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A Celebration of the Life of Philip Grierson

Held in The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Tuesday 14 March 2006 | 6.00 – 8.00 pm

Hosts The Director and Syndics of The Fitzwilliam Museum and The Master and Fellows of Gonville & Caius College

Programme and Full Texts

Welcome

Mr Duncan Robinson

Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum; Master of Magdalene College

as a boy

Philip Grierson as a boy, c. 1913

On behalf of the Master and Fellows of Gonville and Caius College and my colleagues here at the Fitzwilliam Museum it is my privilege this evening to welcome all of our guests to what is a joint celebration of the life and work of Philip Grierson. We take especial pleasure in welcoming several members of Philip’s family: Mr and Mrs Hook, his niece, and their three sons and Paul Chilvers-Grierson, his great-nephews; in addition to all of Philip’s former pupils, colleagues and friends, many of whom have travelled great distances to join us here today.

As I believe many of you know, in his will, Philip provided not for but against any kind of funeral or memorial service. On the other hand if his 90 th birthday celebrations were anything to go by, he was not averse to being the excuse for a gathering of friends or a party. And that is why we are here this evening, after a day-long symposium in Philip’s honour, which lacked only one dimension, namely his own often cryptic, and often mischievous, comments to celebrate that extraordinary lifetime of extraordinary achievement.

For us at the Fitzwilliam Museum it is a particular pleasure to be joined as hosts by the Master and Fellows of Caius. For if Philip’s College was his home for seventy years, the Museum was his home from home, where he held the Honorary Keepership of Coins and Medals from 1949 onwards and served as a Syndic until his retirement in 1958. Let me emphasise the fact that when Philip took up his Honorary Keepership in 1949 it was no sinecure. In 1949 the Coin Room had no curatorial staff of its own; its growth and development over the last half century, during which it has become one of the Museum’s most active research departments, owes more than a little to the role of the Honorary Keeper as champion, mentor and friend to two if not three generations of keeper staff.

If I may say so, it seems to me that for fifty years or more both institutions, College and Museum, have fallen under the powerful spell of this beneficent genius. How else could you account for the fact that the College’s Senior Bursar emeritus is a coin collector, or that Philip engaged the College as well as the Museum in support of his monumental Medieval European Coinage project? Rather than dividing his life between us, he did his best to unite us in his own single-minded enterprise. At the very end of his life he took immense pleasure in the College’s decision to elect to the Fellowship one of its former Bye-Fellows, now Keeper of Coins and Medals and Reader in Numismatics and Monetary History, Dr Mark Blackburn. He will speak later, but now I would like you to join me in welcoming to the podium the first of this evening’s speakers, Professor Christopher Brooke.


Caius and Cambridge

Professor Christopher Brooke

Emeritus Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History; Fellow of Gonville & Caius College

Director: may I first of all, on behalf of all Philip`s friends, thank you and your colleagues - and especially Mark Blackburn - most warmly for giving us this opportunity to celebrate him in this perfect setting.

his father

Philip Grierson with his father,
Philip Henry Grierson, c. 1913

Philip Grierson was born in 1910 in Dublin, son of a land surveyor turned business man. Most of the friends of his later years came through college and university and academic contacts - and especially through the coin cabinets of the world; but he was always devoted to his family, now represented by his sister Janet and the family of his elder sister Aileen.

From the mid-1920s this island became his home: first, as a schoolboy at Marlborough, then as an undergraduate. At Marlborough he specialised in the natural sciences and was preparing for a medical career. His early scientific training was later to help him in the technical study of coins - and inspire his love of science fiction. But in due course his interests widened; he read voraciously among the great historical classics, especially Gibbon; and when he came up he was eager to transfer to history. The Director of Studies in Caius was my father, Zachary Brooke, who accepted Philip (though he had nothing, Admissions Tutors may note, remotely resembling an A level in History) and supervised his studies; and he watched with delight the development of Philip`s historical talents, culminating in two firsts and the College’s Schuldham Plate. Supported by a College studentship and the Lightfoot Scholarship in ecclesiastical history, Philip became for a time an ecclesiastical historian under the supervision of C.W. Previté-Orton of St John`s. But he soon developed an interest in the Low Countries; and my father introduced him to François-Louis Ganshof of Ghent - which led to a lifelong friendship with the Ganshof family and made Belgium his second home. His first studies lay in Flemish political and church history in the early middle ages, amid books and relics. In 1935 he became a fellow of Caius.

