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Beazley, Sir John Davidsonlocked

  • Martin Robertson
  • , revised by David Gill

Sir John Davidson Beazley (1885–1970)

by Lafayette, 1926

Beazley, Sir John Davidson (1885–1970), classical archaeologist, was born in Glasgow on 13 September 1885, the elder son of Mark John Murray Beazley (d. 1940), interior decorator, of London, and his wife, Mary Catherine (d. 1918), daughter of John Davidson, of Glasgow. He went to King Edward VI School, Southampton, and as a scholar to Christ's Hospital and to Balliol College, Oxford, where he took firsts in both classical moderations (1905) and literae humaniores (1907), and was Ireland scholar and Craven scholar (1904), Hertford scholar (1905), and Derby scholar in 1907. His entry for the Gaisford prize for Greek prose (1907), 'Herodotus at the Zoo', an enchanting work, was reprinted in 1911 and in a collection of classical parodies produced in Switzerland in 1968. He became a close friend of James Elroy Flecker, who addressed his poem 'Invitation' to Beazley ('a young but learned friend to abandon archaeology for the moment, and play once more with his neglected Muse'). It warned Beazley that his 'broken vases widowed of their wine' might 'brand you pedant while you stand divine'. Beazley himself at this time wrote poetry, but abandoned it with the growth of his total dedication to scholarship. T. E. Lawrence was to comment to Sydney Cockerell, 'If it hadn't been for that accursed Greek art, he'd [sc. Beazley] have been a very fine poet' (Ashmole, Beazley, 445). His exact contemporary at Balliol was William Compton, who as sixth marquess of Northampton was later to invite Beazley to publish his collection of Greek vases at Castle Ashby, which appeared in the Papers of the British School at Rome (1929).

After a year at the British School at Athens, where the director was Richard McGillivray Dawkins, Beazley returned to Oxford and in 1908 he was made student of Christ Church and tutor in classics. This position was held, except for a period of war service as a lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve at Room 40 of naval intelligence at the Admiralty in London, until 1925. In 1919 Beazley married Marie, daughter of Bernard Bloomfield and widow of David Ezra (with whom she had a daughter who married Louis MacNeice). In the early years of their marriage they kept a goose at Christ Church which Marie used to exercise in Tom quad. Marie devoted her powerful personality entirely to serving Beazley and his work. She learned to photograph vases, took over the practical side of his life completely, and was his guardian dragon. Russell Meiggs was to recall about their later home, 'At 100 Holywell a knock at the door was followed by the opening of a shutter. One faced a glittering eye, before entry was allowed; and the door was not always opened' (Meiggs, 10). Beazley could not have done without her, and he adored her, never recovering from her death in 1967. They had no children.

In 1925 Beazley succeeded Percy Gardner as Lincoln professor of classical archaeology. Gardner himself is thought to have distrusted Beazley's ‘scientific’ approach to Greek pottery. Long before this, however, although a fine classical scholar and an able and conscientious tutor, he had established his life's work as devoted to Greek art and in particular to Attic vase-painting. Greek vase-painting, by virtue of its quality and in the all but total loss of other painting from Greece, is of peculiar importance in the history of art. Its study is now on an entirely different footing from what it was at the beginning of the twentieth century; and that is Beazley's work. Among Beazley's first students for the study of vase-painting were Joan Evans, stepsister of Sir Arthur Evans, and Gordon Childe. The former was to recall her first tutorial with Beazley: 'an essay in appreciation of a delightful little red-figured unguent pot, with a peroration on the folly of the Englishwoman in not using more make-up' (Evans, 74).

Beazley's first article, published in the year of his appointment to Christ Church, is on vases, but is untypical, being concerned mainly with iconography and hardly at all with style. He was already beginning, however, the minute stylistic study of individual vases in all the museums he could visit, the first-fruits of which were the seminal articles which appeared from 1910 in the Journal of Hellenic Studies and elsewhere, on individual painters of Attic red-figure. Essays in this direction had already been made by the great German scholars whom Beazley always revered as his masters, Hartwig, Hauser, and Furtwängler; but their work had two serious limitations. They tended to start from signatures, haphazard in application and still more so in survival; and they only concerned themselves with good work. Beazley never underestimated the master and the masterpiece, but he saw that for the study to be properly based he must survey the whole field. He loved and knew well painting of many times and places, and he took his method from Morelli's studies of the Italian masters: minute observation of individual mannerisms of drawing, controlled by a deep sensitivity to style. The Berlin Painter, to whom he devoted the first of many studies in 1911, is a great draughtsman whose style is now as familiar as Dürer's or Utamaro's. Most of the vases first grouped under the name had long been known, but their relation had not been observed and the artistic personality was lost. By recognizing a whole range of such personalities, from the best to the worst, colleagues or rivals, masters and pupils over many generations, Beazley left the subject, which he had found more or less chaotic, an organized field of study comparable to a school of painting in a documented age.

