Professor Michael Kauffmann FBA (1931–2023)


Michael Kauffmann (1931 – 2023)

The former chair of the British Corpus Vitrearum Michael Kauffmann FBA has died at the age of 92. Michael served for an eventful decade in the history of the project, succeeding David Wilson FBA, and stepping down in 2001. His service to the Corpus was just one of many contributions to national cultural life, in a distinguished career as a scholar, curator and administrator.

Born in Frankfurt to a Jewish family, Michael came to the United Kingdom with his parents in 1938. He studied for his doctorate under Hugo Buchtal at the Warburg Institute in London (1953-55), joining that great generation of émigré scholars. In 1960, he began a twenty-five year career at the Victoria & Albert Museum, where he rose to become Keeper of the Department of Prints & Drawings and Paintings. He published very widely on the collection in his care, but maintained a particular interest in Romanesque manuscript illumination and the arts of the book, the subject of his important monograph Romanesque Manuscripts, 10661190(published in the Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles, 1975), and in medieval imagery more generally, culminating in his magisterial Biblical Imagery in Medieval England, 7001550 (2003). He was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1987. Michael combined depth and range of scholarship with remarkable skills in management. At the V&A, he oversaw the move of his department into the refurbished Henry Cole Wing (1983). Shortly afterwards, this made him an obvious choice to lead the even larger move of the Courtauld Institute and its art gallery from their homes in Portman Square and Woburn Square to Somerset House. He was appointed Director of the Institute in 1985, where he oversaw a flourishing increase in student numbers.

Michael was running the Courtauld when I first started working with him as Secretary of the Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi (or CVMA, as it was then known), in the early 1990s. The project was also based at Somerset House in the grand new accommodation that he had helped to create. Michael would then continue to chair the project after his retirement from the Institute in 1995. During his tenure, the committee was transformed by the recruitment of younger medievalists, including Paul Binski, Sarah Brown, Paul Crossley and David O’Connor. With characteristic good humour, he steered the project wisely through the usual crises in funding, in support of publications and new beginnings. Four books appeared in a new series of summary catalogues, first proposed by Richard Marks on the model of successful French and American ventures. The simpler format released a diverse stream of volumes, on Netherlandish roundels, the St William Window in York Minster, and county surveys of medieval stained glass in Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire. It was also under his aegis that the project embarked upon its first explorations of the dawning digital world, to pilot an image database and a website, in partnership with the Centre for Computing in the Humanities at King’s College, London, next door.

The highlight of our collaboration was the international colloquium hosted by the British committee at Bristol in 2000. Michael’s administrative experience meant that he planned it very rapidly, initially literally on the back of an envelope, in his tiny handwriting. For a trip to Bristol to scout out venues, visits and accommodation, he enlisted former colleague and fellow committee member Michael Archer, who had particular knowledge of the city. It was a memorable day, taking in the grotto at Goldney Hall, where we planned a reception, with two old friends who believed that work should be enjoyable, whenever possible. For the conference itself, Michael secured a sequestered office in a university building in Clifton, and on day one produced a bottle of whisky, which he popped in a drawer – ‘in case of emergencies’, he observed with a twinkle.

Michael was always interested in the welfare of the people working for him, informed by kindness, fairness and ultimately a strong sense of social justice. Some readers will remember Dr Friederike Hammer, who worked on the digitization project for the British Corpus in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Friederike was a retired archaeologist, originally from Germany, who achieved wonders on data entry for the project over many years. On his visits to the CVMA office, Michael took a sustained interest in her work, and well-being. As they discovered in conversation, she too had been a refugee as a child, fleeing across northern Europe from the Russians in 1945. She spoke often and warmly of his concern, and the common ground that they had discovered. To all of his dealings, Michael brought a deep humanity.  

Michael led the Corpus Vitrearum with distinction. He is remembered with affection and gratitude by those who had the privilege of working with him.

Prof. Tim Ayers

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