In 1939 he was thwarted from military service by his short sight and became a pillar of the depleted History Faculty. In due course he shared with my father - and then took over - the outline course in medieval European history. I came to Caius as a student in 1945, the year in which Philip began collecting coins. He used to circulate a box of coins at his lectures. `The Visigothic coins in the box,` he freely confessed, `are forgeries made to be sold to Napoleon`s generals when they invaded Spain; but they give you a better idea of Visigothic art than genuine ones.` In supervision he was sparing of praise - `I`ve no quarrel with that` was his favourite reaction to what I thought was rather a good essay; this was not to discourage but because he treated his pupils as equals, as colleagues. We visited his rooms to read essays and to listen to his gramophone records and read his books: in a natural informal way his room was one of the most active social centres of the College.

sister Janet

Philip Grierson with his sister Janet, October 1917

In 1938 he was appointed a Faculty Assistant Lecturer: he was promoted Lecturer in 1945, Reader in Medieval Numismatics in 1959 and Professor in 1971. Meanwhile, he was Secretary of the Faculty Board from 1943-6. Philip was naturally business like in personal administration; but Z.N. Brooke`s advice to avoid college admin by never accepting a tutorship was attended to; and Philip also avoided ever being chairman of the Faculty Board - in spite of being invited later in his career. Characteristically for a lover of books and bibliographies he held the post of College Librarian from 1944-1969, and was a Syndic of the Cambridge University Library, with brief intervals, from 1944-1980 - Chairman from 1977-80. In 1980 his seventieth birthday brought his terms of office to a close; but he remained much longer a frequent visitor, devoted to the Library which he had served so long. As Chairman, he was remembered for his dedication to its needs and for his informality: he was reprimanded for encouraging a major University Syndicate to meet without gowns.

sister Janet

Philip Grierson with his
sister Janet

His service to the College centred in his teaching; and he was director of studies from 1944-5 and from 1949 until the turn of the 1950s and 60s, when he handed over to Neil McKendrick; he also served as President from 1966-1976. The President of Caius is second-in-command to the Master and acts as his deputy in the Master`s absence - a frequent occurrence while the master was Joseph Needham who, for all his devotion to Caius, was a dedicated globe-trotter. Above all, the President presides in the Combination Room, and is the central figure in its social life, with a special responsibility for making visitors feel welcome. Philip was no bon viveur, but he was an excellent host and a popular President - though he was also impatient of slow meals and liable to call colleagues to order who talked instead of eating: for his evenings after dinner were precious - for research or the cinema. This was one of a number of minor foibles which occasionally irritated and always entranced his colleagues; he was much loved by the fellowship, much admired by the students, whom even in his 90s he met in film shows and sherry parties. He became a cultic figure: when he dined in hall on his birthday he was greeted by lively cheers.

Nearly 60 years ago, in 1948, I was approached by two colleges, one in Cambridge, one in Oxford, as a possible candidate for a fellowship. Philip is alleged to have denounced this as `baby-snatching` . Philip and others among the fellowship must have been active in the months that followed, since it was early in 1949 that I received a letter from the recently elected Master, Sir James Chadwick, offering me a fellowship at Caius. My chief recollection of my admission as fellow in July 1949 is seeing Philip sitting opposite to me - he only went willingly into the College chapel for the admission of fellows and masters. We thought differently on many things from religious faith to strip lighting (which he loved); but the bond of respect and affection between us was not the least affected - I am one of many who counted his friendship among the happiest experiences of our lives.


