Giles Waterfield, the fresh-faced, smiling young man who came to Dulwich Picture Gallery as its first Director in 1979, stayed sixteen years and brought a breath of fresh air to what was a stagnant and sparsely visited institution. He infused it with humour, enthusiasm and knowledge, all qualities which through his engaging personality transformed the gallery, those who worked there and those who came to love it as one of the growing number of Friends.
The Gallery’s existing condition was not entirely the fault of those responsible for running it before Giles arrived. The cash-strapped Picture Gallery Committee appointed by the governors of Dulwich College had carried out restoration of many of the pictures after the end of the Second World War, when the best pictures in the collection were returned from their imposed evacuation to Wales back to the rebuilt gallery. It had struggled to provide free-opening, added artificial lighting to offset the dark days of winter and re-hung the collection in the then current fashion of spaced out, eye-level height pictures under the guidance of Sir Gerald Kelly.
What Giles succeeded in doing was to put Dulwich Picture Gallery firmly on the map of London’s art scene. He did this by starting to stage temporary exhibitions which later would become an important aspect of its success. He also opened the door to the supremely successful education programme by appointing and supporting Gillian Wolfe to run it. Giles also harnessed a desire by many residents and others to be involved in the potential artistic life of the Gallery. The Friends had already been founded but under his guidance it rapidly flourished. Garden parties, talks and music became successful ingredients to make the Gallery a focus of Dulwich life and provide valuable financial support. However, his greatest achievement was to pave the way to financial independence and give it a life of its own.
The huge numbers of people at his memorial service in St Martin-in-the-Fields in January speaks volumes for other aspects of Giles’ remarkable talents which touched so many people; his devotion to architecture and country houses in particular, his skill at communicating his knowledge through his lectures at the Courtauld and the summer school he ran for museum curators at Attingham. He never forgot his happy time at Dulwich, serving as president of Dulwich Decorative & Fine Arts Society for many years and even remaining a regular reader of this Journal.
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