John Bryan Ward-Perkins (1912-1981)
Renowned scholar of ancient Roman archaeology, John Bryan Ward-Perkins was born in Bromley, England on February 3, 1912. He began his studies at Oxford, where he earned a degree from New College in 1934. At Magdalen College, Oxford, he was awarded the Craven Fellowship, which funded his archaeological research in Britain and France with the British School at Rome. Upon his return, he became Assistant to esteemed archaeologist Sir R.E. Mortimer Wheeler at the London Museum. He conducted excavations of a Roman villa near Welwyn Garden City and created an extensive catalog of the museum’s collection. In 1939 he became Chair of Archaeology at the Royal University of Malta, a position which was cut short by his entry into World War II.
Ward-Perkins enlisted in the British Royal Artillery and was sent to North Africa to protect the ancient Roman sites of Leptis Magna and Sabratha in the Tripolitania region of Libya. He was wounded during combat in the Western Desert and evacuated to Cairo for treatment. There, he met his future wife, a British nurse; the couple married in Alexandria in 1943. In March 1944 he was named Deputy Director of the MFAA in Italy. At headquarters, he worked closely with the Allied Air Force to protect historic monuments and architecture from bombing. As a result of his tireless efforts, printed volumes of lists of protected monuments were published in time for use during the 1944 air offensives.
Ward-Perkins was also involved in one of the most notable accomplishments of the Monuments Men in Italy. Early in the war, Florentine officials removed some of the greatest works of art from public and private galleries in Florence, principally the Uffizi Gallery and the Pitti Palace, to safety inside villas scattered across the Tuscan countryside. These repositories were later ransacked by the Nazis, who stole paintings and sculpture by Botticelli, Signorelli, Cranach, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael, among others. The hiding places eluded discovery until the closing days of the war. Ward-Perkins was notified of their location in late April but did not arrive at the first two, San Leonardo and Campo Tures, until May 13. There, he and Monuments Man Lt. Frederick Hartt found the Florentine treasures largely intact. His last duty as a Monuments Man was the interrogation of officials from the Kunstschutz, the Nazi “art protection” unit, regarding the theft of the Florentine works of art. On May 15, 1945, Ward-Perkins and Monuments Man Capt. Deane Keller rigorously questioned the organization’s leader, Col. Alexander Langsdorff, and his assistant. On July 22, 1945, the collection was ceremoniously returned to the city of Florence by Hartt and Keller, who entered Piazza della Signoria to great applause by thousands of jubilant Florentines.
After the war, Ward-Perkins left the MFAA to accept the position of Director of the British School at Rome, where he acted as the official advisor on restitutions to the British Embassy. His service as a Monuments Man inspired him to continue his study of the Roman ruins of North Africa, including multiple excavations in the area. One of the first foreign archaeologists permitted to excavate in postwar Italy, he planned his excavation sites using aerial photographs he had obtained from the Royal Air Force. He served as visiting professor at numerous institutions, including the University of Edinburgh and New York University. In addition to his many publications, he undertook the revitalization of the Tabula imperrii romani, a project to map the ancient Roman Empire. While the project had been originally started in 1928, it had lain abandoned until Ward-Perkins’s determination to resume work led to its completion. He later authored the Etruscan and Roman architecture section of Pelican History of Art (1970) and founded the Association for Classical Archeology as well as its journal, Fasti Archaeologici.
Ward-Perkins retired from a nearly thirty-year career at the British School at Rome in 1974. He died in Cirencester, England in May 28, 1981. Following his death, the Ward-Perkins family donated his collection of more than 50,000 prints and negatives to the British School at Rome. This impressive collection is conserved today as The Ward-Perkins Collection.
Photo courtesy of the Walter Gleason Collection, The Monuments Men Foundation Collection, the National WWII Museum, New Orleans, LA.