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20th June 1912 - 29th December 2005
Born in 1912 B.W. Robinson (although christened Basil, he not unsurprisingly preferred to be known as Robbie) spent his childhood years within a stone's throw of the museums in South Kensington.
From an early age he was taken on visits to them by his mother and his aunt: the Natural History Museum was an early enthusiasm; then the Oriental collection and the Arms and Armour collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum quickly became the areas to which he returned again and again, and it was in the V & A that he first developed his life-long love of Persian miniatures and manuscripts.
He then "graduated" to the British Museum where he was taken under the wing of Dr. Lionel Barnett who allowed him to see the Shahnama (the 1486 Book of Kings) and he was also taken to the Royal Asiatic Society where he was introduced to the Secretary, Ella Sykes.
At the same time he put his theoretical knowledge into practice - when he was nine years old, he asked for, and got, a pair of 18th Century Belgian Cavalry pistols as a Good Conduct Prize. When he was at preparatory school his library included Persian Self-Taught by Shaykh Hasan, Tales of Old Japan by A.B. Mitford, and at the age of thirteen his interest in Japanese prints was kindled when he was given a copy of E.F. Strange's Victoria and Albert Museum Handbook.
At the age of fourteen he went to Winchester College as an exhibitioner: during his time there he purchased his first Japanese sword for four shillings and sixpence, and continued adding to his library with works such as A Persian Caravan by A. Cecil Edwards, and all the volumes of Arthur and Edward Warner's translation of The Shahnama of Ferdawsi: the flames of his enthusiasm were further fanned by frequent visits to the Burlington House Exhibition of Persian Art in 1931.
Following Winchester he went up to Oxford to read Greats (Literae Humaniores) at Corpus Christi and it was here that some people might think that they can discern a slight blemish on his academic career: it is just possible that being in great demand at parties to sing and play the banjo, spending time composing humorous verse, drawing cartoons for Isis, playing the guitar in a dance band and a host of other enjoyable extra- curricular diversions may have contributed to the fact that he only achieved a Third, but he privately regarded this as a rather honourable medal in the circumstances.
Despite this minor setback he was allowed to stay on for a further year to write a B.Litt thesis on the Bodleian Museum's collection of Persian miniatures. Although initially turned down twice by the V & A, he eventually was appointed in 1939 to the Museum as Assistant Keeper and moved into the Metalwork Department
He was called up for military service in 1942 and following a spell as a corporal in the Royal Sussex Regiment, he was commissioned into the 2nd Punjab Regiment after passing the examination in Urdu which was the working language of the Indian Army, and subsequently served in India, Burma and Malaya; during this time he had the good fortune to find an Indian bearer who taught him how to read and write Nastaliq script.
Following the Japanese surrender he was posted to Singapore where he was given the task of evaluating some eighteen hundred surrendered swords: feeling unequal to doing the job properly by himself, he went to the Prisoner of War camp to enquire if anyone had a good knowledge of swords; there he found an Air Force officer, Colonel Yamada Sakae, who had previously been a member of the military sword-judging committee. Together they worked on cataloguing these swords for several months, and the typically meticulous notes which Robinson made at the time were later to form the basis for his first published book, A Primer of Japanese Sword Blades, which appeared in 1955.
In 1946 he returned to England and the Metalwork Department of the V & A, becoming the Deputy Keeper in 1954 and then heading the department from 1966 until 1972 when he became Keeper Emeritus responsible for the formation of the new Far Eastern Department until his retirement in 1976.
During this time he published:
1955 - A Primer of Japanese Sword Blades
1958 - The Persian Miniature Collection of the Bodleian Library
1961 - The Arts of the Japanese Sword
1961 - Kuniyoshi
1960 and 1962 - The Persian Miniature Collections of the Chester Beatty Library
1967 - Persian Miniature Painting from Collections in the British Isles
1976 - Persian Paintings in the India Office Library: A Descriptive Catalogue
1980 - Persian Paintings in the John Rylands Library: A Descriptive Catalogue
l982 - Kuniyoshi: The Warrior Prints which was awarded the Uchiyama Memorial Prize of the Japanese Ukiyo-e Society
1998 - Persian Paintings in the Collection of the Royal Asiatic Society
2002 - (at the age of ninety) The Persian Book of Kings: an Epitome of the Shahnama of Ferdawsi
All of these to this day remain as essential reading for both scholars and collectors.
