Philip Grierson (1910-2006)
Philip Grierson was born in Dublin in 1910. Educated at Marlborough College, he went up to Cambridge in 1929 and stayed for the rest of his life. Grierson intended to read Medicine, but changed to History when he arrived at Gonville & Caius College. He took a double first and was awarded the Schuldham Plate, the college’s top prize. Following graduation, Grierson travelled in the Soviet Union in summer 1932. It was one of many adventures and took him to Leningrad, Moscow, Rostov, Gorky, Stalingrad, Kiev and Odessa. A communist sympathiser, Grierson never joined the Communist Party and later described himself as a ‘rather unpolitical person’. Still, he negotiated the exit of Jewish scholars from Nazi Germany in 1938 and refused to visit Spain while Franco was alive.
Back in Cambridge in autumn 1932, Grierson turned his attention to Carolingian history. Three years later, in 1935, he was offered a Fellowship at Gonville & Caius College. He soon established himself as a leading medieval historian and numismatist. His academic reputation rested on the interpretation of medieval coins and he later was to teach simultaneously at three universities in three countries: at Cambridge University, the Université Libre de Bruxelles / Vrije Universiteit Brussel and at Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown, Washington DC.
At the same time Grierson embarked on building up his own personal collection of medieval European coins. Inspired by the chance find of a Byzantine coin at his parents’ home in 1944, he subsequently used his expertise, his university salary and a modest inheritance to buy medieval coins. By the end of 1945 he had bought 1,500 specimens. Over the next sixty years Grierson formed the finest representative collection of medieval coins in the world. It eventually consisted of around 20,000 specimens and was valued by Grierson at ‘between £ 5m and £ 10m’. Honorary Keeper of Coins & Medals at the Fitzwilliam Museum from 1949 to 2006, Grierson bequeathed this exceptional collection together with his magnificent library to the museum in 2006.
But Grierson’s life was not limited to the Fitzwilliam Museum’s coin room and the University Library. He was equally attached to Gonville & Caius College, where he resided for seventy-six years, and in particular to its squash court. A keen player until his eightieth birthday, he often beat undergraduates some fifty or sixty years his junior. Grierson valued their company and loved to share ‘pizza and movie’ evenings with them. His love of films dated back to the 1930s, and here he brought his collectors instinct into play too. As well as 20,000 coins, he also had some 2,000 videos, with a preference for horror, science fiction and mysteries.
In his profession Grierson was happiest solving mysteries of medieval history, but he almost failed to resolve a mystery closer to home. In 1956 he acquired a rare gold coin issued by John of Heinsberg. A few years later he decided to exchange this coin for a Carolingian coin in the collection of Hubert Frère in Belgium. After lengthy correspondence the exchange was agreed and in 1962 Grierson travelled to Brussels to meet Frère. When he arrived, his coin had gone. Had he misplaced it? Had he lost it? Or had it been stolen? Grierson searched and searched, but to no avail. The exchange was cancelled and he travelled back to Cambridge. In 2002, finally, the mystery was solved. Clearing up after the death of her father, the daughter of a Cambridge taxi driver found the coin in a junk box. When she took it to the Fitzwilliam Museum to be identified, it was immediately recognized. Lost by Grierson on his way to Cambridge station in a taxi in 1962, he was reunited with his coin in 2002.
A Fellow of the British Academy since 1958 and President of the Royal Numismatic Society from 1961 to 1966, Grierson was appointed Professor of Numismatics at Cambridge University in 1971. In the same year Cambridge University also awarded him an honorary doctorate, a distinction only rarely conferred on resident members.
A bachelor don through his life, Philip Grierson died in Cambridge in 2006. He had been a member of Gonville & Caius College for 76 years and Honorary Keeper of Coins & Medals at the Fitzwilliam Museum for 56 years. He was one of the museum’s most generous advisers and outstanding benefactors.
Note: The coronation coin of Maximilian I was purchased by the Fitzwilliam Museum from the Grierson Fund, with assistance from the Art Fund, in 1999.
M. Blackburn, ‘Profile: Philip Grierson (1910-2006)’, The Fitzwilliam Museum Review 2004-2006, pp. 21-26
C. Brooke et. al., Studies in Numismatic Method: Festschrift presented to Philip Grierson, Cambridge University Press, 1983
C. Brooke and Lord Stewartby, ‘Philip Grierson 1910-2006’, Proceedings of the British Academy 150 (2008), pp.79-104
N. McKendrick, ‘Philip Grierson’, obituary published in The Guardian, 18 January 2006
Philip Grierson is included in the Gallery Trail leaflet Hidden Histories: Cambridge Collectors, available in the Fitzwilliam Museum.
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