Professor Paul Crossley (1945-2019) - The Courtauld Institute of Art

Professor Paul Crossley (1945-2019)

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Professor Paul Crossley (1945-2019)

Professor Paul Crossley

It is with huge sadness that we announce the death of our much-loved former colleague, Paul Crossley, Emeritus Professor of the History of Art, an eminent historian of medieval art and architecture.

In 1963 Paul began to study Law at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he honed his considerable rhetorical skills as President of the Union. After two years he abandoned Law, however, perhaps because he also nurtured a profound spiritual sensibility, developed during his school years at Downside. He chose instead History of Art, still a relatively new subject at Cambridge. He graduated with a first in 1967, and for his PhD decided to investigate Gothic architecture in Lesser Poland in the reign of Kazimir the Great, a subject far beyond the comfort zone of most Anglophone architectural historians at the time. For this task Paul spent several years learning Polish, German and later Czech, and was co-supervised at The Courtauld by Peter Kidson (always known as ‘P.K.’), who became a lifelong mentor and friend. It was fortunate that at The Courtauld he also met George Zarnecki, a Polish exile and the leading specialist in Romanesque art in Britain. Paul went to see him whilst preparing for his first visit behind the Iron Curtain in 1968, and following a long telephone conversation in Polish Zarnecki gave the young student a set of precise instructions about trains and times, assuring him that he would be met at Cracow station by a ‘lady wearing a green beret’. All went to plan, and Paul was consequently introduced to Lech Kalinowski, a friend of Zarnecki and Professor of Art History in Cracow, who was able to open all manner of doors to his young protégé.

From 1971 to 1990 Paul taught at Manchester University, a golden age of medieval studies there. From 1990 until his retirement in 2011 he taught at The Courtauld. His range of expertise was extraordinary. Through his teaching and publications on the architecture of Kazimir the Great in Poland, English influence on the Baltic region, and Charles IV in Prague he single-handedly transformed understanding of medieval architecture in the Anglophone world from a predominantly Anglo-French to a pan-European perspective. With characteristic deference he largely confined his additions to the endnotes of his revised edition of Paul Frankl’s Gothic Architecture (Yale, 2000), and yet those ‘footnotes to Frankl’ – concise, erudite and heroically wide-ranging – remain the first point of call for any architectural historian encountering an unfamiliar Gothic church. His brilliant new introduction to Frankl also confirmed Paul’s status as the most insightful writer on the historiography of Gothic architecture: who else could switch so easily from the technical intricacies of German interwar scholarship to the gentle nostalgia of the English neo-Romantics? Almost every article he wrote opens with a judicious assessment of the intellectual history of his chosen problem, rendered in Paul’s clear and sparkling prose – generous, gently humorous and often exhilarating in its breadth of reference. But his publications and many book reviews show that his interests were not confined to architecture. Alert to the dangers of holistic interpretations of the Gothic cathedral, Paul nonetheless showed how the ‘sacred topography’ of buildings could be reconstructed through attention to architecture, liturgy, sculpture, stained glass and painting, offering fundamental insights into the relationship between different media in the Middle Ages.

Recognition followed. Paul was Vice-President of the British Archaeological Association, and was elected Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences and the British Academy. He was visiting professor at Leipzig University in 2000 and Slade Professor at Cambridge University in 2012. In 2002 he was appointed professor at The Courtauld. But he was also much, much more than this. A fine pianist, he was an enthusiast of cricket, watercolours and especially music. He read widely in philosophy and poetry, which he could recite with phenomenal ease and understanding. He was a truly inspirational lecturer, extraordinarily eloquent and yet self-effacing; concerned with the details, but capable of elevating Gothic architecture to a higher aesthetic and spiritual plane. Conversations and lectures were often peppered with German technical terms or quotes from Betjeman or Arnold; such was his charm that this never seemed pretentious, such was his warmth that the enthusiasm of his greetings could never be doubted. He was kind to the shy or unhappy, he was a great gossip and he made friends across The Courtauld and beyond. He was much loved as quiz master for the Student Union and was a brilliant mimic: his imitations of Pevsner, Brian Sewell, and P.K. were almost better than the real thing.

It is testament to Paul’s skills as a teacher that so many of his students now occupy equivalent posts in universities across the world and continue to advance his expansive notion of Gothic art and architecture, from Scotland to Cyprus, from Seville to Slovakia. Others now hold distinguished positions in the heritage industry and journalism. On the occasion of his retirement in 2011 over fifty of Paul’s friends and students dedicated essays to him in a Liber Amicorum of two volumes, edited by his former PhD students Zoe Opačić and Achim Timmermann: the introductory material, which includes recollections of Paul by friends and colleagues and a full list of his publications, is freely available on the Brepols website.

Colleagues and students especially cherish memories of study trips with Paul, a tradition he instituted while at Manchester. They often began with epic coach trips and required heroic stamina, packing in multiple cathedrals in one day, or the iconography of every window in Chartres cathedral, for example. On these trips Paul almost always carried a heavy bag stuffed with books and notes in his distinctive, italic hand. Occasionally he would peer at these over his glasses to confirm an obscure point of iconography, but when it came to architecture he never needed them: his thrilling eloquence took over. And then, if you were lucky, over a pub lunch or evening meal, Paul might be persuaded to tell one of his stories. Paul’s story-telling drew together his formidable eloquence, his gift for mimicry, his wit and self-effacement, and his brilliant, brilliant sparkle. Some were tragi-comic: the story of how he nearly lost the only copy of his PhD at Berlin train station, so that he seriously contemplated just slipping behind the Iron Curtain forever. Others relied on farce: on one occasion he was mistaken for the famous pianist of the same name. On another he was confused with a different kind of doctor, leading a desperate station master to beg Paul to come into his office where he revealed a rash in a most unfortunate location. Wary of the man’s humiliation, Paul felt obliged to play along and so carefully inspected the rash and offered advice that he hoped would sound authoritative and be entirely harmless. His commute was forever after haunted by the fear of further revelations. Gently embellished and edited, Paul’s stories improved with every retelling such that his long-time Courtauld colleague, John Lowden, was inevitably reduced to fits of irrepressible giggling having heard just the first word of a familiar tale.

Paul was a great scholar and a brilliant teacher. He was enormously hard-working, and spiritually self-reflective. He was kind, modest and witty, and brought sparkle to any conversation. He had charisma, and inspired a rare combination of admiration and affection. He will be hugely missed, but not forgotten.

The Courtauld sends its deepest sympathy to Paul’s wife, Joany, his children, Nick and Kate, as well as to his friends and former students.

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