Ursula Hoff 1909-2005

Ursula Hoff was born on 26 December 1909 in London, the only daughter of Hans Leopold Hoff and Thusnelde Hoff, nee Bulcke, who was more often known as Tussi. Her father had inherited a well-established pharmaceutical business that specialised in the manufacture of malt products, with outlets in Berlin, Moscow, New York and London, where her father was on business when she was born. Hoff’s malt extract even appears in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Her father’s well-to-do mercantile inheritance supported the family’s pursuit of cultural activities but her mother was also important in influencing Ursula’s future direction. Maternal relatives included artists and musicians.

She studied in Hamburg at the Klosterschule, and then gained a practical appreciation of technique by studying for a short time in an artist’s studio before commencing her tertiary education. As a teenager, she had also been part of a small group of students who visited exhibitions by major contemporary artists such as Franz Marc and Paul Klee. She also took part in educational trips to southern German cities, where the celebratory and playful late Baroque architecture and decoration of churches such as the Vierzehnheiligen delighted her. They made a deep impression, partly by the sheer contrast with the simplicity and restraint of Hamburg and the Protestant north. She was also able to go on an extended European tour, encompassing Florence, Rome and Paris, where she visited major collections.

After a year of studies spread between the universities of Cologne, Frankfurt and Munich, her father recalled her to Hamburg. Here she studied English literature, the philosophy of aesthetics, archaeology and art history. Her teachers included Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968) and Fritz Saxl (1890-1948). The latter appears to have been the catalyst for her specialisation in Rembrandt studies, including a detailed examination of his drawings. In Hamburg she also came in contact with the Warburg Institute, whose staff emphasised symbolism and iconography, as did those who were teaching art history at the university.

The collapse of the Weimar Republic and Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor at the beginning of 1933 saw Saxl advising Leopold Hoff to flee with his family to England. That year, they left in what turned out to be the largest group of Jewish migrants to leave Germany in one year for some time to come. In London, they lived in Hampstead. The rise of anti-Semitic fascism created a personal tension about her ultimate identity that was not always easy for Ursula to resolve. Her mother’s family had been among the middle-class supporters of the Nazi party, and they had already cut off Tussi after her marriage. To observant Jews, for whom the maternal line determines racial and cultural identity, she was a gentile, because in her case, the connection with the Jewish community came through her father. Ultimately, she was not owned by the ‘tribes’ of either of her parents.

In London she joined other art historians who had moved into exile, including a number of Warburg Institute staff — the whole organization had relocated to London. Difficulties continued to dog her. In 1935, her doctoral thesis, Rembrandt und England, was accepted, but she was obliged to return to Hamburg for the oral examination. The situation at the university had already altered drastically. Legislation discriminating against people who were not of ‘pure Aryan’ extraction in academic circles was already in place. Student numbers at the University’s fine art school were rapidly shrinking, and the few remaining pupils of Panofsky, Saxl and their contemporaries generally avoided the two new leading figures in the department as much as possible. One of them, Werner Burmeister, wore his Storm Trooper (SA) uniform during her oral examinations and dismissed her work as ‘unAryan’ because, quite correctly, he identified the influence of Panofsky.

If life in Germany was now out of the question, the long-term picture for her in London was hardly encouraging. Legislation debarred the public service from employing anyone unless two generations of their family had been born in Britain. The director of the Courtauld Institute told her that positions in this art historical institution were reserved for English students. It may not have been overt anti-Semitism, but it was still discriminatory. Meanwhile, she found part-time research work that brought her into contact with distinguished scholars. Under Karl Parker’s direction she catalogued the old master drawings of Henry Oppenheimer. Their auction in late 1936 brought the National Gallery of Victoria to her attention for the first time, as the Felton Bequest purchased several works from that collection. She also worked as a secretary for the Rubens expert Ludwig Burchard, and prepared a general text in Charles I as an art patron. This was eventually published in 1942. By then, she had been in Melbourne for three years. Greta Hort (1903-67), who became the principal of University (then Women’s) College in 1938, persuaded that College’s governing body to invite Girton College in Cambridge to assist in selecting a refugee from European fascism. Women’s College would guarantee their employment. Hort, a Danish scholar of English literature, was deeply fascinated by Jewish culture. The offer a secretarial position in a very distant land appealed to Ursula for several reasons. As well as the unavailability of permanent full-time work, anti-German feeling in the United Kingdom had been increasing. As a committed pacifist she felt frustrated in the face of many people’s desire for the onset of open conflict even before war was declared. As well, there was the unsettling effect of family tensions, and possibly of unhappy personal relationships.

