Professor Richard Verdi

Tributes paid for the Barber’s former Director

Professor Richard Verdi, 1941 – 2022

Former colleagues, students and friends have paid tribute to Richard Verdi OBE, Barber Professor of Fine Art and Director of the Barber Institute from 1990 to 2007.

Richard passed peacefully at his home in Selly Park, Birmingham, early on 25 December at the age of 81.

Richard was celebrated for his outstanding acquisitions for the gallery, which numbered more than 60 works of art. They include ten paintings, among them Rubens’s Portrait of a Carmelite Prior, André Derain’s Portrait of Bartolomeo Savona, and JC Dahl’s Mother and Child by the Sea. He also acquired twelve drawings and watercolours, including works by Pietro da Cortona, Otto Dix and Wyndham Lewis, many prints and one sculpture – Marinali’s Christ as the Man of Sorrows. He also raised more than £3million in grants from external bodies to assist in purchasing these acquisitions

In 1995, the Charity Commission agreed to alter the terms of the Trust Deed, to allow loans of works of art to be made to the Barber. This allowed Richard to begin high-profile loan exhibitions at the Barber, including John Constable’s ’The Leaping Horse’ and The Parrot in Art, and curated masterpiece-in-focus displays centring on Van Dyck’s Ecce Homo, Matthias Stom’s Isaac blessing Jacob and others.

A busy public engagement programme – featuring everything from public lectures to the hugely popular annual Family Open Day of art and music – was instituted under Richard’s directorship, and he also set up our first supporters’ group, the Friends of the Barber Institute.

In 2007’s New Year Honours, Richard was awarded the OBE for services to Art and Art History.

The son of Frank and Anne Verdi, and of Sicilian descent, Richard was born on 7 November 1941 in New York City. He gained his BA degree at the University of Michigan in 1963 and his MA at the University of Chicago in 1966, before pursuing an academic career in the UK. He completed his PhD at the Courtauld Institute under Sir Anthony Blunt, with a doctoral thesis on Nicolas Poussin. Before his appointment to the Barber, he lectured in art history at the University of Manchester from 1969 to 1971 and at the University of York from 1971 to 1989.

Richard’s express wishes were that there should be neither a funeral nor a memorial service or event.

Since his passing, some of Richard’s former colleagues at the Barber, as well as former students and friends, have paid tribute.

Hugh Carslake, Chairman of the Henry Barber Trust, said:

“From the moment he arrived, Richard transformed the public’s perception of the Institute’s gallery and its collection, as well as the use made of it.

Richard also played an active role in the art world nationally, including curating the Nicholas Poussin exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1995, jointly curating ‘Art Treasures of England – the Regional Collections’ in 1998 and the Art Fund centenary exhibition, ‘Saved for the Nation’ at the Hayward Gallery in 2003.

During his time at the Barber, Richard also occupied a full-time academic post as Professor of Fine Art, as well as writing a completely new illustrated guide to the Barber and being the author / co-author of the catalogues for many of the exhibition.”

Dr Paul Spencer-Longhurst, Senior Research Fellow at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and former Senior Curator at the Barber Institute, added:

“Richard Verdi was a true original, whose deep devotion to art and music infused every corner of his being. As charismatic director, distinguished academic and accomplished exhibitions curator he was an inspiration to all who worked with him and his 17 years at the Barber Institute will always be remembered as a golden period in its development and the expansion of its collections.”

Dr Hannah Higham, Senior Curator, Collections and Research, Henry Moore Foundation, and former student, colleague and friend, said:

“Music, art, literature and nature: these were Richard’s great loves to the end. His passion for these subjects, his clarity, humour and profound knowledge – not to mention his formidable memory – made him an incomparable teacher, writer, director and human.” 

Dr Camilla Smith, Senior Lecturer and Head of the Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies, University of Birmingham, said:

“Richard Verdi was a distinguished art historian and a passionate lecturer on the BA History of Art undergraduate programme, and was formative in establishing a leading Art History department based at the Barber Institute. Throughout his directorship, he taught special subject modules on Poussin, Cézanne and Rubens, remained enthusiastic about lecturing and dedicated much of his time to students. I was lucky enough to take his module on Rubens, which also involved field trips to London and Belgium. His supreme knowledge and enthusiasm were infectious. Time spent discussing art with Richard has left an indelible mark on my life, as it has done on many of my contemporaries who have gone into teaching and art-related careers.”

The Barber’s new Director and Barber Professor of Fine Art, Dr Jennifer Powell, concluded:

“Professor Verdi’s impact as Director of the Barber Institute was profound. His legacy is evident across every area of the Barber’s activities today. From a personal perspective, I am deeply thankful to have studied at the Barber during Richard’s tenure and to have the pleasure of walking daily through galleries that are full of his extraordinary acquisitions for the collection. Richard’s ambition for, and unwavering commitment to, this Institute continues to inspire us all.”

We extend our sincere condolences to those close to Professor Verdi.

Image above: Professor Richard Verdi, OBE (centre), with author and illustrator Sir Quentin Blake and artist Elizabeth Butterworth. (Photograph: Edward Moss)