Donald Beeson King (1920-1998)
Art historian and textiles expert, Donald Beeson King was born in Hanwell, Middlesex, England and educated at Ealing County School for Boys.
During World War II, King served with the Royal Air Force (RAF) as a mechanic. Due to his proficiency in French, German, and Latin, he was transferred to the Intelligence Service of the Air Ministry, participating in the Murmansk convoys and the invasion of Sicily. In early 1945, King was recruited by the British MFAA in Hamburg, Germany, where he worked alongside Monuments Men Capt. Ewan Phillips, Maj. Hugh Murray Baillie, and Maj. George Willmot. Together, the group sorted through thousands of looted bronze, tin, and copper objects, many of them works of art and church bells that the Nazis intended to smelt for use as ammunition.
Acting on direct orders from Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, German forces looted more than 16,000 bells belonging to churches in Belgium, France, Holland, Italy, Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary as well as bronze monuments from public squares and institutions in Paris, Krakow, Berlin, and Munich. These objects were then gathered at shipyards in Hamburg, filling an area roughly the size of a football field. In the words of Monuments Man Maj. George Willmot, “9,229 bells were stolen from Czechoslovakia and sent to Hamburg. Only one remains.” King and his fellow British MFAA officers worked diligently to identify and return thousands of objects to the countries from which they had been stolen. He later served at MFAA headquarters in Hannover, Germany, where he interviewed denazified German art historians and curators for information regarding the locations of still missing looted art and other cultural objects. He was discharged from military service in 1947.
Following his return to England, King studied art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. In 1949 he began a nearly thirty-year career in the textile department at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which included his promotion to Keeper of Textiles in 1972. Considered by his colleagues as the founding father of textile studies in England, King was responsible for planning numerous successful exhibitions. His 1963 exhibition of European church vestments featured objects loaned from the Vatican and the cathedrals of Sens, Salisbury, Canterbury, St. Bertrand de-Comminges, and Pienza. In addition to his curatorial duties, he served as President of the Centre International d’Etude des Textiles Anciens (CIETA, the International Center for the Study of Ancient Textiles) from 1977 to 1993.
King was a member of the Oriental Rug and Textile Society of Great Britain, the Early Textiles Study Group, and the first President of the Medieval Dress and Textile Society. He published books, articles, and reviews on many different aspects of textile studies, including “Roman and Byzantine Dress in Egypt” (1996), “A parallel for the linen of the Turin shroud” (1989), and a chapter on carpets in The Inventory of King Henry VIII (1999). Soon after his death, King’s former colleagues published Donald King’s Collected Textile Studies (2004) in honor of his pioneering contributions to the study of textiles.
Donald King died in Richmond, Surrey on July 10, 1998.*
*The Foundation wishes to express thanks to Chris King, son of Monuments Man Donald B. King, for his contribution to this biographical profile.
Photo courtesy of the King Family (private collection).