May 31 2024

Anthony Harris - 1931-2024

May 31st 2024

Clive Wilmer, Janet Barnes & Jeanne Clegg remember Anthony Harris, Companion and Master of the Guild from 1982 to 1996, who died on 7 May 2024, aged 92.


I was very sad to hear of the death of Tony Harris. I first met him on his last day as Master of the Guild and my first as a Companion. I was among those he admitted to the Guild at the AGM of 1996, and he stood down directly afterwards. He was warm and welcoming, and I was sorry I should not see more of him in the role of Master. The following year, I gave a paper at a Ruskin conference in northern Italy and was delighted to find Tony among the delegates. We spent a good deal of time talking to one another and getting on rather well. He continued turning up to Guild events at least till he turned 90 and was very encouraging to me in the course of my Mastership.

Tony’s successor was Julian Spalding, who had worked very closely with him during his years in office. In his acceptance speech, Julian paid memorable tribute to his predecessor: Tony, he said, was in his judgement the most important Master since Ruskin himself. In the course of my own time leading the Guild, I came to the same conclusion. It was during Tony’s term, in 1985, that the Guild acquired the lease of the Sheffield wineshop that served as the Ruskin Gallery until 2001, its first public home for eighteen years. He also presided over the wonderful Ruskin and Tuscany exhibition that was shown in London, Sheffield and the Tuscan city of Lucca in 1993. Based on the Sheffield collection, Ruskin and Tuscany provided the model for future Guild exhibitions.

I’d also like to recommend the two excellent Ruskin Lectures which Tony gave for the Guild: Why do our little girls have large shoes? (1985) about the Guild’s purposes, and Ruskin and Siena (1991), which can be said to have anticipated the Tuscany show.

One last thing. In 2011, not long after becoming Master, I was contacted by an energetic, self-confident young accountant, who, though not yet a Companion, wanted an opportunity to help the Guild and further Ruskin’s ideas in practical terms. In particular, he thought the Guild could exploit its finances to greater effect. We decided to take him on as the Guild’s first Financial Director and, in my view, he more than fulfilled his promise. This was, of course, Chris Harris, Tony’s son. My sympathies to him, his mother Portia and the whole family at this sad time.

I first met Anthony when he was the Master of the Guild of St George and I was appointed the first Keeper of the Ruskin Gallery back in the early 1980s. Anthony was always very supportive, energetic and positive and we worked very well together. It was an adventure for us both. 
The Guild, led by Anthony, was very generous in supporting the work of the gallery with its rich programme of thematic exhibitions drawn from its diverse collection. The gallery soon established itself in the cultural life of the city and was once described by a local journalist as a 'centre of high-mindedness in the city’ (as well as being Michael Palin's favourite gallery). Without Anthony's encouragement and strong sense of purpose, the small team at the Ruskin wouldn’t have been able to have been so ambitious with its exhibition programme and educational activities.
Perhaps the most ambitious project we embarked on together was the 'Ruskin and Tuscany’ exhibition. This exhibition was the idea of Dr Jeanne Clegg and Dr Paul Tucker, the curators of the exhibition - both of whom were working in universities in Italy. Anthony absolutely loved Italy, visiting many times. He was very much my mentor at that time about all things Italian. To prepare for the exhibition we went on a quick research trip to Tuscany visiting Pisa, Florence, Siena and Lucca - all places well known to Anthony but new to me. 
The exhibition 'Ruskin and Tuscany’ was Anthony's ‘Italian Campaign’ and opened in London in 1992 at The Accademia Italiana and was an enormous success there. The Private View was rammed with people, so much so that no one could see the pictures on the wall or get to the bar for a drink. Health and safety was not such an issue in those days. The last day of the exhibition saw an enormous queue stretching down the road.  The Accademia Italiana wanted to keep the exhibition open for a few weeks longer but we had planned for the exhibition to travel to Lucca. All the exhibits went by van - with me accompanying it as the courier. It was a memorable journey across France to Lucca where it was displayed in the Fondazione Ragghianti. Its third venue was the Ruskin Gallery. 
It’s hard to imagine how such an exhibition could be put together today. It was only made possible by the support of Anthony and the Guild. Without his contacts in London and Italy the exhibition would not have happened.  I owe a great deal to Anthony. He was a most gracious and encouraging friend and I will always be grateful to him for his kindness, and especially for taking me to the Chelsea Arts Club for long companionable lunches. 

I last saw Tony in January of this year, when with Portia we had a delightfully boozy lunch in a St Albans’ hotel. Along with many many people, I shall miss him terribly. I first got to know Tony when he was Master of the Guild and brought me, Paul Tucker and Janet Barnes together to make the Ruskin and Tuscany exhibition come true. Working with him was pure joy. He trusted us, and got owners, gallery directors and publishers to trust us too, while keeping his and our feet firmly on the ground.

Later I got to know and love Tony’s painting, to visit him in his beloved Lerici, to see the volcano lakes in the Alban hills through his very painterly eyes. I deeply regret not making it to London to see his last exhibition where, from the images I’ve seen, he seems to have brought Mediterranean brilliance and intensity to cool twenty-first century cityscapes.

Then there was Tony’s strong love of life, and ability to share his zest with others. I  treasure memories of his and Portia’s visits to Rome and Venice, and their kindness to my elderly but ever game and optimistic mother. Tony brought huge, positive energy with him wherever he went,  even when dependent on Christopher to get him over Venetian bridges and on and off crowded ferries. His keen interest in the young art-school students who showed their posters at Ca’ Foscari on the occasion of the 2019 conference ‘A Great Community: John Ruskin’s Europe’ in 2019 comes through clearly in the photograph below. He was himself a great European.

Anthony Harris - Jeanne Clegg photo.jpg
Tomb of Ilaria di Coretto ANTHONY HARRIS.jpeg

Anthony's watercolour of the tomb of Ilaria di Corretto in Lucca Cathedral, a sculpture of profound significance to Ruskin.