Robert Lonsdale “Rollo” Charles (1916-1977)
Art historian and curator Robert Lonsdale “Rollo” Charles was born in Cornwall, England in 1916. At Oxford University, he earned a Bachelor’s degree in French and German from Corpus Christi College and attended lectures in art history at the university’s Ashmolean Museum. He spent many hours in the Ashmolean’s print room studying Old Master drawings under the mentorship of Sir Karl Parker, the museum’s Keeper and the leading British scholar of Old Master prints. Charles graduated from Oxford in 1938 and spent the next six months in Munich, Germany, becoming fluent in German.
Charles enlisted in the British Army in 1939 and was deployed to the African front. He served with the 149th Anti-Tank Regiment of the Royal Artillery in North Africa, Palestine, Syria, and Egypt, for which he was awarded the Military Cross. He was wounded by an exploding munitions truck in El-Ruweisat, Egypt but made a full recovery and returned to active duty in France.
His proficiency in German, combined with his knowledge of art, made Charles a fitting candidate for service with the MFAA at war’s end. In August 1945 he was transferred to the British MFAA in Bünde, Germany, where he worked alongside British Monuments Men Lt. Col. Geoffrey Webb, Sqdr. Ldr. E. Christopher Norris, and Maj. Ellis Waterhouse. Charles was active in Braunschweig, Germany until 1946, during which time he formed a close working relationship with state curator Kurt Seeleke, who had worked diligently to protect art from that area during the war. Together with Seeleke, Charles inspected and preserved the monuments of Braunschweig, including the Anton Ulrich Museum, Dankwarderode Castle, and Braunschweig Cathedral.
Upon his return to England in 1946, Charles was named Assistant Keeper of the Department of Art at the National Museum of Wales. In 1952 he was promoted to Keeper. His transformative tenure saw the Department’s growth from a small, provincial collection into one of national importance. He maintained close relationships with virtually every Welsh artist and collector, as well as countless London dealers. These friendships proved valuable in the securing of not only loans but also the bequeathing of several prominent private collections. He was responsible for acquiring the collections of Gwendoline and Margaret Davies, which included French Impressionist works which remain today as hallmarks of the museum’s collection. He also secured loans of works by Rubens, Poussin, and multiple Old Masters, which he featured in carefully curated exhibitions.
During the course of his work at the National Museum of Wales, Charles cultivated a special interest in porcelain. He published Continental Porcelain of the 18th Century (1964), and contributed sections on Swansea and Nantgarw porcelain in English Porcelain (1965), and on Italian porcelain in World Ceramics (1968), both edited by R.J. Charleston. In addition to his tireless museum work, Charles served on the Fine Arts Advisory Committee of the British Council, the Welsh Arts Council, and the Museums Association.
Rollo Charles died suddenly in London on March 8, 1977.