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Obituary: Ursula Hoff, AO, OBE 1909–2005

With the death of Dr Ursula Hoff in Melbourne on 10 January 2005, the National Gallery of Victoria has lost the person who, more than any other individual, shaped its character and scholarly reputation for the better part of the twentieth century. She served the Gallery first as a curator and then as an assistant director. Later, she was appointed to the Council of Trustees and finally to the position of London Advisor to the Felton Bequests’

Committee, by which time she had completed forty-two years of formal involvement with the institution.  

Ursula Hoff was born in London on 26 December 1909 to German parents and grew up in Germany, an only child, intellectually gifted and imaginative, who would always retain a certain reserve, a tenacity of spirit and independence of mind. This aspect of her character was shaped, no doubt, by her experience as a young scholar of Jewish background living in Germany during the rise and cataclysmic rule of Hitler. Her father, Hans Leopold Hoff, was a Jewish merchant, while her mother, Thusnelde Bulcke, came from a Protestant family. Ursula studied art history, philosophy and archaeology at Frankfurt, Cologne and Munich, and completed her studies in the history of art at the University of Hamburg, where her teachers included Erwin Panofsky, Fritz Saxl and Edgar Wind, among other leading intellectuals. At Hamburg her doctoral thesis on Rembrandt and England was supervised by Panofsky until he himself was forced to emigrate from Germany. In 1933 the Hoff family fled to London, but Ursula braved a return to Hamburg for the oral exam required for the completion of her doctorate.  

Because of official policies on recruitment to the British civil service and despite her qualifications, she was unable to find permanent employment in London, but worked as a part-time research assistant to A. E. Popham and Karl Parker, both of them great scholar-curators in the field of old master drawings. She also began to publish in English, writing for the Journal of the Warburg Institute, and producing independent publications such as the study of Charles I as Patron of the Arts. The National Gallery of Victoria first came to her attention in 1936 through the Felton Bequest, which had purchased a group of old master drawings from the sale at Christie’s of the Oppenheimer Collection, a collection which she had helped research. Her annotated catalogue of the sale has survived and is in the NGV Department of Prints and Drawings.  

Dr Hoff arrived in Australia in 1939 having been offered the post of secretary to the Women’s College (now University College) at the University of Melbourne, whose principal at the time was the Danish religious scholar Greta Hort. Soon Ursula Hoff was giving lunchtime lectures at the National Gallery of Victoria; however, it was not until Daryl Lindsay became director of the NGV that the opportunity of a museum career became available to her in Melbourne. In 1943 Lindsay appointed her Assistant Keeper in the Department of Prints and Drawings – the Gallery’s sole curatorial position at that time. She was the first professionally trained art historian in Australia to gain such an appointment. In 1949 she was promoted Keeper of Prints. Shortly before this she had begun to give lectures at the newly formed Fine Arts Department at the University of Melbourne, the first art history department to be established in Australia. Her position as a lynch pin, providing links between academia and the museum profession, was of immense importance to both the NGV and to the university. She lectured principally at an advanced level, mainly in the area of Netherlandish art, and also gave seminars on the history of prints and drawings in the Gallery’s Print Room. Her pivotal role as an educator influenced several generations of students who became curators and academics. Dr Hoff deposited many of her carefully thought out and formulated lectures in the Gallery’s Department of Prints and Drawings; they still make for stimulating reading.  

On starting work at the Gallery, Dr Hoff took over the professional reorganisation of the Print Room, which Daryl Lindsay had begun. It continues to provide supervised individual access to the collection and is used by specialists and non-specialists alike –

the oldest continuing service of its kind in the country. The useful but rudimentary card indexes to the collection were transformed into proper catalogue cards, their information enlarged and continually updated. A coherent acquisition policy was articulated whose aim was the building of a comprehensive collection of the major developments in the graphic art of Europe and Australia through the finest examples possible. The collection was by no means insignificant when Dr Hoff arrived but she gave the acquisition policy structure and stamped its character, establishing standards of excellence which were based on historical knowledge, aesthetic merit and, in the case of prints, the quality of the impression. The most important of her many important acquisitions for the Print Room was Sir Thomas Barlow’s virtually complete collection of Dürer’s engravings, woodcuts and books, acquired through the Felton Bequest in 1956–57.  

While her initial appointment was to the Department of Prints and Drawings, from the start Ursula Hoff’s curatorial work extended well beyond that part of the collection. As far as her writing was concerned, she produced general as well as specialist studies. In 1945 she contributed to the war effort through her booklet on art appreciation for the Australian Army Education Service and in 1949 she edited Masterpieces of the National

Gallery of Victoria, the first of several fine general texts that she wrote on the Gallery’s collections. The first edition of her catalogue of European Painting and Sculpture before

1800 was published in 1961 before going through three further editions, the last appearing in 1995 (with contributions from Emma Devapriam). This catalogue – written while she was Curator of Prints and Drawings – is her magnum opus and its four editions are a fascinating witness to the developing methodologies of cataloguing and the never-ending application of new research to questions of attribution; all evidence is scrutinised objectively and laid out for the reader with an elegant conciseness and clarity. The publication introduced new standards to cataloguing in Australian art museums and was admired internationally. A second catalogue, focussing on the collection’s early Flemish paintings, was co-written with Martin Davies of the National Gallery, London and published in 1971 as volume 12 in the Les Primitifs Flamands corpus. She also wrote numerous articles and went on to publish, independently, two books on Australian artists: Charles Conder (1972) and Arthur Boyd (1986). In 1959 she effected the transformation of the Gallery’s Quarterly Bulletin into what would become the Art

Bulletin of Victoria, an annual publication of scholarly writing on the Gallery’s collection. She continued as its editor until her retirement from the staff in 1973; the Bulletin remains the longest running journal of its kind in Australia. Volume 28 of the ABV edited by her successor, Sonia Dean, was published in 1987 as a Festschrift, honouring Dr Hoff on her eightieth birthday; it includes a list of her published writings.  

