History of Art


Professor John White (1924–2021)

11 January 2022

John White books

It is with great sadness that we announce the death of Professor John White on 6 November 2021. John joined the History of Art Department at UCL in its earliest years, becoming Head of Department, Durning Lawrence Professor of History of Art, a Vice-Provost and subsequently Professor Emeritus. He retired in 1990.

Before arriving at UCL in 1965, John held a series of academic posts, including as Pilkington Professor of History of Art at the University of Manchester and Director of the Whitworth Art Gallery. Previously he studied and taught at the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, and before that served for a time in the Royal Air Force.

John was a distinguished scholar of late medieval and Renaissance Italian art and he authored several influential books during his time at UCL including Art and Architecture in Italy, 1250–1400 (1966), Duccio: Tuscan Art and the Medieval Workshop (1979), Studies in Late Medieval Art (1983) and Studies in Renaissance Art (1984).

Following his retirement, John also wrote and published several volumes of poetry, the contents of which were subsequently published in an online collection, Done For the Doing

Professor Bob Mills
Head of Department, UCL History of Art

I was appointed by Professor John White to UCL in 1989. At interview, he quizzed me about feminism and art history, and despite his scepticism about their connection, took a leap of faith for which I will always be grateful. In fact, like most art history students of my generation, I had been nurtured on his scholarship and it was his renowned ‘Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space’ that I had studied in Cape Town in the mid-1970s, which formed my understanding of the Italian Renaissance and engendered a life-long admiration for Piero della Francesca. I still have my ear-marked copy. Being interviewed by him was, therefore, daunting, but I found him to be the most genial and supportive of ‘bosses’, one who left me alone to pursue my passions and my politics, and who gave me the platform I needed for a life-long engagement with art, higher education and the freedom to think.

- Tamar Garb, current Durning Lawrence Professor 

I have the fondest memories of John White. His unusual background gave him a unique position in academic life. He was a person of warmth, generosity and intellectual energy, with an inspiring personality that captivated students. He had an unmistakeably military manner. He looked the part of a former fighter pilot who had flown Spitfires over Palestine just after the Second World War, and this led to him being known as ‘Wingco’ to his younger staff. 

Yet he was also a published poet with verbal facility in several languages. I remember sitting next to him a meeting at the Slade and noticed that he was quietly writing a poem in Italian. He invented a poetry machine that produced random conjunctions of words. He was also unusual in having a strong feeling for mathematics, which came out in his most important book which was on perspective in the Italian Renaissance and antiquity. It also informed his book on Duccio, where he analysed the construction of Duccio’s great altarpiece in Siena.

I remember that at departmental meetings and first meetings he could be relied on to produce verbal fireworks peppered with military phrases like ‘no names, no pack drill’, that the younger staff mulled over for days and even years afterwards. When I took over the department from him he was kindness itself and determined as he put not to ‘second-guess my every move’, to the point that I had to encourage him to come in to the department whenever he wanted. Though it was not the last time I saw him I can never forget his 80th birthday celebration, when we invited him to give a lecture to the student society. The lecture on the construction of Christ’s appearance was quite unforgettable. It was a privilege to work with such an extraordinary man and he will be remembered by a host of grateful students, whose lives he transformed.

- David Bindman, Durning Lawrence Professor (Emeritus) and Head of Department 1990–1999

In his welcome speech to new first years John White would say that the study of the History of Art at university was a training for the mind. I don't recall him saying much about History of Art as a discipline and did not arrive at UCL with any notion of disciplines, but had I thought about it I would have realised that he embodied the then discipline in many ways. He had written a number of the basic textbooks for what History of Art then was. He had all the first-year undergraduates in groups, playing ‘the postcard game’ where we had to choose an artwork to save for the nation and the best argument won, never mind the artwork (he was at that time on the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art). John was on any number of committees, running museums and communicating with foreign institutions. He was involved in everything that defined art and the History of Art, and was a member, too, of various kinds of (then) overlapping institutions such as the Armed Forces’ Pay Review Body and the Athenaeum.

