We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Millar, Sir Oliver Nicholas (1923–2007), art historian, was born at Standon House, Standon, Ware, Hertfordshire, on 26 April 1923, the elder son of Gerald Arthur Millar (1895–1975), publisher, and his wife, Ruth Gwendolen Mary (1900–1971), daughter of Charles Hornblower Cock, of Mainstone Court, Ledbury. From an early date Millar had an instinctive love of history and literature. Attendance at Rugby School was followed by study at the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, where he obtained an academic diploma. Not being eligible for war service during the Second World War owing to a heart condition, he retained close professional links with the Courtauld Institute for several years thereafter. Not least this was because one of those who attended his lectures was his future wife, Delia Mary Dawnay (1931–2004), daughter of Cuthbert Henry Dawnay, farmer. They married at the Queen's Chapel, Marlborough Gate, London, on 21 January 1954 and had one son and three daughters.

Millar's early connections with the Courtauld Institute coincided with its growing reputation in the art historical life of the nation and on a personal basis two staff members were to feature strongly in his later career: Anthony Blunt (later director of the Courtauld Institute) at the Royal Collection and Margaret Whinney (later reader), who was his co-author in 1957 of English Art, 1625–1714 in the Oxford History of English Art series.

Millar's long association of some forty years with the Royal Collection began in 1947 when he was appointed assistant surveyor of the king's pictures under Anthony Blunt, who had succeeded Kenneth Clark as surveyor two years previously. The rest of Millar's career was spent in the Royal Collection, where he rose to the positions of deputy surveyor in 1949 (following Benedict Nicolson), surveyor in 1972 (following Anthony Blunt), and ultimately the first director in 1987, one year before his retirement, when he was appointed surveyor emeritus. In line with these promotions was his advancement within the Royal Victorian Order: CVO in 1963, KCVO in 1973, and GCVO in 1988.

Millar's immense contribution to the Royal Collection can be summarized under two headings, administrative and scholarly. When he joined the royal household the Royal Collection operated under the aegis of the lord chamberlain's department, which meant in effect that one of the greatest art collections in the world was, in Millar's words, ‘to a large extent in the hands of a succession of charming retired Lieutenant-Colonels of the (generally 1st) Foot Guards’ (Millar, 17). Some other members of the royal household, including superintendents of royal palaces and even housekeepers, also claimed (and sometimes demonstrated) a proprietorial interest in the works of art in their various fiefdoms. Millar quickly realized that this was no way to run such an important collection, particularly one that was so freighted with history. Through diplomacy, tact, and perseverance he gained the support of his colleagues and dragged the Royal Collection into the modern era. He published specialist catalogues, organized exhibitions in the Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace (from 1963), and pursued an active conservation policy. All these developments were officially acknowledged at the time of the Peat Marwick report on the royal household commissioned by the queen through the lord chamberlain, which proposed that the Royal Collection should be made into a sixth department within the royal household and administered independently. As the first director of the modern Royal Collection (1987–8) Millar gained full responsibility for all the works of art throughout the royal residences—a phenomenal number of items including paintings, miniatures, drawings, prints, books, photographs, and manuscripts, as well as every conceivable aspect of the decorative arts. Symbolizing this new-found status was the setting up of a proper office for the surveyor of pictures and the surveyor of works of art in Stable Yard House in St James's Palace, which was a considerable advance on the two cramped rooms off a corridor in the state apartments, where for many years the surveyors were uncomfortably situated with a skeleton staff.

The concern that Millar showed for the practical needs of the Royal Collection was matched and even surpassed by his scholarly activities. His own personal contribution was three major catalogues of the British pictures: The Tudor, Stuart and Early Georgian Pictures in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen (1963), followed by The Later Georgian Pictures (1969) and The Victorian Pictures (1992). The strength of these volumes lay principally in the extensive research done in the royal archives on the early provenances and picture movements within the palaces and the listing of the various versions or copies. Not much attention was paid to stylistic or iconographical matters. Millar also edited a series of catalogues of paintings by artists of the continental schools and of the miniatures, written at his invitation by distinguished scholars from outside the Royal Collection. In addition he wrote catalogues of the numerous exhibitions organized for the Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace on different wide-ranging themes.

Millar's highly compressed method of cataloguing did not do justice to the elegance of his prose, which was seen at its best in the introductions he wrote to his own catalogues of the British pictures. Describing the portraits of the duke and duchess of Cumberland by Thomas Gainsborough, for example, he wrote that ‘the vicious little Duke, nervously fingering his George as he steals across the stage, and his raffish Duchess with her lovely eyes, are the most intelligent and amusing of all portraits bounded by the conventions of the state portrait’. The Queen's Pictures, published in 1977 to mark the silver jubilee of Elizabeth II's reign, and dedicated ‘To all my colleagues in the Royal Households, 1947 to 1977’, was a masterly and at the time of his death unsurpassed account of the pictures in the Royal Collection.

