The Monuments Men

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Giles Henry Robertson ( 1913-1987 )

Art historian and professor, Giles Henry Robertson was an expert on Italian Renaissance art. He was born into a family of Classicists in Cambridge England in 1913. His father, Donald D. S. Struan Robertson, was Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge University and his brother Martin was Lincoln Professor of Classical Archaeology at Oxford University. Robertson combined his interest in ancient monuments with his passion for art, exploring painting at The Leys School, an elite boarding school near Cambridge University, before studying Classics at New College, Oxford University. At Oxford, he befriended future prominent art historians John Pope-Hennessy, Benedict Nicolson, and Sir John Beazley. In the years following his graduation from Oxford, he undertook extensive travels in Italy, where he encountered firsthand some of the most revered works of art. Returning to England in 1937, he became the personal assistant to L.C.G. Clarke, Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge University.

During World War II, Robertson was drafted into a British Army searchlight unit. He was then transferred in July 1941 to the Government Code and Cipher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park, the location of secret British operations to decode Nazi encryptions, most famously the ENIGMA code. Following the end of hostilities, he applied for service with the British MFAA and was assigned to the MFAA Branch of the Control Commission for Germany- British Element. Robertson conducted inspections of several churches, museums, archives, and castles in the region of Westphalia, Germany, including Schloss Rheda, where he reported that three hundred documents belonging to the Prussian State Archives had been looted by billeting Allied soldiers. In September 1945 he supervised the evacuation of paintings belonging to the Landmuseum Münster from repositories in Vörden and Corvey to safety at Schloss Nordkirchen, where he oversaw the construction of wooden racks that could support the delicate panels.

Following his return to England in late 1946, Robertson began a long career as a popular professor of Italian art at Edinburgh University in Scotland. During his tenure he received promotions to Senior Lecturer (1961), Reader (1968), and Watson-Gordon Professor of Fine Art (1972). Until his retirement in 1981, Robertson developed the university’s Honours degree in Fine Art, which he established, and supervised the creation of the Talbot Rice Arts Centre, one of the leading art galleries in Scotland today.

Robertson was a trustee of the National Galleries of Scotland, governor of the Edinburgh College of Art, and a member of both the Committee of the Society of Renaissance Studies in London and The Society of Friends. His in-depth research of Italian paintings resulted in numerous publications, many of which continue to serve as leading sources in their field. These include a 1968 monograph on Giovanni Bellini (1968) and a catalogue raisonné of the works of Vincenzo Catena (1954). At the time of his death, he was in the process of writing a book on Titian.

Giles Robertson died in 1987 in Vaucluse, the former home of legendary Renaissance poet Francesco Petrarch, in Southern France. In 1998, Robertson’s family donated his personal library, which includes over 1,200 books and exhibition catalogues, to the University of Edinburgh.