Puttfarken, Thomas Monrad, 1943-2006

by Michael Podro

05 Jun 2009

Well over six foot tall, highly companionable yet at the same time deeply reticent, Thomas Puttfarken was one of the most accomplished and original art historians of the last quarter century. He was born on 19 December 1943 into a Hamburg family that included jurists back to the eighteenth century: two generations ago his great uncle had clashed with the Nazis and lost his judgeship; his brother was a professor of international law and his daughter Nathalie is a qualified lawyer working as a translator and editor of legal documents in Hamburg. This background is hardly irrelevant to the fastidiousness, calm and authority with which, for much of his career, he filled senior university posts, as a dean, pro-vice chancellor or (on three occasions) head of department. He was seriously concerned with the civic dimension of the university as the necessary complement to its scholarship. This surely reflects his personal history, growing up in post-war Germany. (One of his closest colleagues remarked that he took on these offices not because he enjoyed the exercise of power but because he could not stand its administration being handled badly.) If that sense of legal propriety can be traced in his conduct in office, it also has its parallel in his work as an art historian: the patience and rigour with which he examined arguments, reconstructed contexts, responded to counterarguments and, throughout, his resistance to any arbitrary move. His enormous contribution to the life and work of the University of Essex, where he spent nearly all of his academic career, included vigorous sponsorship of the arts on and off campus (including the University choir) and support for the preservation of the built and natural environments. He was a lover of good food, good wine, good company and a wide range of music — as well as a talented painter and furniture-maker

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