Passionate art curator and scholar
It was a hot summer night, some 30 years ago. Charles Ryskamp and I had been to a dinner together, and it seemed too early to turn in. "There's a party we could go to in Brompton Square," said Charles, so off we went. You could hear the party from Knightsbridge as we walked up the square. Outside the house were some ghostly figures. Seen closer, these turned out to be Andy Warhol, drawing with chalks on the pavement, silently watched by two or three adoring flower- people. Inside, the house was packed, the music deafening, with flashing lights; we did not stay long. As we passed the rapt group outside, the drawing more advanced, Charles said, "Why don't you come back tomorrow with a pickaxe and lift that paving-stone? It would make your fortune."
For almost 30 years, Ryskamp was a pillar of the New York museum world, as director first of the Pierpont Morgan Library and then the Frick Collection, combining this with an even longer career teaching at Princeton. But to a far wider circle of friends, he was a magician, someone who could turn the banal details of ordinary life into a world of colour and delight.
Ryscamp was born in East Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1928. Several of his uncles were professors, his father a professor of economics; his background was educated, with two libraries in the house he grew up in, but not aesthetic. One day he saw a newspaper advertisement for a picture sale at Parke-Bernet in New York: "Send for catalogue" it said, so he did. It arrived to family disapproval just as they were setting off for church, but he was hooked. When, age 13, he went on an outing to New York, he fell in love with the Frick Collection, never guessing that he would one day be its director.
After attending college in Grand Rapids he moved to Yale for his MA in 1951, and there began the thesis on the early life of William Cowper for which he got his PhD in 1956.
He spent 1953-54 as a post-graduate student at Pembroke College, Cambridge. At Pembroke he met Geoffrey Keynes, surgeon and book- collector, and through him a wonderful new world of books and pictures. He bought 18th-century books, and a couple of Lear drawings. He went to London, to Colnaghi's and other dealers, and to the British Museum, where the library and the department of prints and drawings opened his eyes to new riches.
In 1955, back in the US, he started to teach English at Princeton, and went smoothly up the departmental ladder, doubling an associate professorship with curatorship of English and American Literature at the University Library. His friendships spread far and wide, notably with Paul Mellon, with whom he went on visits to dealers, watching him build his great collection of British art. His William Blake, Engraver came out in 1969.
The same year Ryskamp was chosen to succeed Frederick B. Adams as director of the Pierpont Morgan Library. World famous as a collection of the finest books, manuscripts, prints and drawings, it was no longer the Morgan family's private library, but it still had an air of exclusivity - you rang the bell for admittance by a uniformed attendant. Ryskamp opened it up. A lively programme of exhibitions and events brought new treasures and new visitors. Realising that even Morgan money could not support this, he invited new friends and benefactors to help. Soon, the Morgan became an exciting new cultural centre in New York.
Acquisitions poured in: Mrs Landon K Thorne's Blake collection in 1971; bookbindings from Julia Wightman; the Mary Flagler Cary trust music-manuscripts; Italian drawings from Janos Scholz; and books from Paul Mellon. …