He began by concentrating on red-figure (and the related white-ground) in the first hundred years or so of its existence, from the later sixth century. Afterwards he pushed forwards to the fourth century and backwards to black-figure. The first phase of his work is summed up in Attic Red-Figure Vases in American Museums (1918), where a history of the art is given through an account of artists and their relations, lists of their works being interspersed in the text. Attische Vasemaler des rotfigurigen Stils (1925) is lists alone, greatly expanded in number and length. He continued to build up these lists throughout his life: in Attic Red-Figure Vase-Painters (1942) and its second (three-volume) edition (1963), the parallel Attic Black-Figure Vase-Painters (1956), and Paralipomena which supplements and corrects these and was posthumously published (1971). These are the backbone of his work; but it is fleshed out in innumerable articles and many books, wide-ranging and beautifully written: Greek Vases in Poland (1928); Der Berliner Maler (1930), Der Panmaler (1931), and Der Kleophradesmaler (1933; the English texts of these three monographs were published in 1974); Attic Vase-Paintings in Boston (with L. D. Caskey, 1931–63); Campana Fragments in Florence (1933; the most spectacular display of Beazley's astounding visual memory, a gift basic to his work); Attic White Lekythoi (1938); La Raccolta Guglielmi (with F. Magi, 1939); Potter and Painter in Ancient Athens (1945); The Development of Attic Black-Figure (1951; lectures given as Sather professor at the University of California, 1949); The Berlin Painter (1964); as well as two Oxford fascicles for the Corpus vasorum antiquorum (1927 and 1931, the second with E. R. Price and Humfry Payne, his best pupil). Greek Sculpture and Painting (with B. Ashmole, 1932) was for many years considered the best short introduction to the subject, and he did important work in other fields: The Lewes House Collection of Ancient Gems (1920) and Etruscan Vase-Painting (1947); but it is his work on Attic vase-painters which is, in the historiography of Greek art, strictly epoch-making.

Beazley was elected FBA in 1927, knighted in 1949, appointed CH in 1959, and held honorary degrees from Oxford, Cambridge, Glasgow, Durham, Reading, Paris, Lyons, Marburg, and Salonika. He was an honorary fellow of Balliol and Lincoln, and honorary student of Christ Church and the British School at Athens. He was honorary vice-president of the Greek Archaeological Society, honorary fellow of the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and a foreign member of many learned societies. He was awarded the Petrie medal in 1937, the British Academy's Kenyon medal in 1957 (the first award), and the Antonio Feltrinelli Foundation prize in 1965. He retired from his Oxford chair in 1956 and was succeeded by his former pupil Bernard Ashmole. In 1964 the University of Oxford purchased Beazley's collection of photographs, drawings, and notes which now forms the Beazley Archive. After his wife's death in 1967, Beazley moved into the Holywell Hotel, and he died in Oxford on 6 May 1970.

Beazley was a person of wide culture, interested in and knowledgeable about the arts (and several of the literatures) of Europe, though he did not care to look much beyond those bounds. He had great charm, and could be an amusing and delightful companion; but as he grew older his total deafness and his increasing absorption in his work combined to cut him off to some degree from other people. He was modest, and took immense trouble with the guidance of his pupils, treating them as equals and winning their devoted affection. He was completely generous in communicating his knowledge, not only to these but to all who consulted him, as in increasing numbers scholars, collectors, and dealers constantly did. In appearance he was somewhat under medium height, slight but well made, with striking blue eyes and fair hair (white in age), and fine rather ascetic features which suggested to many a fifteenth-century Flemish portrait, a Van Eyck or a Van der Weyden. He was never professionally painted, but his wife, a talented untaught artist, drew several heads of him in coloured chalks which are preserved in Oxford, at Balliol, Christ Church, and Lincoln.


  • The Times (7 May 1970)
  • B. Ashmole, ‘Sir John Beazley (1885–1970)’, PBA, 56 (1970), 443–61
  • R. Meiggs, ‘Sir John Beazley’, Balliol College Annual Record (1970)
  • D. von Bothmer, Oxford Magazine (12 June 1970)
  • M. Robertson, ‘John Davidson Beazley’, Gnomon, 43 (1971), 429–32
  • C. M. Bowra, Christ Church Annual Report (1970), 5–6 [abridged version of address at memorial service]
  • D. C. Kurtz, ed., Beazley and Oxford (1985)
  • Greek vases: lectures by J. D. Beazley, ed. D. C. Kurtz (1989)
  • C. M. Bowra, Memories, 1898–1939 (1966)
  • J. Evans, Prelude and fugue: an autobiography (1964)
  • The collected poems of James Elroy Flecker, ed. J. C. Squire (1916)
  • Bernard Ashmole, 1894–1988: an autobiography, ed. D. C. Kurtz (1994)
  • personal knowledge (1981)
  • P. Rouet, Approaches to the study of Attic vases: Beazley and Pottier (2001)
  • A. L. Rowse, ‘A buried love: Flecker and Beazley’, The Spectator (21–8 Dec 1985), 58–60
  • D. von Bothmer, ‘J. D. Beazley’, Classical scholarship: a biographical encyclopedia, ed. W. W. Briggs and W. M. Calder III (1990), 1–6


  • AM Oxf., working notes and papers
  • AM Oxf., collection of artefacts
  • BL, corresp. with Sir Sidney Cockerell, Add. MS 52704
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Gilbert Murray


  • Lafayette, photograph, 1926, NPG [see illus.]
  • M. Beazley, coloured chalk and applied silver paper, 1952, Balliol Oxf.
  • M. Beazley, coloured chalk, Christ Church Oxf.
  • M. Beazley, coloured chalk, Lincoln College, Oxford
  • photograph, repro. in Ashmole, ‘Sir John Beazley (1885–1970)’, pl. xxvii
  • photograph, repro. in Kurtz, ed., Greek vases

Wealth at Death

£54,371: probate, 4 Dec 1970, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Proceedings of the British Academy