featuring a painting he had acquired for the collection in 1994, and Van Dyck: “Ecce Homo'” and “The Mockery of Christ” (2002), which visited the Princeton University Art Museum and the National Gallery of Ireland. In 2003, when his partner of thirty-five years, John Brooks, fell terminally ill with cancer, Verdi was once again on the London stage as curator of the gargantuan exhibition, Saved! : 100 years of the National Art Collections Fundat the Hayward Gallery.

The loss of John in 2004 was deeply felt. He had been the perfect counterpoint. They had met at a Hugo Wolf concert in 1968 and shared a deep love of music and literature (and parrots). Bach, Mahler, Beethoven, Schumann were particularly appreciated, as were German writers and artists. It is thanks to Verdi that the Barber Institute now has a remarkable collection of German Expressionist prints and drawings, acquired at a time when such works were not yet fashionable (or even acceptable) in the UK.

Evaristo Baschenis (1617-77), Still life with musical instrumentscirca 1660. Verdi was immensely proud to acquire this remarkable work for the Barber Institute © The Henry Barber Trust, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

Verdi had an extraordinary sense of quality and a confidence that enabled him to acquire works by lesser-known artists such as JC Dahl, Orazio Marinali and Stom, often ahead of national collections. One such purchase was the incredible purchase of Evaristo Baschenis. Still life with musical instruments of around 1660, of which he was immensely proud. If Verdi’s acquisitions also included a portrait of Rubens, the artist who stuck with us most firmly, for me this painting represents him more than any other. Verdi had studied music for his first degree, becoming an accomplished clarinetist, so the painting combines two of his great loves. Its rich, dark colors, sumptuous curtain and array of instruments – slightly torn and dusty and precariously balanced – together produce a virtuoso creative tension. This still life not only reminds us of the fleetingness of worldly possessions and accomplishments, but, sullen, baroque and intelligent in the delivery of its message, it is Richard Verdi to a T.

Richard Frank Verdi; born in New York on November 7, 1941; Lecturer in Art History, University of Manchester 1969-71; lecturer in art history, University of York 1971-81, lecturer 1981-89; Professor of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham 1989-2007, Director, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 1990-2007; OBE 2007; died in Birmingham on December 25, 2022.

  • Hannah Higham is Senior Curator of Collections and Research at the Henry Moore Foundation and was a student and colleague of Richard Verdi at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts.

You may also like

Leave a Comment

@2022 – All Right Reserved. Designed and Developed by artworlddaily