Pizza and Movies

Dr Grant Tapsell

Research Fellow of Darwin College

Pizza and movies may seem poor fare in this very distinguished company, but I will offer no apology for my relentlessly trivial subject matter. One of Philip’s most endearing characteristics was that for all his eminence he also retained a clear sense of the importance of being silly.

at Marlborough

Philip Grierson, probably
while at Marlborough

Philip loved movies. He even said the word “movies” with impish relish. I used to love watching them with someone who had seen Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton films when they were first released. Indeed, I am tempted to say that if coins came to be at the heart of his professional career, movies were at the centre of his private life. When I first met him in 1998, Philip’s local notoriety as a film-goer was already of five or six decades standing. He enjoyed recounting a notice put in the local paper in – I think – the 1940s announcing the opening of Cambridge’s eighth cinema: ‘Now Mr Grierson of Caius will be able to go to a different cinema every day, and two on Sundays.’

Philip was single, but rarely solitary. Every academic year began with several parties for new students at Caius. The barely concealed purpose was to recruit students. Not to the secret services – he left that to colleagues – but the infinitely more pleasant world of movie evenings. As Christopher Brooke has indicated, these were the natural development of earlier social gatherings centred around music – and we will fittingly be enjoying a musical interlude shortly. But once the technology for the home viewing of movies came on stream there was no stopping Philip. His collector’s heart was moved, and he amassed a collection of videos that numbered in the thousands rather than hundreds.

Philip rather enjoyed playing the role of Methuselah to the students he met. But he was certainly a very active one, inviting many of us to movie and pizza evenings very frequently until his last years. There were ritual elements to such evenings – the sherry at 6.30, and the disconcertingly elderly nibbles that would be produced: any that fell on the floor would be snatched up by Philip and eaten with a grin – “I’m Irish you know!” Then the brisk departure for Pizza Express where a bottle of Montepulciano would be ordered, sometimes even before everyone had sat down. Much as Philip enjoyed being made rather a fuss of at such evenings, he also enjoyed meeting young ‘characters’. Once a rather rakish friend of mine arrived visibly drunk. I was mortified. Yet it was the only evening I can recall Philip ordering a second bottle of wine with dinner. He did so with a small but clearly discernible smile.

What kind of films did he like to go home to watch? It has to be said that his exquisite taste in coins was not always transferred to the screen. His shelves groaned under the weight of movies by such luminaries as Sylvester Stallone, Jackie Chan, Steven Seagal, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. In keeping with his Who’s Who-listed interest in science fiction, there were also any number of variations on the theme of humans being hunted in space by creatures with very large teeth and even bigger appetites. So gun battles, explosives, car chases, and spectacular special effects were all good. Seeing New York City disappear under a tidal wave in the disaster epic The Day After Tomorrow left Philip whooping with delight. But woe betide historical films that wallowed in inaccuracies or anachronisms – I remember spirited demolitions of both Gladiator and Troy. And much as he enjoyed the spectacular recent film versions of The Lord of the Rings – one of his very favourite books – he lambasted the portrayal of the elves: “I never knew they’d be so kitsch!”

Philip was thus not a film auteur in the way that he was a great historian and numismatist. But that made him endlessly human and accessible, as well as quite simply a lot of fun. Philip was known and loved by perhaps more students than any other don in modern times, and we shall miss him.

Video excerpts from an Interview with Philip Grierson given in June 2005

View Video excerpts:


Musical Interlude

Members of Gonville & Caius College Choir singing

Charles Wood : How Sweet the Moonlight sits upon this Bank Charles Stanford : The Bluebird Ralph Vaughan Williams : Valiant for Truth Benjamin Britten : The Evening Primrose C Hubert H Parry : Music, when Soft Voices Die Gerald Finzi : My Spirit Sang All Day


The Numismatist

Lord Stewartby

Honorary Fellow of Jesus College

What made Philip Grierson the foremost medieval numismatist of our time, or indeed perhaps of any time?

his mother

Philip Grierson's mother,
Roberta Ellen Jane Grierson

First a few basic facts. In 1945 he was looking through a box of miscellaneous coins left by his father and found one he could not identify. It proved to be a copper coin of the seventh-century Byzantine Emperor Phocas. This led Philip to acquire a few other medieval coins to show the students at his lectures. Before long he was a committed collector. Within ten yeas of finding the coin of Phocas the pattern of his career had been set. He was appointed Professor of Numismatics at Brussels in 1948 and Honorary Keeper of Coins at the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1949; he became one of the progenitors of the programme of summer schools at the American Numismatic Society in 1953, and numismatic adviser to Dumbarton Oaks in Washington two years later. All this was a preparation for the hugely productive forty years and more that followed.

