Sir Ellis Kirkham Waterhouse (1905-1985)
Art historian and museum director, Ellis Kirkham Waterhouse was born in the town of Epsom in Surrey, England on February 16, 1905. He attended the prestigious Marlborough School alongside fellow student Anthony Blunt, the renowned British art historian who would later confess to having been a Soviet spy. Waterhouse studied philology at New College, Oxford University. In 1927 he was selected as Commonwealth Fund Fellow at Princeton University in the United States, using the opportunity to study the work of El Greco in Spain for three years. He returned to England in 1929 and worked successively as an assistant keeper at the National Gallery, a librarian at the British School in Rome, and a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford University. During this time, he also helped plan the exhibition Seventeenth Century Art in Europe, held at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1938.
Waterhouse was vacationing in Athens, Greece when World War II broke out. He remained in Greece as a cartographer with the British military attaché before working at the Greek embassy in Cairo. In September 1944 he was selected for service with the British MFAA by Monuments Man Lt. Col. Geoffrey Webb, MFAA Director for the British Zone. From March to May 1945 he crossed through Belgium and Holland with Canadian 1st Army, bound for British MFAA headquarters in Bünde, Germany. One of the first Monuments Men to inspect liberated Holland, Waterhouse conducted inspections of Dutch churches, museums, and monuments. He also aided in the restitution of stolen Dutch-owned works of art and other cultural objects. During the course of his work, he discovered that Supper at Emmaus, previously attributed to Jan Vermeer, was a fake. The painting had been acquired by the Boymans Museum in Rotterdam in the 1930s. His findings set off a chain of events which, combined with the similar discovery that Hermann Goering’s Vermeer, Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery, was a fake, eventually led to the exposure of the notorious forger, Hans Van Meegeren.
Following his service with the MFAA, Waterhouse resumed his position as Fellow at Magdalen College until 1947. He then worked briefly as editor of The Burlington Magazine, as well as lecturing for one year at Manchester University. In 1949 he was named Director of the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh. Under his leadership, the museum acquired some of its seminal works of art, including El Greco’s Salvator Mundi and Raeburn’s Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddington Loch. In 1952 he became Barber Professor of Fine Art at the University of Birmingham and Director of the university’s Barber Institute of Fine Arts, where he remained for eighteen years. During this time, he also lectured at Oxford University, Williams College, and the University of Pittsburgh. Waterhouse moved to the United States in 1970 and directed the Yale Center for British Art from 1970 to 1973. He was then the Kress Professor in Residence at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. from 1974 to 1975, as well as an advisor to the J. Paul Getty Trust. He was knighted in 1975.
Ellis Waterhouse died of a heart attack in Oxford, England in 1985. A portion of his extensive personal library was purchased by the Getty Museum Library in Malibu, California.
Photo courtesy of the Ellis Kirkham Waterhouse Archive, The Paul Mellon Centre.