Millar's main area of expertise was seventeenth-century British art. Notable were his transcriptions of the inventories and documents recording Charles I's collection in two volumes of the Walpole Society (1960 and 1972). A leading authority on Sir Anthony Van Dyck, although regrettably he never found the time to write a definitive monograph, he organized the exhibition ‘Van Dyck in England’ (1982) at the National Portrait Gallery, and wrote about that part of the artist's life for Van Dyck: a Complete Catalogue of the Paintings (2004). This last was in some ways the summation of his own scholarly career as the book was a long-running project only brought to a close in the same year as the death of his wife, to whom he dedicated his section. They were a devoted couple, and mutual support had always been accorded their various independent undertakings, culminating in Millar's encouragement of his wife's monumental two-volume publication The Victorian Watercolours and Drawings in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen (1995).

A series of pioneering exhibitions complemented Millar's work on Van Dyck: ‘William Dobson’ (1951), ‘The Age of Charles I’ (1972), and ‘Sir Peter Lely’ (1978). Yet, however much he favoured the seventeenth century, he was able to widen his focus to incorporate the achievements of such other artists as Johann Zoffany in the eighteenth century and Richard Redgrave (a former surveyor of the royal pictures) in the nineteenth. Overall his commitment to British art was of the greatest significance for the development of the subject. The high quality of the volume of essays published in his honour, Art and Patronage in the Caroline Courts, edited by David Howarth (1993), was testimony to the importance of his contribution.

Outside the Royal Collection Millar held a number of important positions, including those of trustee of the National Portrait Gallery (1972–95), visitor of the Ashmolean Museum (1987–93), trustee of the National Heritage Memorial Fund (1988–92), chairman of the Patrons of British Art at the Tate Gallery (1989–97), and president of the Walpole Society (1998–2007). He also served on the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art (1975–87) and the executive committee of the National Art Collections Fund (1986–98). He was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1970.

A tall man with a slightly stooping gait, Millar never ceased to wonder at the beauty of the world surrounding him, whether it was manifested in art, music, or nature. His unalloyed pleasure on seeing beautiful pictures was expressed by sharp intakes of breath or a variety of short exhalations accompanied by a shrugging of the shoulders, a flapping of the elbows, and a shuffling of the feet with an almost childlike response of chuckles and snortles. A torch and a tape measure were his essential tools, together with an overcoat to offset the often freezing temperatures characteristic of royal palaces. Music, ornithology, and sport (particularly cricket and also golf) were engrossing passions matched by a love of Pope's poetry, Byron's letters, and novels by Dickens and Trollope.

The tendency to judge people by his own high standards often caused Millar to make sharp and sometimes wounding criticisms (occasionally retracted overnight) which to some made him seem like a bully when in fact he was a man capable of great sympathy and generosity of spirit, with a marked fondness for the young. There was an occasional air of snobbery in his conversation about the owners of those houses he visited in search of pictures by Van Dyck and Lely, but then this was no more than a characteristic of those of his generation. He was also by no means an unskilful artist in his own right, regularly designing and often making his own Christmas cards. His spidery handwriting, done with the finest of nibs and often embellished with the most elegant of paraphs, presented something of a challenge, to the extent that one of the queen's private secretaries (Sir Michael Adeane) once politely but firmly instructed him in a memorandum, ‘Could you please use a typewriter’ (private information).

Millar was a long-serving and remarkably effective surveyor of pictures, acutely aware and forever proud of the historical tradition in which he worked. He was always conscious of the standards and requirements of the queen, whom he referred to as ‘the employer’. At all times he avoided sycophancy and some of his assessments of certain royal collectors were surprisingly hard-hitting. His essay entitled ‘Surveyors past and present’ in The Queen's Pictures: Royal Collectors through the Centuries (1991), the catalogue accompanying an exhibition in the National Gallery, ended with a meditation on the unique role that the surveyor still had in the British art world.

Millar, who lived latterly in Penn, Buckinghamshire, died on 10 May 2007 of a heart attack in St James's Square after inspecting a picture by Lely at Christies and while on his way to luncheon with two former colleagues at the National Gallery restaurant; he was declared dead at University College Hospital, Camden. Most appropriately, his Portrait of Princess Mary (1631–1660), Princess Royal and later Princess of Orange by Van Dyck was allocated after his death to Hampton Court Palace through the acceptance in lieu scheme. He was survived by his four children.

Christopher Lloyd

Sources  

K. Rose, Kings, queens and courtiers: intimate portraits of the royal house of Windsor from its foundation to the present day (1985), 210 · O. Millar, ‘Caring for the queen's pictures: surveyors past and present’, in C. Lloyd, The queen's pictures: royal collectors through the centuries (1991), 14–18 [exhibition catalogue, National Gallery, London, 1992] · R. Allison and S. Riddell, eds., The royal encyclopedia (1991), 342 · The Times (12 May 2007) · Daily Telegraph (14 May 2007) · The Independent (16 May 2007) · The Guardian (17 May 2007) · Burlington Magazine, 149 (2007), 554–5 · Burke, Peerage · WW (2007) · personal knowledge (2011) · private information (2011) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

priv. coll. |  Royal Arch., surveyor's papers


Likenesses  

photographs, 1983, Photoshot, London · L. A. Dickens, C-type colour print, 2001 (with Delia Mary, Lady Millar), NPG; repro. in The Guardian (17 May 2007) · R. Slade, photograph, repro. in Rose, Kings

Wealth at death  

£4,237,890: probate, 9 Jan 2008, CGPLA Eng. & Wales