Hugh Honour

b. 1927 – d. 2016

Hugh Honour was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1972.

Hugh Honour remembered – by Jonathan Keates

Among art historians Hugh Honour was an outstanding representative of what is now an almost vanished species, the self-schooled amateur whose breadth of vision transcends the narrow parameters imposed by an orthodox academic training or a career path through galleries and sale rooms. Except towards the end of his life, when he had become an international authority on the life and work of Antonio Canova, Honour had nothing so limiting as a specialist field. He was as happy writing on Benin bronzes or post-war British architecture as he was in probing the roots of chinoiserie and neoclassicism. As a critical enthusiast endowed with singular graces of style, he was the last in a tradition of cognoscenti and dilettanti stretching back to the days of the Grand Tour.

Born in Eastbourne in 1927, Hugh was educated at the King’s School, Canterbury, and read English at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. While still an undergraduate he met his eventual life partner and collaborator, the Scottish lawyer John Fleming, who shared his passion for the arts. Within a few years the pair of them had left England to live permanently in Italy, initially at Lerici, where Fleming became the latest in a series of readers to the blind critic Percy Lubbock and Hugh gained experience as an art journalist. In 1957 they quitted Liguria for Asolo, the Veneto’s most arresting hill town. It was here that Hugh worked on The Companion Guide to Venice (1965), a classic of its genre and an ideal introduction to that city.

Encouraged by Allen Lane, Hugh and John became commissioning editors for Penguin’s Art in Context and Style and Civilization series, to which Honour himself contributed the typically wide-ranging Neo-classicism (1968) and Romanticism (1979). With Nikolaus Pevsner, whose Cambridge lectures had so inspired Hugh, they produced The Penguin Dictionary of Architecture (1966), an essential reference work, and followed this with their own, equally significant, Dictionary of Decorative Arts (1977).

By now Honour and Fleming had moved house once more, this time to Tuscany and a villa in the green hills of the Lucchesia. The rambling old house embodied the catholicity of its owners’ tastes, the walls hung with Buddhist scrolls and paintings by Carlo Dolci, Anton von Maron and Jacques-Emile Blanche, the dining room like the cosiest of country vicarage parlours and the garden a sensuous mirror of trips to South-east Asia. Here Hugh and John worked on their World History of Art(1981), a brilliantly eclectic, prize-winning rival to established volumes by Gombrich and Janson. Since Fleming himself found writing difficult, it was meanly said that ‘Hugh writes what John thinks’. Honour’s own books, Chinoiserie: The Vision of Cathay (1961), for example, or the nineteenth-century volume of The Image of the Black in Western Art (1989), nevertheless reveal a penetrative and original gaze at work beneath their always elegant text.

Known by various admiring or envious fellow expatriates as ‘Honour and Glory’, the pair were lively and engaging hosts. Things seen on their travels were vividly evoked, with generous side servings of anecdote, gossip and scandal, infused with an irresistible vein of self-mockery. Equally typical was a dedicated and protective loyalty to their friends, fuelled by Fleming’s lawyerly combativeness, which offered an incisive contrast with Hugh’s more oblique and feline approach.

After John died in 2001, Hugh resumed work on a long-delayed biography of Antonio Canova. Though he never accomplished this project, he was able, against a background of prolonged illness, to complete a catalogue of the sculptor’s oeuvre and a three-volume edition of his letters. Both achievements marked a superb final flourish in a career devoted to deepening the vistas behind humanity’s natural impulses towards creativity and décor.