As a scholar Philip’s qualities were formidable: his intellect was of the first order, combining flair and intuition with keen critical qualities, an amazing memory, and a ravenous appetite for knowledge and ideas. He combined the enthusiasm and energy of a collector with the application and thoroughness of a scholar. His aptitude for languages gave him readier access than most enjoy to the fragmented literature of medieval coinage; and amongst other things he had a wide knowledge of science, metallurgy, engineering, mathematics and even statistics (who else could quote the Chi-squared test to fortify his argument?).

Philip’s work on the Cambridge Medieval History, culminating in his production of the Shorter History in 1952, brought him an encyclopaedic knowledge of the political history of the middle ages. This gave him a much broader historical background than most numismatists can command. He was equally at home in the fifth century and the fifteenth, in western Europe or the Byzantine east. He carried with him into his numismatic work the constructive scepticism of a good historian. In his first President’s Address to the Royal Numismatic Society in 1962 he remarked “inquiries into the validity of accepted conclusions should often be directed not at the conclusions themselves but at the means by which they were obtained”. This led him to develop a keen interest in numismatic method – the interpretation of the types and descriptions of coins, the assessment of documentary evidence, the operation of mints, dies and die-output, the weights and fabric of coins and their methods of production, the analysis of hoards, the behaviour of coins in currency, and so on. In 1975 all of these topics were covered in the very concise but perceptive exposition of numismatic method in his little book entitled Numismatics, a book which, despite its small scale, also incidentally includes the best general account of oriental coinage in the English language. For Philip was a numismatic polymath, and unlike most medievalists, he has a good working knowledge of ancient coinage, editing a book on Hellenistic coinage and being joint author of an excellent book on late Roman coinage.

as an undergraduate

Philip Grierson in Cambridge,
probably as an undergraduate

Philip’s achievements were enormous: creation of the best general collection of medieval European coins ever complied anywhere – one of the great jewels of the Museum and his University; the project to publish it in Medieval European Coinage, which is now proceeding; the brilliant synthesis in his 1991 book on the Coins of Medieval Europe; the building up of the Byzantine collection at Dumbarton Oaks and the largest share in its publication; his invaluable textbook of 1982 on Byzantine coins; and a vast and varied bibliography, of the highest quality and bursting with ideas, that has helped to take the study of medieval numismatics to new levels. And all this on a diet of Ryvita and sticky cakes!

Thank you Philip for your inspiration and example and for all that you have bequeathed to us.


The Byzantinist and Dumbarton Oaks

Mme Cécile Morrisson

Numismatic Advisor, Dumbarton Oaks; Directeur de recherches at the Centre d'Histoire et Civilisation de Byzance, College de France

fellow of Caius

Philip Grierson, as a
young fellow of Caius

Director, Master, colleagues, all friends of Philip, we are gathered to remember such an immense scholar, such a dear and valued friend that emotion is great and words, even speech, escape me. I first met him 43 years ago, when he came to Paris to reclassify the Byzantine collection in the Bibliothèque nationale. He was already a renowned scholar and had founded his reputation in Byzantine numismatics through several path-breaking articles.

A succession of « accidents », which I would call 'Providential' – I hope I am not offending his feelings ... – had started his connection with Byzantium: the discovery at Christmas 1944 of a coin of Phocas at his parents’ house which induced him to buy other coins for teaching purposes; his appointment in the Université libre de Bruxelles; the publication of his inaugural lecture on « La numismatique et l’histoire », which prompted the creation of the American Numismatic Society’s Summer Seminar. Philip was their first Visiting Scholar in 1953 and returned the next year. There he was induced to visit Washington with Alfred Bellinger to evaluate the Dumbarton Oaks collection of Byzantine coins, and as a result, became its Numismatic Advisor for the next 44 years. He was charged with building a world-class collection and publishing it. The details can be found in the many interviews, even « memoirs », which Philip left in order to save us the trouble he had had himself with writing about fellow scholars.

