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Remembering Christopher Monkhouse (1947–2021), a renowned curator for whom collecting was a way of life

4 March 2021

With the death of Christopher Monkhouse, after a brief illness, on 12 January 2021, the Anglo-American decorative arts and architecture world has lost one of its most highly accomplished and beloved members. Christopher was a perfect exemplar of the old-fashioned, object-obsessed curator. He was born into collecting, in fact – both his parents and both his brothers were collectors – and came armed with a formidable visual and anecdotal memory. In matters of dress and behaviour he was meticulous, impeccable and resolutely, unapologetically traditional. In matters technological, he was pre-digital: no cell phone, no email. He was his own man; but he also had a remarkable gift for making and keeping friends.

Christopher was the first person I met at the Attingham Summer School in 1966. To be precise, we met on 4 July, on platform four at Euston station, en route to Shropshire. That train ride was the beginning of a 55-year journey of friendship. At the time he was a precocious 19, seven years my junior in age but not in knowledge. His joy and enthusiasm were infectious, his imagination boundless, his single-mindedness almost scary. Later that evening, upon discovering a bat in his room, he knocked on my door. ‘Please, I need your help,’ he said, ‘can you deal with this?’ ‘Of course,’ I replied. It was my introduction to his uncanny ability to get people to want to do for him things he could not, or would not, do himself.

Christopher returned to London in 1969 to enrol at the Courtauld. Architecture was his primary focus, along with the temptations of a market awash in architectural books and drawings. For a thesis (unfinished) on railway hotels, supervised by Nikolaus Pevsner, he travelled the British Isles and had his first intoxicating taste of Ireland. An internship with Desmond Fitzgerald in the furniture and woodwork department at the V&A followed. The seeds had been planted for his triumphant Irish exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2015. He returned to America by ship in 1975, but his affection for England never paled; and his recent election to the Society of Antiquaries was one of his proudest moments. My wife and I owe several of our closest English friends to Christopher’s introduction (and for months, I might add, until he got settled in Rhode Island, the front hall of our New York apartment was filled with his books after his return from London).

Christopher Monkhouse, photographed in Chicago in 2015

Christopher Monkhouse, photographed in Chicago in 2015

Over some 40 years Christopher led three of the most important decorative arts departments in American museums –  in Providence (RISD), Minneapolis, and Chicago – in each instance excelling in the curatorial bread and butter of acquisitions, installations and special exhibitions. I attribute much of that success to his wholehearted identification with the people and history of each city. He preferred exhibitions with regional relevance, something to excite local pride, such as ‘Currents of Change: Art and Life along the Mississippi, 1850–1861’ at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 2004. Then, too, he treated his staff as equal participants in a great adventure, thus earning their undivided loyalty. Of all his acquisitions, I must admit my favourite: the outsized, yet ever so delicate, Chinese-style library steps from Badminton House: a metaphor for the pursuit of knowledge?

Library ladder (1782), William France. Art Institute of Chicago

Library ladder (1782), William France. Art Institute of Chicago

Christopher’s five years in Pittsburgh, between Providence and Minneapolis, were an anomaly; but they freed him from the New England label with which his friends had branded him, little appreciating the breadth of his vision. (We assumed he would end up at the MFA Boston.) London must have been on his mind when he heard that Drue Heinz was going to underwrite a new architectural centre at the Carnegie Museum of Art. The Heinz Gallery at the Royal Institute of British Architects on Portman Square was the prototype; a dedicated acquisition fund for architectural drawings, his passion, was the bait. The London parallel was reasserted in 1993 when Frank Lloyd Wright’s San Francisco office (1951) became available. The V&A had Edgar Kaufmann’s office, designed by Wright, so Christopher would have Wright’s very own!

The houses he lived in offer another view of Christopher, a man obsessed by architecture. In Rhode Island he camped out in part of the White Swan, a Federal-style house museum, his books on the floor, spines up, but with plenty of room to entertain. In Pittsburgh he bought his first house, a cozy colonial, and lined the walls with architectural drawings. The adjacent property was a monastery: he quipped that he was ‘Monkhouse next to a monk’s house’. In Minnesota he bought Marcel Breuer’s Kacmarcik House of 1962, designed for a bachelor book-collector-turned-monk: ‘Monkhouse in a monk’s house.’ Upon first seeing it, he ‘just knew it was my house’, he said. ‘I’ve never had a piece of architecture speak to me so quickly.’ Here, finally, he unpacked his vast library. But not for long. In Chicago he found a sunny townhouse with a European touch in a development of 1968 on the edge of the Gold Coast. Somewhere else there was an apartment for the books. In 2017, after a lifetime on the move, he returned home to Maine, to a stately four-square red-brick house from the 1850s in Brunswick. Here he was at peace, and here he curated his last and best exhibition – the collections of Christopher Monkhouse, a New England connoisseur. The pity is how little time he had to share it with his myriad friends.

Christopher was a compulsive collector, but always made acquisitions with a purpose. One of his mantras was ‘to find the right home for things’. In accordance with his wishes, a number of New England art and historical institutions, and by extension all of us, will be the beneficiaries of his perspicacity and generosity. Thank you, Christopher!

Morrison Heckscher is Curator Emeritus of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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