She arrived in Melbourne on the Orcades on 23 December 1939. She quickly found that she and Greta Hort were markedly different individuals, and the secretarial position offered no scope for her distinctive abilities. An approach to James McDonald, then director of the National Gallery of Victoria, was rebuffed. He saw no need for an art historian, let alone a German Jewish refugee. However, his replacement by Daryl Lindsay in 1943 and the increasing influence of Sir Keith Murdoch on Gallery policy provided the necessary change in atmosphere. Lindsay offered Ursula a five-year contract as Assistant Keeper of Prints and Drawings. The Public Service Regulations Board intended to open the position to a returned serviceman when the contract expired. Instead, it was the beginning of a forty-year association with the Gallery. Lindsay and Murdoch ensured that her position was made permanent in 1949 as Keeper of Prints, a title modelled on those used at the British Museum. In 1956 it was changed to Curator of Prints and Drawings. In 1968, with the opening of the relocated gallery at St Kilda Road, she became Assistant Director. Again, public service documents show that a glass ceiling was in place, and that the Director’s position would not have been open to her or any other woman at the time. However, her influence on acquisitions ensured that the Prints and Drawings collection became, as Patrick McCaughey put it, the Gallery’s Wunderkammer. Its range extended from the outstanding Barlow collection of Dürer works — a truly international coup — and works by other sixteenth and seventeenth century masters, to Picasso and German expressionists. She was equally a staunch supporter of twentieth century Australian modernist printmakers. The works by these artists acquired through her initiative made the National Gallery of Victoria’s holding into a truly representative national one, unparalleled in any other Australian collection at the time.

Following her retirement from the National Gallery of Victoria in 1973, she was appointed London Adviser to the Felton Bequest, a role she occupied until early 1983. In that capacity she continued to recommend an extraordinary range of works. She was contemptuous of the prejudice against much contemporary work shown by the Director of the time, Eric Rowlison, and encouraged the purchase of works by leading pop artists, as well as fine examples of major series of prints by Goya. Her ability to extend her interest into new fields was demonstrated by her ceaseless pursuit of high-quality Indian miniature paintings, culminating in the acquisition of a substantial part of the collection of the Maharana of Mewar in 1978.

In Hamburg, she had studied in a unique environment, and it perhaps in part due to this unusual setting that when her career ‘took off’, it combined museum curatorship with teaching at both academic and more popular levels. The school of art history founded by Panofsky was not housed in the grounds of Heidelberg University but in the basement of the Hamburg Kunsthalle (art gallery). The Kunsthalle possessed a generously stocked library as well as many teaching aids. During her first years in Melbourne, Ursula gained considerable public attention by series of lectures given in the National Gallery, and later, in lectures given in provincial cities such as Ballarat. In 1946, when Sir Keith Murdoch founded the first chair for Fine Arts in an Australian university — the Herald Chair of Fine Arts at the University of Melbourne — it was natural that its first occupant, Professor Joseph Burke, invited her to join the teaching staff of his new department. Another contemporary colleague here was Franz Philipp, a refugee from Anschluss Vienna. His training brought the influences of a slightly different school of German art history to bear on students. Ursula lectured in the evening, a consequence of her appointment at the National Gallery. Hoff’s teaching was firmly in the tradition of Panofsky, revealing the meaning of disguised symbols. First-year students had to read Panofsky’s Studies in Iconology (1939) and Meaning in the Visual Arts (1955). No one could complain about the thoroughness of her method though some students found the presentation rather dry. She insisted that the study of art history was the study of the works themselves, ideally seen face to face, rather than through reproductions in a book, let alone descriptions in a text. She reinforced this by conducting seminars for students in the Print Room that she had set up in the Gallery, modelled on that in the British Museum. In 1970, the University of Auckland offered her its chair in Art History, but she declined the offer, citing the demands placed on her in caring for her mother, who had left London to come to live with her in Melbourne in the 1950s. Perhaps it was a kind of consolation prize when Monash University conferred an honorary doctorate on her that same year in recognition of the contribution her publications had made to art history. in 1984, after her resignation as Felton Bequest adviser, On Ursula’s return to Melbourne from London in 1984, after her resignation as Felton Bequest adviser, the Fine Arts Department invited her to become a Senior Associate, a title she accepted on condition that she was not obliged to deliver lectures!

