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Professor John Steer

05 March 2012

Professor John Steer

It was with great sadness that the Department of History of Art and Screen Media learnt of the death of  John Steer on 20 February. John was the Professor of History of Art at Birkbeck for the last five years of his professional life, from 1979 to 1984. He had the distinction of having created two university departments of art history, first at Bristol and then St Andrews. He was a specialist in Venetian art and an inspiring teacher, as his many ex-students will testify, many of whom are now in prominent positions throughout the art world.

He read history at Oxford and then turned to art history as a postgraduate at the Courtauld Institute under Anthony Blunt. After a period at Birmingham City Art Gallery, his first university appointment in 1959 was in the Department of Fine Art in Glasgow. He then moved to Bristol as lecturer in European art, first in the German department, where he worked to establish art history against the prejudice of historians who regarded it as a soft option. He then moved back to Scotland, taking up the newly established chair of fine arts at the University of St Andrews, where he again set about establishing art history as a full university degree programme. From Fife he moved south to London to take up the chair of history of art at Birkbeck following the retirement of its founding professor Peter Murray. In addition to his university career he was also an early member of the Association of Art Historians Executive Committee (1977–79), becoming Chair of the Association in 1980 following the retirement of John White. Those of us who had the pleasure of knowing him can attest to his unusual combination of unaffected charm, openness and natural modesty. A lively, kindly man with a ready smile, as interested in theatre and ballet as he was in art, he was a quiet but profoundly influential figure whose impact on the study of art in Great Britian will be long felt.