Professor Who Cut through the Art World's False Veneer; Sir Ernst Gombrich, Author of the Story of Art, Has Died in North London Aged 92

Article excerpt

Byline: EMMA HAGESTADT

PROFESSOR Sir Ernst Gombrich, author of the world's best known art book, did more than any other writer in the last 100 years to introduce a wider public to a love of art.

Successive generations of students have been drawn to The Story Of Art, his erudite survey of Western art, and his Big Idea: "There really is no such thing as art - there are only artists."

An academic who stayed firmly outside his profession's charmed circle, his book was intended as a rallying cry against snobbery and elitism, and has remained a classic.

Gombrich, who became a stalwart north Londoner, was born in Vienna in 1909 during the last days of the Austro-Habsburg empire. He came to Britain in 1936, not as a refugee, but to join the staff of the Warburg Institute, a centre of art study that had itself out-manoeuvered the Nazis by relocating to London three years earlier.

While working as a translator of foreign broadcasts at Caversham during the war, Gombrich became the first person in Britain to hear the news of Hitler's death.

One day he picked up on indications that an important announcement was imminent. The German airwaves were then suffused in mournful music which Gombrich recognised as part of a Bruckner symphony written to mark the death of Wagner. He guessed what was to come and the BBC informed Downing Street.

After the war ended, Gombrich stayed on in London. By then he was married to Ilse Heller, a music student of his mother's, with whom he had a son. He went back to work at the Warburg Institute and somewhat reluctantly buckled down to a commission from art publishers Phaidon for a history of art.

Originally conceived as a children's book, The Story Of Art was written entirely from memory without recourse to a single reference book.

Gombrich dictated his copy to a secretary three times a week, and the off-the-cuff immediacy of his prose hit a nerve. His boss at the Warburg Institute criticised his talent for "haute vulgarisation". His readers loved him for it. …