Obituary: Professor Martin Robertson ; Scholar of Classical Art and Archaeology
Sparkes, Brian, The Independent (London, England)
MARTIN ROBERTSON was a giant in the study of the art and archaeology of Ancient Greece, and a much-loved friend of many in the field. His magisterial A History of Greek Art (1975) still holds prime position 30 years after publication for its breadth of learning and deep understanding, and assures his place at the forefront of scholars of classical art and archaeology.
Robertson was born shortly before the First World War into the centre of Cambridge academia, where his father, Donald, was to become in 1928 Regius Professor of Greek. After education at the Leys School and graduation from Trinity College, in 1934 Robertson went out to Athens as a student of the British School of archaeology there. The director at that time was Humfry Payne, and other budding scholars working at the school numbered such future luminaries as Romilly Jenkins, Nick Hammond, John and Robert Cook, A.H.S. (Peter) Megaw and Tom Dunbabin. Now the last survivor of that cohort has gone.
In 1936, after his time at the BSA, Robertson was appointed Assistant Keeper in the Greek and Roman Department at the British Museum. Here he stayed (apart from the war years) until 1948 when he succeeded Bernard Ashmole as Yates Professor of Classical Art and Archaeology at University College London. While holding that post he had the misfortune to choose to grow a beard - the college authorities soon put a stop to that. "Art" may have been in the title, but the Professor must not show any "arty" tendencies.
During the 1950s UCL fielded a strong team of professors; besides Robertson, Tom Webster was the Professor of Greek and Otto Skutsch the Professor of Latin. In 1961 Robertson was appointed Lincoln Professor of Classical Archaeology and Art in Oxford, again in succession to Bernard Ashmole, and served the university for the next 17 years. On retiring he returned to his home town of Cambridge.
Under the influence of (Sir) John Beazley, who held the Lincoln chair from 1925 to 1956, the study of Greek vase-painting, particularly in the attribution of unnamed paintings to specific hands, flourished in the scholarly community, and Robertson was in many ways Beazley's heir. His work in Athens led to an early series of articles on vase-painters, and all through his long career there was a steady stream of closely argued and finely written studies, not only in the area of attribution but also in iconography.
His first book was Greek Painting (1959) in which he used vase- paintings and work in other media to try to recreate the lost wall- paintings that were known only through textual references. His work on Athenian red-figure vase-painting finally culminated in The Art of Vase-Painting in Classical Athens (1992), an astonishing book for a scholar in his eighties. Indeed his retirement was a productive period, with important articles on the vases and fragments that were acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu.
Robertson's interest was not wholly centred on vase-painting. He wrote also on mosaics, jewellery and, above all, on sculpture, and 1975 saw the publication of a sensitive study, The Parthenon Frieze, and, what for many is his magnum opus, A History of Greek Art.
A masterly treatment of the vast canvas stretching over 1,000 years, the book is written in his graceful style, with learning lightly borne and enviable knowledge of the later European tradition. …