Ellis Waterhouse




connoisseur. museum director. art historian. university teacher. editor. writer.

Country of origin



Ellis Kirkham Waterhouse was distinguished as both a scholar and a museum director. Waterhouse began studying art history when the subject was not yet taught at Oxford, his alma mater, and by the end of his career was a major figure among British art historians. Waterhouse's legacies to British art historical studies are his pioneering research in the areas of 18th century British painting and the Italian Baroque, his exacting methods of provenance studies and connoisseurship, and his passion for creating well organized and endowed scholarly libraries. Ellis Kirkham Waterhouse was born in Epsom, Surrey in 1905. He received his education at the Marlborough School, where he was a classmate of Anthony Blunt, and New College, Oxford, where he studied Classics, modern languages, and history. In 1924, Waterhouse began keeping notebooks in which he recorded art works seen in public and private collections. These notebooks became a major reference source for his later exhibits and publications, and important documents for provenance studies. After Oxford, Waterhouse was appointed Commonwealth Fund Fellow at Princeton University from 1927-1929, and he earned a Masters for his work on El Greco under the guidance of Professor Frank Jewett Mather, Jr. His first major publication was a ground-breaking article on El Greco's Italian period, published in Art Studies in 1930. This was intended as a prelude to a full-length study on El Greco, which was never completed. From 1929 to 1933, Waterhouse served as Assistant Keeper at the National Gallery in London, where he was a colleague of Martin Davis. While at the National Gallery, Waterhouse wrote a catalog of Italian paintings in the museum and began a much-needed reorganization of the library. In 1933, he accepted the post of librarian at the British school in Rome. His research in Rome resulted in the publication of Baroque Painting in Rome in 1937, a work which owed much to the methods of Bernard Berenson. Upon his return to Britain, Waterhouse organized an exhibit of seventeenth-century painting in Europe at the Royal Academy. Waterhouse's study of works in British public and private collections identified many paintings for this exhibit, most of which were loaned by British holders. In 1938, Waterhouse became a fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford. While there he published Reynolds in 1941. Waterhouse was in Greece when World War II broke out, and he served in the British army in Greece and Egypt. He was awarded an MBE in 1943. In 1945, he served as a Monuments Officer in the Monuments and Fine Arts Commission in Holland and Germany, where he was instrumental in tracking down stolen art and recognizing the forged Vermeers by Hans Van Meegerin. After the war, Waterhouse served briefly as editor of the Burlington Magazine in 1946, and in 1947 he went to the University of Manchester as a Reader in Art History. In 1949, Waterhouse married Helen Thomas, a distinguished archaeologist and daughter of an Oxford professor. The same year, Waterhouse became Director of the National Galleries of Scotland. During his three year tenure, Waterhouse wrote Painting in Britain, 1530 to 1790 in the Pelican History of Art series. A life-long foe of bureaucracy, the civil service, and, especially, museum trustees, Waterhouse finally found a post which suited his temperament. In 1952 he was appointed Barber Professor of Fine Arts and Director of the Barber Institute in the University of Birmingham. During his 18 years at the Barber Institute, his purchases transformed the museum into one of Britain's most distinguished small museums, he built up the school's book and slide libraries, and he published a monograph on Gainsborough (1953), Italian Baroque Painting (1964), and the catalogue of the paintings at Waddesdon Manor (1967). During his tenure at the Barber Institute, Waterhouse was Slade Professor at Oxford in 1953-1955 and Clark Visiting Professor at Williams College, Massachusetts, 1962-1963. Upon his retirement from the Barber Institute in 1970, Waterhouse became the first director of the Paul Mellon Center for British Art in London. Later he was Kress Professor in Residence at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, 1974-1975, advisor to the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1975-1977, visiting lecturer at Bristol University, and advisor to the J. Paul Getty Museum. Waterhouse was knighted in 1975. He died at his home in Oxford in September, 1985.

historian's relations

photograph painting baroque drawing Mannerism architecture Country Homes collecting

Main works

Waterhouse, E. (c 1978). Painting in Britain 1530-1790. Harmondsworth: Penguin

Waterhouse, E. (c 1981). The Dictionary of British 18th Century Painters in Oils and Crayons. Woodbridge: Antique Collector's Club

Waterhouse, E. (1953). Giorgione. London: Penguin Books

Waterhouse, E. (1966). Gainsborough: Spring Books

Waterhouse, E. (1976). Roman baroque painting: a list of the principle painters and their works in and around Rome: with an introductory essay. Oxford: Phaidon

About the scholar

Levey, M. (2005, Oct. 1). Ellis Waterhouse: An Appreciation. The Burlington Magazine Publications, pp. 668-673

Sorensen, L. (Ed.). (2020, September 30). Waterhouse, Ellis K., Sir. Dictionary of Art Historians, Retrieved September 30, 2020, http://www.arthistorians.info/waterhousee


Ellis K. Waterhouse notebooks and research files