Thursday, 12 September 2019

Kay Sutton (1943–2019)

Kay outside the Musée Cluny, Paris, in 2007
Many readers of this blog will have known, or at least known of, Kay Sutton, who died yesterday. Having been diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, and undergone successful chemotherapy, the disease returned untreatably a few months ago.

I will leave it to others to tell the interesting story of her earlier life, in which she discovered History of Art as a discipline relatively late, after having had two children, and then juggled raising her family with getting a BA from the Courtauld, a PhD from Warwick (on Lombard illumination), and a Private Pilots Licence (to fly light aircraft).

I first got to know her well in the early 2000’s, when I was at the British Library and she had been given a full-time post at Christie’s (when she worked on the Foyle Sale in 2000 and the Longleat sale in 2001, she was still a Consultant, a position she had held since 1996). I now can’t remember how the series of trips started, but I subsequently went on several very enjoyable jaunts with Kay and Anne Korteweg, usually to see exhibitions of medieval illuminated manuscripts in mainland Europe. (Due to some sort of confusion we all went to Troyes in December 2006, only to discover that we had arrived a year too early to see the Très riches heures de Champagne exhibition, so we happily went back again 12 months later!). Looking at manuscripts in such company, and the ensuing conversation, was always far more rewarding and illuminating than going to such exhibitions alone. She was also a good person to sit next to at academic conferences, often able to skewer a bad paper with a single apposite observation – but too polite to stand up and say anything publicly.

If Kay was unknown to many readers of this blog, it is largely because she was not a self-promoter. Aside from the unsigned work in Christie’s catalogues, she published little, being one of those scholars who did not wish to go into print unless she felt she had something really worth publishing. Most people, therefore, will only know her scholarly abilities very indirectly, through her anonymous Christie’s descriptions. Having been in and out of the Christie’s MSS department frequently over the past 15 years, I have been able to observe her work closely. Two things, in particular, have struck me about it. First, she would sometimes seek advice from the relevant specialist in a little-known or unfamiliar style of illumination, but (unless the advice came from the ever-helpful and seemingly infallible François Avril) she would often end up bypassing their opinion and producing a far more compelling and plausible interpretation of the evidence herself. Second, if I knew the literature concerning a manuscript, illuminator, or style well, I would invariably be impressed by the elegance with which she synthesised that literature into a concise and readable catalogue entry. It was a rare skill, doubtless honed during her years as an Editor for the Grove Dictionary of Art and the Oxford Companion to Western Art. She will be missed by colleagues and a wide circle of friends in LA, New York, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Florence, Rome, Berlin ...

9 comments:

  1. Thank you for posting this, Peter.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Kay was an intelligent, genteel, non-condescending, and affable scholar who really enjoyed studying the creative process. She will be missed by many. We have suffered many losses these last years with Claire Donovan, Mette de Hamel, Irving Sandler, and now Kay. Bright stars, warm personalities, dedicated students of the history of artistic creation.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Peter, I'm shocked. I had no idea Kay was ill again. What a loss to the manuscript community, and to her friends. Thank you for posting this beautiful tribute, so well expressed.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I am so sorry to hear this, Peter. Thank you for this beautiful tribute.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Peter, it's good that you posted this, and it's good that people try to remember how much Kay helped us all, simply by the precision and elegance of her Christie's catalogue entries. I can't help but add, however, her discovery of the hours of Francesco da Barberino, which was sold to an anonymous buyer in the Christie's auction in Rome, 5 Dec. 2003: it was Kay who recognized that book for the marvel that it is! So as we recognize our loss, that she isn't with us any more, let's also celebrate what she brought to the world of manuscript studies! And let us remember what a good friend she was and in many ways will always be to all of us.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks you for posting this Peter. This is very sad news.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thank you Peter. I am sorry for the loss of your friend and a great cataloger.

    ReplyDelete
  8. A lovely tribute to my sister, thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I was one of Kay's neighbours in Faversham and we are all so saddened by the loss of our delightful friend. Thinking of all at this very difficult time.

    ReplyDelete