In her teaching of art history in the University of Melbourne, one of her important contributions was to make students connect the object of their studies with a wider world by presenting galleries as places to be visited as an essential part of their discipline. She also transformed the places in which she worked by bringing the rigorous standards of scholarship to bear on the presentation of their collections, whether in exhibition, or in cataloguing and compiling information. Her publication record was likewise a reflection of her academic discipline and a practical application of it. When she arrived in Melbourne, there was no comprehensive publication, popular or academic, on the major works in its collection. It was at once an acknowledgement of a great need, and a recognition of the pragmatic nature of Australians, that she concentrated her scholarly activities across her working life to creating texts of this kind. Michael Levey, Director of London’s National Gallery reviewed her European Paintings Before 1800 in the National Gallery of Victoria in 1961 and summed it up as ‘an admirable piece of scholarly work’. He praised her ability to present her material in a way that would not mystify the general reader, while still presenting information from which a scholar would benefit. This was one of her conscious aims. She did not want the visual arts to become an esoteric world, obscured by the mists of a jargon only comprehended by a select inner circle. Though it took some time before similar publications appeared to cover other major departments in the Gallery, this work was a model and catalyst and was most recently republished in 1995 in a fourth edition. She devoted an almost microscopic level of concentration to a handful of works in the Gallery’s collection in Les Primitifs Flamands, vol. 12: The National Gallery of Victoria (Brussels, 1971) in which she co-authored with Martin Davies of London’s National Portrait Gallery. Thames and Hudson published The National Gallery of Victoria, the only guide to an Australian collection in its series on internationally significant art galleries and museums. It became a familiar text in secondary and tertiary courses on art, the standard format black cover presenting one of Blake’s watercolour illustrations to Dante’s Inferno. By the time that the national Gallery of Victoria published a Festschrift in 1987, the list of her publications ran to seventy items covering a wide range of topics. Her engagement with the art of her country of adoption showed in studies on Charles Conder (1972) and Arthur Boyd (1986), the second of these a tribute to a lifelong friendship.

Her distinctions included three honorary doctorates, an OBE (1970), Officer of the Order of Australia (1985), and the Britannica Award (1966). She was a foundation member of the Australian Humanities Research Council (1956), and a foundation Fellow of its successor, the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

Her public persona was restrained and formal. John Brack’s fine portrait captures the sense of reserve perfectly. This was Dr Hoff, the authority. Her publications give no indication of the well-developed and quirky sense of humour that she revealed in her diaries. It was often combined with acute powers of observation, and was something that her friends remembered with affection.

She died on 10 January 2005, and was cremated privately. Celebrations of her life were held at St Peter’s Eastern Hill and at the National Gallery of Victoria.

In her private diaries, she indicated clearly that she had chosen a career in scholarship in place of marriage, and generally did not regret that choice. Her mother was a complicating influence. On the one hand, she encouraged Ursula’s interest in the arts, but also thought that the appearance of a good marriage was more important than a genuinely happy relationship. She seems to have tried to push Ursula into observing a very conservative and conventional line earlier in life. However, it can hardly be said that Ursula died ‘without issue’. The holdings of the National Gallery of Victoria, particularly in Prints and Drawings, are a lasting monument, as is the level of scholarship now standard in the Gallery’s recording of its collections. Her influence continues in a living inheritance in the directors past and present of major Australian galleries, whose standards have been formed by hers, among them James Mollison, Gerard Vaughan, Ron Radford and Frances Lindsay. To their names can be added those of distinguished curators and scholars whom she mentored in various ways. These include Professor Sasha Grishin, Sonia Dean and Irena Zdanowicz, Pat Simons, Nancy Underhill, Margaret Manion, Margaret Plant, Virginia Spate, Harley Preston, Nicky Draffin and John Stringer. Through their work, disseminated across a wide range, the influence of Ursula as the first professionally trained art historian to be employed by an Australian gallery extended beyond the Fine Arts Department at the University of Melbourne and Victoria’s National Gallery. In terms of the professionalisation of art scholarship, her influence has truly been national.

© Colin Holden, 2011

Further reading:

Colin Holden, The Outsider: A Portrait of Ursula Hoff, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2009