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Chamot, Mary (1899–1993), art historian and museum curator, was born in Strelna, near St Petersburg, Russia, on 8 November 1899, the only child of Alfred Edward Chamot (1855–1934) and Elisabeth, née Grooten (1854–1935). Her English-born father was of French descent, her mother of Dutch and German origin. He was administrator of the imperial palace gardens, and belonged to the prosperous Anglo-Russian merchant community. Educated privately, Mary learned to speak English, French, Russian, and German with admirable fluency, and began her fine art studies at Dmitry Nikolayevich Kardowski's painting class at St Petersburg Academy (c.1915–16).

After the outbreak of the Russian Revolution Mary accompanied her parents to England, via Finland and Norway, in 1918, where she continued her studies at the Slade School of Fine Art, London, from 1919, gaining her diploma in 1922. Although talented as an artist, she trained in art history under Tancred Borenius and earned her living as a lecturer, first at the National Gallery (1922–4), then at the Victoria and Albert Museum (1924–39), and as an extension (extramural) lecturer for London University. Her first book, English Medieval Enamels (1930), was a popular introduction to the subject in a series edited by Borenius; it was followed by a pioneering work, Modern Painting in England (London and New York, 1937), and a complementary volume, Painting in England from Hogarth to Whistler (1939); she also translated books and organized exhibitions, notably one of Russian art in 1935. She wrote in an informed and easily accessible style, qualities characterizing her articles and reviews for Apollo and Country Life.

During the Second World War, Mary Chamot worked in postal and telegraph censorship, and her excellent linguistic skills were fully utilized when she served as an interpreter to the Allied Control Commission in Vienna from 1945 to 1949. In October 1949 she was appointed assistant keeper at the Tate Gallery, London, and compiled The British School: a Concise Catalogue (1953). This was the prelude to more detailed, scholarly publications on the Tate collections, and in 1964, in collaboration with Martin Butlin and Dennis Farr, she produced the two-volume Modern British School catalogue which contained much new information from the artists themselves and is an important reference book for twentieth-century British art. She collaborated with Sir John Rothenstein on the Early Works of J. M. W. Turner (1965), an artist whose work she greatly admired and which she had begun to catalogue before her retirement in 1965.

Mary Chamot's early days at the Slade had brought her a wide circle of artist friends and collectors, notably Stanley and Gilbert Spencer, the Carlines, Paul Methuen, Edward Bawden, and Jim Ede. Although she was gregarious, and had cousins and relations in every major European city, not to mention North America, she was in many ways a very private person. For many years she shared a house in Kensington (19 Gordon Place) with Helen (Lulette) Gerebzov, where they threw marvellously Russian parties, and she never lost her affection for Russia. In 1963 she published Russian Painting and Sculpture, and wrote the first monograph on her friend Natalya Goncharova, a leading pre-Revolution avant-garde artist and famous stage designer, which appeared first in Paris (1972), then in English in 1979. She contributed an essay to the Arts Council's ‘Larionov and Goncharova’ retrospective exhibition in 1961.

Mary Chamot was of medium height and stockily built; she had grace of character and indomitable spirit. Her schoolfriends had affectionately nicknamed her Marienka Verbliud (‘Little Mary Camel’)—a typically polyglot pun on the French word chameau. She could be devastatingly witty and direct, especially with Soviet bureaucrats, as those who accompanied her on the select tour parties she led with great verve to the USSR after her retirement soon discovered; but she could also be exceedingly kind and generous, and was much loved. In her later years she bore increasing deafness with great fortitude. She died at Weald Hall, Mayfield Lane, a nursing home near Wadhurst, Sussex, on 10 May 1993, and was cremated ten days later at Tunbridge Wells crematorium, Kent. She did not marry.

Dennis Farr

Sources  

personal knowledge (2004) · private information (2004) [Colin Hutchinson, cousin] · Geschichte der Familie Chamot (privately printed, Germany, [n.d.]) · D. Farr, ‘Mary Chamot’, The Independent (17 May 1993), 20 · [R. Alley], The Times (21 May 1993), 19 · minutes of board meeting, 6 Oct 1949, Tate collection, 77 · Who's who in art (1934) · Who's who in art (1986) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1993)

Archives  

Tate collection, staff MSS


Likenesses  

black and white photographs, priv. coll.

Wealth at death  

£173,553: probate, 12 Nov 1993, CGPLA Eng. & Wales