In between all this he organised the V & A's Kuniyoshi Centenary Exhibition in 1961, and the V & A's Persian Miniature Exhibition in 1967, and at various times was President of the Royal Asiatic Society, a Council member of the British Institute of Persian Studies, a Fellow of the British Academy, a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and an Honorary President of the To-ken Society of Great Britain.
These are just the dry and dusty chronicles of a distinguished academic career, but it is not for these achievements that his many friends will remember him: it will be the man himself who will be remembered, for he was at all times the very essence of Chaucer's "Verray parfit gentil knight"
A tall distinctive figure, almost invariably with a pipe and dressed in a tweed jacket with a waistcoat and a watch-chain, he looked like a benevolent uncle who had just stepped out of a sketch by Ardizzone.
Born into an Anglo-Catholic family, his religious beliefs were deeply founded, and throughout his life the Book of Common Prayer was constantly to hand, and it was this steadfastness of belief that shaped his entire life: he never pushed himself forward, he was always modest, he was utterly without malice or vanity, invariably courteous to everyone.
Never pompous - one of the more frequent failings of academics - he imparted his knowledge with a light and gentle touch; the twinkle in his eye showed us that we were having fun, and it was this cheerfulness that encouraged so many beginners and collectors to venture into what initially appeared to be difficult and forbidding areas. He was always accessible to his colleagues and to the general public, and always happy to share his knowledge - it did not matter whether one's question was recondite or irritatingly obvious, we all received detailed written replies in that distinctive meticulous Victorian handwriting of his.
His gift for friendship was extended to everyone who knew him, not leastly Colonel Yamada Sakae with whom he remained in contact until the Colonel's death.
Outside the groves of Academe his life was quite extraordinarily full. He was devoted to his family, to his wife Oriel who was an essential part of his family life and who assisted him in photographing many outside collections, and to his children William and Alicia, and to his grandchildren, who all have nothing but happy memories of him.
He had a liking for the companionship and good fellowship of pub life: he was fond of beer (as opposed to the modern aberration of lager) and also brewed it at home, and this enthusiasm led him to become an early member of The Campaign for Real Ale.
In between all this he managed to find the time to be an enthusiastic amateur cook (casseroles a specialty), a jazz fan (Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Duke Ellington and that period of the Twenties and Thirties before it all went wrong); he loved music and was a collector of songs and ballads - on his travels around England he visited many cathedral libraries in his search for manuscripts of early songs, and in 1989 several hundred of these were published in the Aldrich Book of Catches which he edited jointly with Ray Hall: he took particular pride in the Aldrich Catch Club which he had founded some years previously which used to meet every month at his house to sing rounds (songs), in addition to old traditional English songs some of which were splendidly vulgar, nursery rhymes and music hall favourites (and drink beer)
A happy life, lived to the full, rich with a warmth and enjoyment that he shared with all he met. He will be missed by everyone who knew him.
"He was a man, take him for all in all, we shall not look upon his like again"
Christie's gratefully acknowledges the permission of the Editors of Andon to reproduce this article.
AN EXTRAORDINARY COLLECTOR
Like many a Japanese specialist, Robbie had been captivated by the romance of the Japanese feudal era in his early boyhood. He owns to having been "bowled over by Kuniyoshi's Skeleton Spectre" (Lot 586) at the age of 14, in an exhibition at the British Museum, although he was by then already a devotee of the artist. He had been born within five minutes walk of the Victoria and Albert Museum and was already at a young age conversant with the joys of both that museum and of those of the Natural History Museum. He must have been naturally receptive to all the wonders freely available to the enquiring mind in those institutions, and certainly to the great Japanese collections in the V & A. Robbie's writings and reminiscences on his life with Japanese swords and the heroic colour prints of Utagawa Kuniyoshi read as a Who's Who of both Japanese historical characters and the happy band of dealers and collectors who were active in and around London between the wars and the decades which followed. It was a wonderful time for collecting Japanese art. The passionate involvement of Robbie and his contemporaries in ancient Japanese culture seem almost to blur the distinction between imagination and reality, or perhaps to indicate a greater reality than the mundane rule of modern confused society.
