Dave Rodgers Obituary, Death – DAVID RODGERS was a compelling presence in the museum world; an artist’s friend and a champion of twentieth-century art; a sophisticated but hesitant writer of remarkable wit and quick intellect. After a colorful but tumultuous museum career, he had settled down in Stockwell, south-east London, to a more contemplative life as a freelance writer, and at the time of his untimely death, he was working with rare energy and infectious enthusiasm on various Oscar Wilde exhibition projects. Rodgers was born in Sheffield in 1942 and attended King Edward VII School before going on to pursue English and History of Art at St John’s College, Cambridge, where he graduated in 1963. He gravitated toward the Footlights and pretended to be a fin-de-siecle aesthete in his daily life, dazzled his landlord with his silk dressing robe, Turkish cigarettes, and sexually explicit replicas after Beardsley and Moreau. Later, he claimed to have only visited the Fitzwilliam Museum twice, and notoriously upset Professor Michael Jaffe by saying that a Raphael they were studying drew its intrinsic quality from its “golden glow,” prompting the caustic rejoinder that this was discoloured varnish.
Even if Rogers had little interest in pursuing a career as an old masters connoisseur, he was deeply committed to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as evidenced by the large and groundbreaking exhibition on Charles Conder that he organized as curator at the Graves Art Gallery in Sheffield in 1967. Rodgers began his museum career at the City of York Art Gallery four years before. A unusual recommendation from Cambridge called attention to both his intellectual aptitude and his natural laziness, implying that unless he rapidly found a stimulating career, he may bore himself to death. This was done to appeal to York’s director, Hans Hess, who had long demonstrated a remarkable ability to pick competent outsiders over what he saw as the Courtauld Institute’s narrow-minded art historians. Rodgers must have been inspired by Hess’s successful clashes with philistine councillors in York when he took up his first museum directorship in Wolverhampton in 1969.
The Wolverhampton Council had hoped for a change of direction at the critically run-down museum, but were astonished and rattled by Rodgers’ silent revolution. By organizing a series of popular shows about design and local history (“serious exhibitions with silly things in them”), he attracted viewers who had never considered visiting an art gallery before. “Coronation Souvenirs and Commemoratives”; “Seaside Souvenirs”; and, most importantly, “One for the Pot” – teapots – which he debuted with a tea party for 100 lucky pupils and Noddy, the Brooke Bond (PG Tips) monkey.
He amassed a significant collection of British and American Pop Art, possibly the best outside of London, paying pounds 30,000 for Roy Lichtenstein’s Purist Painting with Bottles and Peter Blake’s Cigarette Packet despite widespread mockery in the local press (“pounds 18,000 up in smoke”; “Tories fuming over Pop art”). He also included contemporary prints and sculpture, such as a maquette of Nicholas Munro’s huge piece King Kong, which ended up on the roof of a Wolverhampton garage. Rodgers appreciated the company of artists and developed productive relationships with Wolverhampton Polytechnic. He curated shows by modern artists such as Tom Phillips and John Langton, as well as a well-received collage exhibition. He also did not forget his responsibilities as curator of the historical treasures. He saved a Richard Wilson that had been used to stop a coal-house door, purchased Zoffany’s Garrick and Sir John Brute (Brute in drag) and a Wright of Derby, and gave Victorian genre painting new significance.
Rodgers relocated to the Exeter Museums in 1981. When confronted with a more conservative and less generous council, he purchased contemporary art under the guise of expanding the topographical collections, most notably with Burra’s large-scale watercolour of Dartmoor. His appointment to the Geffrye Museum promised a lot but produced little when he clashed with the trustees and refused to reapply when the museum was reformed. Mr Pooter’s London (1988), based on Diary of a Nobody, and A Victorian Schoolboy in London: Ernest Baker’s Diary (1881-82) (1989) were both enjoyable publications.
Rodgers was quietly dismissive of his ability to write on an art-historical level. A lengthy, intellectually rich association with Sir Michael Levey, whose sophistication and eloquence he respected and with whom he traveled to Italy on a regular basis, may have ironically limited his own inclination to commit himself to print on a grand scale. He wrote a short book on Rossetti for Phaidon (Rossetti, 1996) and a popular book on William Morris for the William Morris Society (William Morris At Home, 1996). And he was persuaded to contribute to the Macmillan Dictionary of Art and the forthcoming Oxford Companion to Western Art, for which he also served as an advising editor.
In his editorial position, he could be startlingly, but always sweetly, unyielding, refusing to commission essays on trendy subjects such as Modernism that he did not care about. When pressed for an author to write about the sensitive subject of Feminism, he mischievously penned an apparently flawless article himself, signed “Lesbia Brandon,” without specifying whether or not he anticipated it to be published.
Rodgers’ greatest talent was his aptitude for friendship and his ability to make lovers or prospective lovers into friends. Clare Martin, his long-term companion, he met when she was still a schoolgirl in Wolverhampton. Almost from the beginning, she had to support him through periods of exhausting and often perilous ill-health; nevertheless she must have drawn immense strength from David’s warm, protective, and stoic demeanor. He proposed his own epitaph with customary cynicism, and probably some regret: “David Rodgers: he was very jolly.”
David Ernest Rodgers, museum curator and writer, was born in Sheffield on February 1, 1942; worked as an art assistant at York City Art Gallery from 1963 to 1965; as a curator at Graves Art Gallery from 1965 to 1968; as a curator at Old Battersea House from 1968 to 1969; as director of Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Museums from 1969 to 1981; as director of Exeter Museums and Art Gallery from 1981 to 1986; and as director of Geffrye Museum from 1986 to 1990.