Published  24/07/2002

Obituary: David Brown, Curator and Art Expert

Obituary: David Brown, Curator and Art Expert

In the 1970s in Edinburgh, the then Keeper of the National Gallery of Modern Art, Douglas Hall, made a remarkable acquisition, exceeding all other such before or since. Hall’s choice in the works of artists was of course famously eclectic: but this time David Brown was his acquisition, while still then a mature student from the University of East Anglia, pre-finals.

This was an inspired choice. Brown was the rarest of English eccentrics, yet with a formidable memory and a rapier-sharp mind. He first went to Edinburgh to study veterinary medicine. Then in 1952 a chance visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum , Cambridge, on a research visit prior to a new post, led him to be fascinated by Tang and Sung pottery. He continued in his field, but on the side built up an amazing personal reference library in art which included the catalogues of all Britain’s municipal art galleries. He followed this by gradual purchase, from his veterinary salary while in Africa of works, which interested him. It was typical of Douglas Hall to identify the true worth of Brown. In 1973 he joined the gallery, still housed in the Botanic Gardens, and soon after organised, with perfect timing, a Roger Hilton retrospective. The Tate Gallery then could not resist Douglas, and he was appointed an assistant curator. He achieved major success with an exhibition of modern British art in Tokyo, where he was nicknamed ‘Wire brush’ by Japanese curators, in awe of his Kurosawa, ‘Derzou Uzala’ type beard. Brown was greatly in demand over the years as an adviser on acquisitions, both in Edinburgh and London, Southampton, the Gulbenkian Foundation Collection, and the Contemporary Art Society. It was salutary to have gone round the late Gabriele Keiller’s collection at Kingston Hill, with David. In due course, and surely not unrelated, that collection was left to Edinburgh many years later. It was a timely bonus to encounter him as late as this spring, viewing (with comments) the American Sublime exhibition at his old Tate Gallery stomping ground. Then he was cared for by many devoted friends, and may now equate his Parnassus with some celestial Glyndebourne. David was a true polymath, and a rare enlightenment.

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