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Smith, Sir Cecil Harcourt- (1859–1944), archaeologist and museum director, was born at Staines, Middlesex, on 11 September 1859, the second son of William Smith, solicitor, and his wife, Harriet, daughter of Frederic Harcourt, of Ipswich. He was a scholar of Winchester College (1873–8), but did not proceed to a university, and in 1879 he joined the department of Greek and Roman antiquities in the British Museum. He soon became known for his archaeological interests, and in 1887 was a founder editor and contributor (as Cecil Smith) to the Classical Review. He later hyphenated his name, and in 1892 married Alice Edith, daughter of H. W. Watson, of Burnopfield, co. Durham. They had two sons, of whom the elder, Simon, was a writer. The younger, Gilbert (1901–1968), became an air vice-marshal of the Royal Air Force.

In 1887 Smith was attached to a diplomatic mission to Persia, and from 1895 to 1897 he was granted special leave in order to hold the post of director of the British School, Athens. The school had just received a subvention from the Treasury and was able to extend its activities: Harcourt-Smith instituted the Annual, and began the school's excavations in the island of Melos, which contributed much to knowledge of Aegean civilizations.

While in Athens, Harcourt-Smith had been promoted assistant keeper of his department in the British Museum, and in 1904 he succeeded A. S. Murray as keeper. He was soon, however, to transfer his activities to another sphere. The collections of applied art at South Kensington, which had accumulated round the nucleus of the objects purchased by the government after the Great Exhibition of 1851, were badly in need of reorganization. In 1908 Harcourt-Smith became chairman of the commission appointed to consider the matter, and his report was so highly approved that he was offered the post of director and secretary of what was henceforward to be known as the Victoria and Albert Museum. He took up his duties in 1909, when the new building had just been completed, and remained director until his retirement in 1924.

In the following year Harcourt-Smith was appointed adviser for the royal art collections and from 1928 until 1936 he was also surveyor of the royal works of art. Among his many public activities, Harcourt-Smith played a leading part in the foundation of the Central Committee for the Care of Churches; he was chairman of the committee of the Incorporated Church Building Society, and vice-chairman of the British Institute of Industrial Art and the British Society of Master Glass Painters. He was also vice-president of the Hellenic Society, president of the Society of Civil Servants, and British representative on the International Office of Museums. He was an honorary member of the British Drama League and an honorary associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. In addition to his scholarly contributions to the British Museum departmental catalogues, he wrote for the art journals and also published a number of monographs: The Collection of J. Pierpont Morgan (1913), The Art Treasures of the Nation (1929), and The Society of Dilettanti: its Regalia and Pictures (1932), which he wrote as the society's honorary secretary.

It is, however, for his work at the Victoria and Albert Museum that Harcourt-Smith is best remembered. He raised the status of the technical staff and negotiated for them the same rates of pay and conditions as the officials of the British Museum. He established students' rooms in all departments and encouraged the issue of guides and catalogues. He instituted official guide-lecturers, and sponsored special displays such as the Franco-British exhibition of 1921. It was under his directorship that the museum was enriched by the acquisition of the Salting collection, the Talbot Hughes collection of costumes, the Pierpont Morgan stained glass, and the Rodin sculptures (although these were later transferred to the Tate Gallery). His arrangement of the contents of the museum according to their material was hailed as an innovation. It lasted until after the evacuation of 1939, when it was abandoned in favour of a chronological sequence, subdivided into primary and secondary collections, devised by Sir Leigh Ashton and more likely to be understood by the general public.

Harcourt-Smith was a man of striking appearance, tall, slender, and erect. In his youth he was known to some of his friends as ‘the light dragoon’; later, with his white hair and moustache, his immaculate clothes, linguistic abilities, and ambassadorial manners, he was an impressive figure on all occasions. He was knighted in 1909, appointed CVO in 1917, and advanced to KCVO in 1934. He also held a number of foreign decorations, and received honorary degrees from the universities of Aberdeen (LLD, 1895) and Oxford (DLitt, 1928). He died at his home, Stoatley, Bramley, Surrey, on 27 March 1944.

James Laver, rev. Dennis Farr


The Times (29 March 1944) · WWW · J. B. Wainewright, ed., Winchester College, 1836–1906: a register (1907), 301 · private information (1959)


RIBA, papers as vice-chairman of British Institute of Industrial Art |  U. Durham L., corresp. with the khedive of Egypt


M. Beerbohm, cartoon, 1924, V&A · W. Stoneman, photographs, 1924–34, NPG · Lady Welby, bust, V&A

Wealth at death  

£3045 8s. 11d.: administration, 6 July 1944, CGPLA Eng. & Wales