Our difficulty today lies in the embarras de richesses of his works and overfilled life. But to quote a famous epitaph 'si monumentum requiriris, circumspice' (‘If you seek his monument, look around you’, on Sir Christopher Wren’s epitaph in St Paul’s Cathedral) , in the Byzantine field the monument is of course the collection he brought to first-rank status, and the six volumes of DOC, of which he authored or co-authored five. With a rare (and too little appreciated) modesty, however, he considered his introductions as 'large in scale, but not all that distinguished in content' compared with Michael Hendy’s work on Comnenian coins. (P. Grierson, The Caian (Nov. 1978) p. 47. He was still of this –well founded – opinion in the last years, after the publication of Dumbarton Oaks Catalogue vol. 4.)

Copenhagen, 1967

Philip Grierson with
Dr George Miles (right), at the
International Numismatic
Congress, Copenhagen, 1967

If Dumbarton Oaks was for half his life his second home – or third after Brussels – his favourite and regular retreat was Cornell University, where he sojourned many times. He loved the beauty of the site and life in Telluride, a scholarship student house where he did not mind being lodged in a room just above the music room where he might be awakened at 1 a.m. by someone wishing to hear the Ride of the Valkyries, fortissimo.

He spent two months or more annually in Washington, usually in the hottest and most humid season, rarely complaining about his hay-fever and the original absence of air conditioning in the old mansion. Dimidium animae suae lay there with many friends, from visiting scholars to young fellows, or to members of the staff who remember him fondly. He was the living memory of DO, and his conversation on an immense variety of subjects, and witty quotes, were the highlight of lunchtime in the Fellows’ Building. Of the devoted friends he made there, and whom I called his ‘fan club’, he was pre-deceased by Julia Warner, whom he visited on her deathbed in 2003, and Fanny Bonajuto. They had edited several of his books or papers in DO. The remaining ones, Irène Underwood, Susan Boyd and the present Director of Byzantine Studies, Alice-Mary Talbot, share in our loss and mourning, and have asked me to wave the flag. On behalf of what is now my 'second home' and on behalf of all those, who like me, Lucia Travaini and Ermanno Arslan, considered Philip not only a mentor but a ‘second father’, to him eternal memory.


The Collector and The Fitzwilliam

Dr Mark Blackburn

Keeper of Coins & Medals, Fitzwilliam Museum; Reader in Numismatics and Monetary History; Fellow of Gonville & Caius College

2002

Philip Grierson and Lucia Travaini,
Florence, 2002

Philip’s outstanding achievement was to bring into mainstream historical scholarship the specialist evidence of medieval coinage, but we should recognise the importance to him of coin collecting, a pursuit that brought him immense pleasure, gave him an intimate knowledge of the coinage and stimulated his research. He enjoyed the chase, and even the process of writing meticulously detailed tickets to accompany each coin. As he admitted, collecting was probably in his blood, for his father had formed a distinguished collection of freshwater snails, now in the Ulster Museum, Belfast.

It all began, as we have heard, after his return from Ireland, with a coin of his father’s, in January 1945. On his first visit to Spinks, he told Leonard Forrer that he was prepared to spend up to £5 to buy a few medieval coins to show to his students, but that he was not a collector and had no intention of becoming one. However, by the end of 1945 he had bought some 1,500 coins, and the following year he added another 2,000. It was his good fortune to have started collecting at an unprecedented time, when the London dealers were awash with coins from Lord Grantley’s collection, sold in eleven auctions during the War. Philip was spending, he later estimated, £1,000 a year, or roughly two-thirds his annual income, on coins. His appointment in Brussels in 1948 provided him with additional money to spend with foreign dealers, free of the post-War currency restrictions.

Philip always said that he lacked the financial acumen of his father, yet from a modest academic income he built the finest collection of medieval coins in existence, which is now bequeathed to the Fitzwilliam. He was willing to pay whatever in took to acquire a particular coin, but would never use a first class stamp, or throw out a piece of paper that was blank on one side. His rooms had piles of scrap paper graded in various sizes – some as small as 2cm square! Just right, he found, for copying down one reference to be checked in the UL.

