Obituary – Michael Robinson 1910 – 1999

Reprinted by permission from The Independent, Obituaries, 15 January 2000

IN 1672, during the Third Dutch War, Charles II invited Dutch artists to settle in England and two who came were the Willem van de Veldes, a father and son already famed as “painters of sea fights” and shipping. They were rapidly engaged by the king and his Lord Admiral brother, James, Duke of York, and given a studio in the Queen’s House at Greenwich, today part of the National Maritime Museum (NMM). Thus did marine art begin in England, with the greatest collection, both Dutch and British, now being at Greenwich. It includes some 60 paintings and 1,500 drawings by the van de Veldes, on whom for 40 years Michael Robinson was the world authority and for over 20 head of the NMM Picture Department.

Robinson’s father, Gregory, was appropriately also a marine painter, who in 1910 – the year of Michael’s birth – was one of the founders of the Society for Nautical Research (SNR). Michael attended the King Edward VI School in Southampton but his maritime education began on the river Hamble. The family were keen sailors and he and his brothers acted as race crew in the old 6-metre-class yacht of Captain Maurice Horatio Nelson, a relative of the Admiral and a friend of their father. The Captain, a tartar whose only paid hand was “the village idiot – largely to swear at”, was the last surviving officer from the Naval sail-training brigs of the Victorian age. Under his instruction Robinson heard the final authentic echoes of the sailing Navy, the correct preservation of whose technical language was to be one of the aims in his work.

His career began as a volunteer helper at the London Museum and elsewhere, while completing school matriculation and enrolling as external student at London University. In 1928, with another student, C.N. Parkinson (later of “Parkinson’s Law” fame), he was taken on by Geoffrey Callender, Professor of History at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, to catalogue the 11,000 prints, drawings and paintings of the Macpherson Collection. This had been purchased by the shipowner Sir James Caird for £108,000, then a huge sum, to form the core of a “national naval and nautical museum.” Callender was to become the museum’s first director but before that, he and Caird paid their helpers, and Robinson began on one pound a week.

In 1934 he gained a London University intermediate arts qualification and on the NMM’s creation that year became a junior assistant in its first few staff, the need to sit a Civil Service examination being waived. He had already been involved in a travelling exhibition of Macpherson material to help promote the museum project and in 1950 published a selective overview of it as A Pageant of the Sea.

As a territorial member of the King’s Royal Rifles from 1930, he was a medal-winning shot at Bisley and was called up in 1939, eventually serving in the Special Boat Squadron in Greece where he was wounded and captured on Leros. He luckily found a shared knowledge of Greenwich with the German doctor who treated him, and ended the war as a sergeant in Stalag IVB at Mulberg – a largely Dutch camp – where he learnt Dutch from a Rotterdam schoolteacher, and studied old Dutch sea-terms in the evening. He gained a first-class advanced qualification in the language in 1949.

Robinson had then returned to Greenwich and in 1947 became head of a newly combined Department of Paintings, Prints and Drawings, which he organised on an idiosyncratic but effective system which still beats the computer in some respects. He noted everything of interest and his index cards remain a mine of information: one recently led to prosecution concerning a stolen Reynolds – the more remarkable as the owners had not missed it. His life thereafter revolved round the museum, the van de Veldes and his outdoor activities, especially sailing and hockey, all treated with equal method and “battery-mule obstinacy” (an exasperated directorial compliment that he treasured).

While no modern populariser, he gave kindly encouragement to all who shared his interests and was unfailingly modest about his own expertise. This backed many acquisitions, including the great van de Velde Battle of the Texel from Lord Halifax’s collection in 1952 and the Palmer collection of early Dutch pictures bought with a special Treasury grant in 1963. Before the war Caird had accumulated over 700 van de Velde drawings for Greenwich and Robinson’s catalogue of them, Van de Velde Drawings, was published by Cambridge University Press in 1958. In 1974 it was reprinted, with a second volume covering the 700 presented in 1957 by another great collector, Sir Bruce Ingram.

Both books are as notable for their fine typography as their content and it was characteristic that Robinson took the same technical care in gallery labels for the public: the art he loved deserved it. His friendship with Ingram made him a regular presence at the latter’s country conversazioni and on his death Ingram left him three favourite van de Veldes, with a fine legacy of his other Dutch pictures coming to the museum by various means.

A keen photographer, Robinson played a significant role in creating the museum’s Historic Photograph Collection – an initiative from the SNR, of which he was a lifelong member and honorary vice-president: this now numbers around a million images. He enjoyed sailing into his eighties as the oldest member of the Erith Yacht Club, of which he was commodore, and was founder there of a thriving association for preserving the 1920s Hamble Star dinghies he had sailed as a boy. He had several built for the club in the 1950s (it now has 14 in use) and for many years, with a club and work colleague, took four and a party of young people for summer sailing in Holland – initially by ship from St Katharine’s Dock, near Tower Bridge. In 1990 he endowed a trust at the club to continue his promotion of sailing for the young.Robinson formally retired in 1970, early for the time, to begin compiling a full catalogue raisonné of van de Velde oils by 1985, a project encouraged by the museum. Thereafter his travels in a VW camper van – irreverently dubbed the “van-de-Veldorium” – became legendary. He had it fitted out as a “study- bedsit” even smaller than his tiny City flat and in it (and a successor) he visited Holland on a regular basis, scoured Europe from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean and drove several times across North America, pursuing pictures and enjoying the scenery and wildlife.

When his two-volume catalogue was handsomely published with support from Shell in 1990, the Dutch honoured him with appointment to the Order of Oranje-Nassau. He had already been appointed MBE in 1959 – an event jointly celebrated, with publication of his Caird drawings volume and the Ingram gift, by a dinner in the Painted Hall at Greenwich. He was made a Freeman of the City of London in 1966 and when R.E.J. Weber’s catalogue of van de Velde drawings in the Boymans Museum, Rotterdam, appeared in 1979, it also paid tribute to its origins in his earlier manuscript version. In 1985 the NMM awarded him its Caird Medal.

After 1990, failing eyesight defeated the last Robinson “five-year plan” to wrap up loose ends on the two Willems. His final surprise in 1995 was to marry his friend of 25 years, Mary Wakefield – neither having been married before – who looked after him devotedly. He was a small, smiling, courteous, private man, of iron determination. His death at 89 – “no age for a Robinson” as he said disapprovingly of his father’s at 91 – cuts the oldest link with a formative era at Greenwich and with the origins of modern nautical research.

Pieter van der Merwe


Michael Strang Robinson, historian of maritime art: born Hamble, Hampshire 20 April 1910; Head of the Department of Pictures, National Maritime Museum 1947-70; MBE 1959; married 1995 Mary Wakefield; died London 24 December 1999.