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Sir  Eric Robert Dalrymple Maclagan (1879–1951), by Howard Coster, 1937Sir Eric Robert Dalrymple Maclagan (1879–1951), by Howard Coster, 1937
Maclagan, Sir Eric Robert Dalrymple (1879–1951), museum director, was born in London on 4 December 1879, the only son of , bishop of Lichfield, later archbishop of York, and his second wife, Augusta Anne, daughter of William Keppel Barrington, sixth Viscount Barrington. He had a sister and two half-brothers. Educated at Winchester College, he read classics at Christ Church, Oxford, where he obtained a third class in honour moderations (1900) and a fourth in literae humaniores (1902). He joined the staff of the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1905 as assistant in the department of textiles, and in 1907 produced A Guide to English Ecclesiastical Embroideries. From textiles, Maclagan was transferred in 1909 to the department of architecture and sculpture, where he rearranged the collection of Italian sculpture, and published the Catalogue of Italian Plaquettes (1924). In 1913 Maclagan married Helen Elizabeth (1879–1942), daughter of Commander Frederick Canning Lascelles, second son of the fourth earl of Harewood. They had two sons, the younger of whom was killed in action in 1942.

In 1916 Maclagan was transferred temporarily to the Foreign Office and later to the Ministry of Information. He became head of the ministry's bureau in Paris and its controller for France in 1918, a post for which his fluent French especially fitted him. In 1919 he was attached to the British peace delegation and was present at the signing of the treaty. For his services in France, Maclagan was appointed CBE in 1919.

On the retirement of Sir Cecil Harcourt-Smith in 1924, Maclagan was appointed director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. During his twenty-one years in office the museum further increased its reputation as a centre for research and learning, to which Maclagan's monumental Catalogue of Italian Sculpture, produced in 1932 in collaboration with Margaret Longhurst, then assistant keeper in the department, bears witness. But the director's scholarly approach did not deflect him from an awareness of the growing interest of the general public in the resources of the museum. Under his influence important advances towards the popularization of the museum were made, not only in the increase of inexpensive publications such as a series of sixpenny picture books, including his own Children in Sculpture and Portrait Busts, and the organization of free public lectures, but also in various ways in which the vast collections could be made more accessible to people of general rather than specialized knowledge. A welcome innovation was the placing in the entrance hall each Monday of the ‘object of the week’. Among the number of the learned articles, catalogues, and other erudite material which he produced, Maclagan was the author of one best-seller: an essay entitled The Bayeux Tapestry, published as a King Penguin in 1943. He was the first to envisage the system of rearranging the museum according to primary and secondary collections, thereby making the task of obtaining some impression of the museum as a whole a less formidable proposition for the general visitor. This reorganization proved impracticable in the financial climate of the thirties and was not realized until Sir Leigh Ashton reassembled the collections after 1945, when a new field of opportunity was opened and a fresh emphasis was placed upon the whole question of museum display.

During Maclagan's term of office, fresh interest was focused on the museum either by the acquisitions or by the series of distinguished exhibitions which he personally organized. These reflected the fastidious precision of his scholarship and the wide range of his perceptions as a connoisseur. Among the most outstanding were the exhibitions of works of art belonging to the livery companies of the City of London (1926), of English medieval art (1930), a landmark in its time, the William Morris centenary exhibition (1934), the exhibition of the Eumorfopoulos collection (1936), and the exhibition of sculptures which had been removed from Westminster Abbey during the Second World War (1945). Maclagan was knighted in 1933, and in 1945 he was appointed KCVO.

Maclagan held important appointments both at home and abroad. In 1927–8 he was Charles Eliot Norton professor at Harvard, his lectures, published in 1935 as Italian Sculpture of the Renaissance, representing, perhaps, his most important general work. He was vice-president of the Society of Antiquaries (1932–6), president of the Museums Association (1935–6), and chairman of the National Buildings Record. He was also appointed to lectureships at Edinburgh, Belfast, Dublin, and Hull, and was given honorary degrees at Birmingham (LLD, 1944) and Oxford (DLitt, 1945). As chairman of the fine arts committee of the British Council from 1941 Maclagan organized many exhibitions sent abroad by the council after the war, and went on several lecture tours abroad, including one to Canada in 1948 and one to South Africa in 1950. He was a gifted lecturer, was proficient in French and German, and until the end of his life read Greek and Latin for pleasure.

Maclagan's interests were varied and extended well beyond the confines of his specialization in the field of early Christian and Italian Renaissance art. He admired many modern artists and had in his possession a bust of himself by Meštrović. He was one of the first private collectors to buy the work of Henry Moore and unveiled the painting of the crucifixion by Graham Sutherland in the church of St Matthew at Northampton. A keen churchman and, after his retirement, a member of the church assembly, he took a prominent part in the affairs of the Anglo-Catholic movement; and he performed much public service on behalf of the church through the Cathedrals Advisory Council and the Central Council for the Care of Churches, which then had its headquarters in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Maclagan's knowledge of literature, especially of poetry, was profound; he could quote extensively, and at times amusingly, from poets both good and bad. He made several translations of the work of French poets, especially of Rimbaud and Valéry and, while an undergraduate, published a volume of poems, Leaves in the Road (1901), for which he designed the jacket. He also made a special study of Blake's Prophetic Books and with A. G. B. Russell published editions of Jerusalem (1904) and Milton (1907). He took an interest in book production and was one of the first to recognize the genius of Edward Johnston, on whose formal script he based his own handwriting. He designed several bookplates, including one for his friend Bernard Berenson.

Maclagan was an enthusiastic traveller. It was perhaps fitting that he should have died, suddenly, on 14 September 1951, in Spain, when making the ascent to see the church of Santa Cristina Pola de Lena. He was buried at the British cemetery at Bilbao.

Trenchard Cox, rev. Anne Pimlott Baker

Sources  

The Times (17 Sept 1951) · The Times (22 Sept 1951) · The Times (25 Sept 1951) · The Times (11 Oct 1951) · Burke, Peerage · WWW · private information (1971) · personal knowledge (1971) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1951)

Archives  

Harvard U., letters to Bernard Berenson and Mary Berenson · Tate collection, corresp. with Lord Clark · U. Glas., letters to D. S. MacColl


Likenesses  

H. Coster, photograph, 1937, NPG [see illus.] · W. Stoneman, photograph, 1940, NPG · F. Dodd, charcoal drawing, 1944, V&A · H. Coster, photographs, NPG

Wealth at death  

£23,336 9s. 4d.: probate, 7 Dec 1951, CGPLA Eng. & Wales