John White was a stunningly intelligent person, generous of his time and interest. He dealt without irony or small talk and paid no attention to hierarchy or status. I was lucky enough to get onto his renaissance art supervision in my very first term. For John, analytical skills lay at the heart of the university education, transferable skills to be expressed and enjoyed in argument. He would say that any one of us, there and then, might have an insight which could lead to an article or a book. He did his own PhD in two years. He made things seem very simple, which sometimes made more complicated people smile, but he was not that simple. I have several volumes of his poems which he gave out freely. Who writes poetry? I look at them now and ask the same question, in the past tense, with the utmost respect.

I took him at his word and felt free to say whatever I felt. In those days cars could be parked in the front quad at UCL – first come first served. John arrived at work every day at dawn. For a long time, he had a Ford Capri, registration PAV1. I said, ‘John, someone like you, you know, you ought to have an Alvis, a Bristol ... or ... I don't know.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Oh, d’you think so?’ It was the nearest to irony I ever heard from him. A few years later he did change his car, but for a Honda, onto which he transferred the registration. In the meantime, despite the misgivings he must have had, he gave me a job.


- Charles Ford, Senior Lecturer in History of Art (to 2017) 

John White’s capacity for striking and unexpected statements was well illustrated by his observation that really smart people don’t do art history – they do physics or other brainier disciplines. He himself added to art history’s intellectual heft through a succession of exacting studies of Late Medieval and Early Renaissance Italian Art. As head of department he led by example. He urged us – the members of his team – to produce ‘big books’ that like his own Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space (1957) would help shape the field. In addition to his prominence in art history’s professional bodies, national and international, he was an establishment figure (he was awarded the CBE) and a mover in UCL’s internal politics. His example of relentless of energy was more than a little awe inspiring; but he was never pompous.


When I joined UCL in 1987 I arranged to meet him for a one-on-one to establish what my responsibilities would be. Wondering where my interests fitted in the overall syllabus, I naively asked: ‘What do you expect me to teach?’ ‘Teach what you bloody well like as long as I can recognize it as art history!’ was the brusque response. I did and he never complained. In fact, in the years before he retired, art history was arguably becoming a much more difficult and brainier subject as established models were criticized from the new theoretical and methodological perspectives bundled together by contemporaries under the trite moniker of the New Art History. It is unlikely that he observed this with much sympathy. But after his retirement scholars in the department – and some who had recently passed through it – published a swathe of the ‘big books he had chivvied us to publish. They may not have followed his model, but they had been made possible in part by his leadership and the departmental culture he did so much to establish. I look back with gratitude for his example of enthusiasm, generosity, and intellectual acuity.


- Andrew Hemingway, Emeritus Professor of History of Art, retired 2010

John White played a seminal role in my future career.  His teaching in my first term at UC reassured me that I had chosen the right degree: I found his gallery classes riveting, focussing on the importance of looking, particularly at materials and structure - an aspect which was to shape my working life. Fellow students, I know, found these close examinations of panel construction tedious, and to many his major written works seemed impenetrable.  But our interest in his teaching was captured by his brilliantly delivered Italian Renaissance lectures.  That on Donatello, demonstrating his own passionate appreciation of aesthetics and meaning, reassured us; just as much as his enthusiastic appraisal of Bridget Riley’s work surprised us, a year later. 
John White, as a person, was a conundrum: his RAF moustache and military bearing in incongruous juxtaposition with the 60s suede trousers and willingness to dance to our music. He regularly invited students to (often intense) suppers with his wife Xenia. 
It was at a later one of these soirees, hearing of my newly acquired knowledge of painting materials from conservation training, that he suggested I devise the course which eventually became a full degree in material studies.  I, and the students who took the degree, are indebted to him.  And there are always those beautifully-bound volumes of his poems to remind me of his eclectic skills and interests! 

- Libby Sheldon, Honorary Senior Research Associate, retired 2012