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Obituary: Dr Mary Woodall 1901–1988


Dr Mary Woodall, CBE, Felton Adviser from 1964 to 1974, died on 31 March 1988 at the age of eighty-seven. She was born in Kent on 6 March 1901, educated at Cheltenham Ladies College, and read Modern History at Somerville College, Oxford, after which she studied at the Slade School and at the Courtauld Institute of Art. There she produced a PhD thesis on Gainsborough drawings published as a book in 1939. During the Second World War she joined the Women’s Voluntary Services. In 1945 she became deputy to Mr (later Sir) Trenchard Cox at Birmingham Art Gallery. When Cox moved to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1956 she succeeded him, thus becoming the first woman director of a major English municipal museum. Following her retirement in 1965 she was made a trustee of the National Gallery in London and was the first woman president of the Museums Association. 

As adviser to the Felton Bequest she succeeded Ae. J. L. McDonnell and made a distinctive contribution to many areas of the collections of the National Gallery of Victoria. Much liked and respected by her colleagues, she found specialist advice always available to her. During her term of office a balanced group of old master paintings, including a major Mattia Preti (Sophonisba receiving the poison beaker), a fine Cavallino (Madonna annunciate), joined important contemporary paintings by Wyndham Lewis (Inferno), Michael Andrews (All night long), Bridget Riley (Turquoise, olive and magenta verticals) and others. 

 

Mary Woodall’s instinctive response to and sure perception of quality had its basis in her training at the Slade under Henry Tonks and Wilson Steer; she was also a long-time pupil of the Adelaide expatriate and former teacher at the Slade, Franklin White, who took pupils at Samuel Palmer’s village of Shoreham in Kent. She worked with White on and off until her later years. In April 1978 the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford arranged a one-person show of her drawings and water-colours. 

Mary Woodall is well remembered by many of the Gallery staff, to whom she extended warm hospitality during their overseas visits. A member of a large family, with a wide circle of acquaintances, she was an outgoing personality and a vivacious talker who maintained an unchanging loyalty towards her many friends.   

Dr Ursula Hoff