For Robbie's hobbies were his daily work - a lifetime of devoted application. His research was the stuff of a different and distant world, and in a way, beyond time. He was still researching avidly the works of Kuniyoshi, annotating his own 'Working Copy' of his book 'Kuniyoshi', and corresponding with people who sent him enquiries from all over the world, including publishers hoping for permission to use illustrations from his great collection, when he was into his tenth decade.
His memory of his formative years was impressive. Many will recall with affection his talk to the Tokenkai of Great Britain (the national society for the study of Japanese swords) in the summer of 1974, and of hearing how, at his Surrey prep school between the ages of seven to nine, he and his friends would fence with 'Japanese Swords' fashioned from the broken curved branches of pine trees in the local woods. It is not a great step of imagination to place the young Robbie in context with Kuniyoshi's print of the young 12th century hero Minamoto no Yoshitsune being taught fencing in the pinewoods by the king of the 'Karasu Tengu', those supernatural winged mountain dwelling creatures who were to be avoided by more cautious mortals (lots 540, 625). It was in those schooldays that Robbie encountered Lord Redesdale's book 'Tales of Old Japan' of which he said "It is one of the most marvellous books on Japan ever written. This book was owned by another boy in the school - I can still remember that dreadful picture of poor Chobei in the bath, being speared and all the blood coming out. Very soon afterwards the book was confiscated by the Headmaster, as he thought it wasn't quite suitable for us to read". But however unsuitable for young boys they might have been, Lord Redesdale's stories are the very stuff of Kuniyoshi's prints, and the world of scholarship has benefited greatly from Robbie's early but foreshortened introduction to those stories.
The young BW Robinson visited the 1924 British Museum exhibition several times, getting to know the dealers Shozo Kato in New Oxford Street, and the "extremely English" Mr Tommy in Sicilian Arcade, who attended auctions invariably wearing a bowler hat. He bought several triptychs from these specialist dealers for "ten and sixpence", generally after Christmas when he could afford it. One wonders how the price was kept so constant for the boy collector from Christmas to Christmas, and which of the triptychs in the present collection came from those early collecting days. Robbie was always ready to share the enjoyment of his collection with others in private and in public. Who could forget the exhibition of 'Kuniyoshi's Cats' in the transepts of Robbie's local church in the 1970's.
Robbie's work on swords paralleled his study of prints, and his first purchase of a sword was for the sum of "four and sixpence" when he was at school at Winchester. His studies continued when he was appointed as a curator, eventually to become Keeper of Metalwork, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, where he found Japanese books from which he learned how to read the inscriptions on swords. He was horrified to find that a 'Disposals Board' had sold a number of fine Japanese swords shortly before he joined the Department, and he was to leave a written record clearly naming the members of that board and expressing in inimitably gentle but unmistakeable reproof his disapproval of what they had done. At the end of the war as a young captain he had been put in charge of a project to sort out 1800 swords surrendered at Singapore, enlisting the help of a sword specialist one Colonel Yamada, with whom and with whose family he remained in contact until long after. Robbie must have handled further thousands of swords since then, and many thousands of Japanese prints. His two great works 'Arts of the Japanese Sword' and 'Kuniyoshi-The Warrior-Prints' are thus the result of a the combination of field work and table work over a lifetime.
Both the sword and the warrior print engender those qualities of loyalty, fidelity, courage and heroism which Robbie admired, and the absence of which in modern times he regretted. In the introduction to 'Kuniyoshi' Robbie likens Kuniyoshi's window into the exotic world of 'warriors, monsters, and fair ladies' to the excitement of first reading from the ballads of 'Sir Patrick Spens', or 'Kilmont Willie', or the 'Unquiet Grave', in the mixture of heroism, romance, and chivalry on the one hand and vice, treachery, and rebellion on the other. We are fortunate that Robbie chose to study and collect the works of Kuniyoshi from among those of all other Japanese artists, since in them we find not only the highest pictorial art but the greatest range and depth of Japanese emotion and imagination, and all
the great heroic tales of Japanese History depicted in as wild and gripping manner as in any work from that nation.
Sold by order of the Executors of the late B.W. Robinson