In Memoriam: Duncan Robinson CBE 1943–2022
Duncan Robinson, who was director of the Yale Center for British Art from 1981 to 1995, passed away peacefully on Friday, December 2, 2022. He was 79.
“As a scholar, museum director, and gifted teacher, Duncan had enormous energy and a huge capacity for work, and his demise leaves a huge gap in the lives of his many friends on both sides of the Atlantic,” said Brian Allen, former director of studies at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, London.
A graduate of Clare College, Cambridge, Robinson was awarded a Mellon Fellowship to attend Yale from 1965 to 1967 and obtained his MA in the history of art from the university. Robinson began his museum career in 1970, when he became an assistant keeper in the department of paintings and drawings at the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge. He was appointed keeper of the department in 1976 and served in that role until his appointment as director of the Yale Center for British Art in 1981.
“Duncan was an outstanding director of the YCBA, and during his time in New Haven he quickly managed to secure the confidence of the museum’s founder Paul Mellon, with whom he forged a very important bond of trust and friendship,” Allen remembered. “Duncan gently persuaded Mr. Mellon to expand his collecting on behalf of the Center to include twentieth-century British art, which hitherto had not really been of central interest to him, and as a result acquired a number of highly important works.” Among the most significant acquisitions during Robinson’s tenure were John Constable’s Stratford Mill (1819 to 1820), J. M. W. Turner’s The Channel Sketchbook (ca. 1845), and James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne in Blue and Silver (1872 to 1878), currently on view in the fourth-floor galleries.
Important exhibitions during Robinson’s directorship included The Critical Eye, with artists Victor Burgin, Gilbert & George, Mary Kelly, Richard Long, Bruce McLean, and David Tremlett, in 1984; George Stubbs (1724–1806), organized with Tate Gallery in 1984–85; and Richard Parkes Bonington: “On the Pleasure of Painting,” which traveled to the Musée du Petit Palais, Paris, in 1992.
“As the second director of the YCBA since it opened to the public in 1977, Duncan stewarded the museum through a crucial period in its history,” said Courtney J. Martin (Yale PhD 2009), Paul Mellon Director of the YCBA. “He was a valued advisor to Mr. Mellon as he expanded his collection to encompass the history of British art from the fifteenth century to the present day. If not for Duncan’s expertise and enthusiasm, the museum would not have as deep and comprehensive a collection today.”
Robinson also taught Yale undergraduates and graduate students as an adjunct professor of the history of art. “Duncan’s influence on me has been enormous,” said Eric M. Lee (Yale BA 1988, PhD 1997), director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. “With his eloquence and the fact that he was an actor at heart, Duncan’s lectures on British art were extraordinarily dynamic. I returned to Yale for graduate school in part so that I could work with him. Duncan had great wisdom, and what I learned from him still guides me to this day.”
In 1995 Robinson left Yale to become director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge. In 2002, he was appointed Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. Although Robinson retired as director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in 2007, he served as Master through 2012 and was subsequently made an honorary fellow of Magdalene. In 2005 he was appointed a deputy vice-chancellor of the university. “Duncan's path and my own intertwined for many decades on both sides of the Atlantic,” said Dame Alison Richard, former vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge (2003–10), provost of Yale University (1994–2002), and director of the Yale Peabody Museum (1990–94). “I have very fond memories of him, as well as huge admiration for all he contributed—to two great art institutions, to be sure, but also to the great universities of which they are part.”
Robinson published and lectured extensively on British art and served as a board member or trustee of numerous cultural institutions, including the Royal Collection. Concurrently with his directorship of the YCBA, he served as chief executive officer of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. He also served as chairman of the Henry Moore Foundation. In 2008, he was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to the heritage of art.
Robinson maintained close ties to the Yale Center for British Art. To celebrate founder Paul Mellon’s centenary exhibition in 2007, Paul Mellon’s Legacy: A Passion for British Art, Robinson gave a memorable opening lecture titled “Paul Mellon: The Galloping Anglophile.” In 2009, he presented the Paul Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery in London and the Yale Center for British Art, on “Pen and Pencil: Writing and Painting in England, 1750–1850.”
Those who knew Duncan will remember him for his warm hospitality and wonderful sense of humor, and as a gifted lecturer, teacher, and writer. He will be greatly missed as a colleague and a friend. We extend our heartfelt sympathy to his wife, Lisa, their family, and the many who learned from and were inspired by him.