English Heritage has honoured the art historian responsible for The Story of Art, the most popular art history book ever published by unveiling a blue plaque on his former Hampsted home. I used to live a couple of doors down from the art historian E H Gombrich, so I was delighted this week that the sculptor Antony Gormley unveiled one of English Heritage’s prestigious blue plaques in his honour on the house he shared with his wife Ilse and son Richard from 1952 until his death in 2001.
Gombrich is best known as the author of The Story of Art, which became the best selling art title ever. First published in 1950, it introduced generation after generation to art history. It is still a staple art history text-book in institutions throughout the world. The book has never been out of print, has been translated into 34 languages and has an estimated world sales figure of over 6 million.
Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich was born in Vienna in 1909. He moved to London in 1936 and joined the Warburg Institute where he later became the Institute’s director. During WWII he worked for the BBC translating German broadcasts and it was he who relayed Hitler’s death to Winston Churchill. After the War the Renaissance specialist held posts at Oxford, Cambridge and the RCA and published several survey books including The Story of Art. He was knighted in 1972.
The plaque was unveiled by Sir Antony Gormley at 19 Briardale Gardens Hampstead alongside Sir Peter Bazalgette, chair of the Arts Council and blue plaque panel member, Richard Gombrich and the art historian Prof David Freedberg. It reads: “EH Gombrich (1909 – 2001) Art Historian lived here 1952 to 2001”
“Ernst Gombrich opened the eyes of a generation to art, inspiring and challenging us to look at paintings and sculpture in new ways,” Bazalgette said. “English Heritage Blue Plaque not only remembers this great populariser of art but celebrates his link with this city and underlines the huge contribution made to Britain by Jewish immigrants of the 1930s.”
Sir Antony Gormley went on to add that,” We gained so much from that period in the 30s when Neurath founder of art publisher Thames & Hudson, Horovitz and Goldscheider who founded Phaidon, all the Freuds, Pevsner, Gropius, Hobsbawn. British cultural life has never quite been the same since they arrived. It’s very difficult not to ascribe the fact that the Tate Modern is actually challenging the British Museum in visitor numbers, with however many million a year; in a large part to Gombrich. He wrote about the whole history of art but not in a pompous way that made you feel that if you didn’t speak Greek or Latin you couldn’t understand it. He didn’t want to mystify it”.
I will never the forget the Spring afternoon in 1997 when Gombrich, his wife Ilse and my family watched the solar eclipse and then he kindly signed our copies of The Story of Art – original and updated versions.
Words: Sara Faith Photos: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2015