Dumbarton Oaks, 1980

Philip Grierson,
Dumbarton Oaks, 1980

In 1976 his collection was transferred to the Fitzwilliam, to grace the specially created Grierson Room, which Philip would visit almost daily. With encouragement from Christopher Brooke, Graham Pollard and Ian Stewartby, he started to plan its publication as a new series called Medieval European Coinage (or MEC). Having secured funding from the Leverhulme Trust in 1982, he invited me to become his first Research Associate on the project. Ever optimistic, he told me that there would be twelve volumes, and that we would write two a year over six years. Well the project grew, with long-term financial support from Caius, the British Academy and latterly the AHRC. The team of Research Associates has included Lucia Travaini, Serge Boffa, Michael Matzke, Elina Screen and Bill Day (all here tonight), and our nine Continental collaborators are represented here by Jørgen Steen Jensen, Andrea Saccocci and Ernest Oberländer-Târnoveau.

In 1949 Philip had been appointed our Honorary Keeper of Coins, a position he held for 56 years. Many Honorary Keepers are, or become, major benefactors of the Museum, and Philip certainly fulfilled that. But he also made Cambridge something of a Mecca for medieval numismatists, coming to consult his collection and magnificent library, and pay homage to the guru himself. A compliment about his collection would be payment enough for his generous hospitality.

Philip prided himself on his fitness and longevity. This was the man who in his 20s had walked back to Cambridge after an evening at the theatre in London, who in middle age rode a racing bicycle and who had regularly played squash until he was 80. Seeing a college flag at half-mast he would mischievously slip into the porters’ lodge to enquire which of his contemporaries he had outlasted. During the last five years as his energy waned and memory declined, it was his determination to complete his MEC volumes that kept him going.

Our tributes tonight are to a scholar, benefactor, colleague and friend who was held in the highest esteem; a private man with forthright opinions and a powerful intellect that could be intimidating; yet one who was sociable to the core with a mischievous sense of humour and a generous nature. Neil McKendrick has described him as one of a dying breed of bachelor dons. He loved Caius and he loved Cambridge, yet his friends were spread across the globe. On behalf of them all we come together to Celebrate a man who in his 95 years gave so much, and whose memory will last for generations.


Conclusion and Thanks

Sir Christopher Hum

Master of Gonville & Caius College

2000

Philip Grierson 2000  
© Eaden Lilley

Philip Grierson died one day before my installation as Master of Caius College. I encountered him only twice. The first time he greeted me with great courtesy on a day when I had come as a candidate to look at the College – and be looked over by the Fellowship. The second time was my formal interview by the Fellows, when he took the trouble to come, sat very alertly in the front row as I made my presentation and from time to time interjected “Speak up!”

Beyond that I am not qualified to speak of Philip. Nonetheless I sensed the universal affection in which he was held in the College, from Fellows to staff to students, and the feeling of loss at his death. We were a home and a second family to him. He was a Caius institution and served Caius well over a long and rich life. It is fitting that his ashes should have been scattered on College ground, under the cherry tree outside his rooms. He loved that tree, and a photograph of it in full and magnificent bloom was taken to him in the nursing home a few days before he died.

The College has thus been honoured to have a part in organising today’s event, celebrating the contribution Philip made both to his immediate community and to the wider world of scholarship. On behalf of all the organisers of today’s meeting I should like to express my particular thanks to the speakers, and to all of you who have come from near and far to join us, in particular our academic colleagues from overseas. We regret that time has not permitted all of you to speak at this celebration, but we hope that the wide-ranging international symposium held earlier today has been some compensation.

Christmas 2005

Philip Grierson, Christmas 2005

Thank you also to:the Director and Syndics of the Fitzwilliam for making the Museum available for this celebration; the Museum staff especially Susan Ramsey and her assistants, and the staff of the Department of Coins and Medals; and to all those who have contributed from Caius: the planning committee; Ian Herd and Ed Davey and their staff for the practical arrangements and the refreshments; and Francesca Massey, the College Choir and instrumentalists from the College Musical Society for the music.

That is the end of the formal proceedings. But you are all warmly invited to stay on for a little, to have a drink in the two side galleries, to listen to the music and to look at the display of Philip’s coins and some photographs in a case on the landing.