Obituary: Ursula Hoff (1909-2005)
On January 10, 2005, Australia lost one of its most eminent and highly respected art historians. Ursula Hoff died in Melbourne at the age of 95. Her profound knowledge and quiet sense of pride impressed those who meet her as Keeper of the Prints and Drawings Department at the National Gallery of Victoria or as a scholar and lecturer on one of her regular research trips to Europe and America. Her high professional standards and her collegiality inspired those who worked with her. Concealed behind what seemed like a rather formal European countenance, laid a rich and generous personality, characterized by a profound joy of life, a good sense of humor and a warmth which was enchanting to those whom she befriended.
Ursula Hoff’s remarkable professional achievements are even more impressive when taking into account that her life as a young woman was overshadowed by the tragedy of the Third Reich and by the chaos of the Second World War. Being the only daughter of Hans Leopold Hoff, a Jewish merchant, and Thusnelde Bulcke, a member of a protestant family, Ursula Hoff grew up in Berlin and Hamburg, where she was exposed to artists, museums and exhibitions of contemporary art from an early age onwards. Given her personal background, the humanities seemed like a naturalchoice as a future career. Ursula Hoff took up studying art history,philosophy and archaeology in Frankfurt, Cologne and Munich. At the University of Hamburg, she was taught by some of the most influential intellectuals of her time: Erwin Panofsky, Fritz Saxl,Ernst Cassirer, Edgar Wind, and others. Her interest in Netherlandish art was awakened by Charles de Tolnay and in particular byFritz Saxl, who introduced her to the study of Rembrandt’s drawings. Her PhD thesis on ‘Rembrandt and England’ was supervised by Erwin Panofsky, until he was forced to leave Germany for Princeton in the early 1930s. Ursula Hoff, who had moved herself to London with her family in 1933, came back to Hamburg to submit her thesis and to take her final oral exam on May 18, 1935. Contemporary correspondence with Panofsky reveals that Ursula Hoff had left a deep impression on her eminent teacher, while being his student in Hamburg.
At the time, Ursula Hoff held both a German and a British passport. Nevertheless, she was not permitted to take up a permanent position in the British public service and thus she had to be content with working as a part-time research assistant for scholars such as Andrew E. Popham, Ludwig Burchard and Charles Mitchell. While still in London, she started publishing in English, writing on Adam Elsheimer and on Charles I as patron of the arts. She also published her first iconographical study in the Journal of the Warburg Institute.
When in 1939 the University of Melbourne Women’s College offered Ursula Hoff the opportunity to come to Melbourne, she decided to leave England for the distant shores of Australia without knowing what to expect. Ursula Hoff worked temporarily as a tutor at the Women’s College and started delivering lunch time lectures on European Art at the National Gallery of Victoria – an exercise which proved extremely successful with the general public. Daryl Lindsay, the new director of Melbourne’s leading art gallery, soon realized the potential of this highly gifted and popular young art historian with a thorough European training. He offered Ursula Hoff a temporary position at the National Gallery of Victoria and in1943, she started her museum career as assistant keeper in the Department of Prints and Drawings. In 1949, she was promoted to Keeper of Prints, a position she filled for almost twenty years. Due to Ursula Hoff’s influence the NGV followed the British model and enlarged the Prints and Drawings Department in order to include a proper study room for researchers and visiting students. After her retirement, the study room was named in her honour.
Ursula Hoff’s professional achievements at the National Gallery of Victoria were manifold. She contributed in a major way to the development of the European and Australian collections, she trained junior museum staff and lectured on a regular basis to the general public inside and outside of Melbourne. At the time the gallery moved to the new precinct on St. Kilda Street (1968), Hoff was promoted to deputy director of the National Gallery of Victoria. In addition to her numerous activities in Melbourne, she contributed to the intellectual life of the wider Australian community by her active involvement in the foundation of the Australian Humanities Research Council, a national body for supporting the Humanities.
Being a scholar at heart, Ursula Hoff insisted on undertaking research on the permanent collection and systematically pursued the scientific cataloguing of the collection. One of her prime goals was to make the holdings of the NGV better known, both in Australia and overseas. To that end, she published a large number of general and specialist catalogues. Her finest achievements are Masterpieces of the National Gallery of Victoria (1949), European Painting and Sculpture before 1800 (1961) and Les primitifsflamands I, vol. 12: The National Gallery of Victoria (with Martin Davies) (1971).
While remaining loyal to her European roots throughout her life, Hoff developed a strong interest in Australian art, a largely neglected area of investigation at the time of her arrival. She published numerous books on Charles Condor and Arthur Boyd,and wrote several articles on Frederick McCubbin, Arthur Streeton, John Brack and the Heidelberg School. Equally important for promoting the Melbourne collection was the publication of a scholarly journal, The Art Bulletin of Victoria, of which Ursula Hoff was the editor until her retirement in 1973. This journal was and still is one of the most significant outlets for art historical research in Australia, a journal which is widely available in British,European and American art galleries. After her retirement, Ursula Hoff served for two years as a Trustee on the Board of the National Gallery of Victoria. In 1975, Hoff was appointed Felton Bequest Advisor, a position which allowed her to select and propose works of art for acquisition from her London base. She held this position until 1983, by then already 74 years of age.
When Ursula Hoff came to Australia in 1939, art history was not yet a well-established discipline at universities, and a teaching appointment in her field of expertise was out of the question. She enjoyed teaching, and a university career would have been a serious alternative under different historical circumstances. Nevertheless,Hoff sought every possible opportunity to teach and lecture in a university environment, and she regularly participated in conferences in Australia and abroad. When the University of Auckland,New Zealand, offered her the chair in Art History in 1970, Hoff had to decline this prestigious offer for personal reasons. Being the only daughter, she saw it as her first duty to care for her elderly mother who had moved from London to Melbourne in the 1950s. In the same year, Monash University in Melbourne conferred an honorary doctorate on her in recognition of her numerous publications in art history.
In the light of all the restrictions placed on her life by politics,gender and historical circumstances, Ursula Hoff achieved more than most of us can hope for. Her outstanding dedication to art and research, and her exceptional work ethics – primarily directed towards the benefit of the wider community –made her a woman of distinction and a model to many of those who met her. She is greatly missed, not only as an outstanding scholar and museum professional, but also as a fine colleague and friend.