Despite the lasting closeness of her relationship with Melbourne and the NGV, Dr Hoff’s professional associations extended far beyond her immediate geographic milieu. The depth of her contribution to the humanities in Australia was recognised when she was given the Britannica Australia Award in 1966. She was a foundation member of the Print Council of Australia (f. 1966) and she held appointments at the Australian National University and the National Library of Australia (NLA). In 1960 she was elected to the Australian Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and became a foundation fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities when that body replaced the AHRC in 1969. Her association with the NLA began in 1968 when she was first appointed to the council, and lasted until she resigned in late 1974. At the NLA she was, at various times, on the committees of the David Nicholl Smith Memorial Seminar and the National Photographic Index of Australian Birds and she was also the inaugural chair of the library’s Advisory Committee in the Humanities. She became a great supporter, too, of the National Gallery in Canberra and, during the late 1970s and 1980s, with prior approval granted by the NGV and Felton Trustees, she was asked to give expert advice and recommendations on a number of major acquisitions. Ethically scrupulous, she refused payment for the opinions she gave Canberra, accepting only payment for expenses.  

In 1973 at the time of her retirement from the staff of the NGV, Dr Hoff held the position of assistant director, a promotion that was long in coming. For many years before this she had been subjected to the standard gender discrimination that applied across the entire public service. She retired, she explained, in order to pursue her scholarly work;

however, in an unprecedented move, she was appointed to the NGV Council of Trustees. Not long afterwards, in 1975, she moved to London to take up the position of Advisor to the Felton Bequests’ Committee. In 1970 when the University of Auckland had offered her the chair in Art History, she had declined because she felt the upheaval would have disturbed her elderly mother. However, on this occasion the pull of London and the tremendous opportunity of working there for the Gallery’s collections overrode any such concerns and the two travelled to London together. Once there, Dr Hoff cared for her mother with tender devotion as she retreated into old age and finally, death.  

In London Dr Hoff pursued her work for the Felton Bequest with characteristic discipline and total engagement. Her contacts there were longstanding and she was respected by those in the trade and in the museum profession. She knew the collections of the NGV better than anyone and she responded systematically to the curatorial desiderata list, which she had requested. She was also shrewd enough to be open to new opportunities. By general agreement, the greatest of her acquisitions for the Felton Bequest resulted from her grasping such an opportunity. This was the purchase of a collection of 274 Indian paintings, mainly from Rajasthan, dating from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, acquired in 1980. She was also responsible for the Gallery’s acquisition of, among other items, a rare early fifteenth-century predella panel by the Siennese painter Sassetta (though this purchase was not made through the Felton Bequest), an Italianate landscape by the Dutch painter J. B. Weenix and an exceptionally beautiful drawing of an ideal landscape by Claude Lorraine. Her purchases for the Print Room also included two of Goya’s etched cycles – the Caprichos and the Disparates, both in superb first-edition impressions; these completed the Gallery’s representation of Goya’s major etched series. For the decorative arts collection Dr Hoff recommended a group of important items, above all the superb ebonised wood sideboard by E. W. Godwin. For the Department of Photography she acquired a classic portrait of Sir J. F. W. Herschel by the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.  

When Dr Hoff’s term as Felton Bequest Advisor expired in 1983, she could well have remained in London, yet she chose to return to Melbourne. Here she resumed her association with the University of Melbourne as a senior associate in the Department of Fine Arts and became the inaugural president of the university’s Fine Arts Society. She was awarded honorary doctorates from Melbourne, Monash and La Trobe universities, Hon. LLD (Meth.), Hon. DLitt (Monash), Hon. DLitt (La Trobe). The NGV invited her to work on a new edition of her catalogue of European paintings before 1800 and in 2003 instituted a series of annual lectures in her honour. In her last years Dr Hoff pursued her reading of Goethe and Thomas Mann and continued to think about the Faustian legend common to them both. She loved going to the chamber music concerts of the Musica Viva Society, worked in the State Library of Victoria and attended all exhibitions at the NGV until increasing frailty prevented her from doing so. For all but the last eighteen months of her life, she lived alone in North Carlton near the University of Melbourne and was frequently visited by a group of close friends. She died peacefully at the Grace Gardens Aged Care Facility in West Heidelberg, Melbourne.  

Ursula Hoff had a long, distinguished and immensely productive life. An intellectual and scholar with great knowledge, independence of mind and astute judgement, she set the highest standards in all areas of museum work, establishing benchmarks to which curators and administrators continue to aspire. In doing so, she, more than anyone else, raised the status of the museum profession in Australia. For all associated with art history and art museums here, she remains a shining exemplar.  

Irena Zdanowicz, Senior Curator, Prints and Drawings, National Gallery of Victoria(1981–2001).