David Murray Learmont
The following obituary for David Murray Learmont (1935—2009) was written by Tam Dalyell and first published in the Independent on 28 July 2009.
David Learmont was the first holder of the position of curator in the National Trust for Scotland. A gifted man, of demonic energy, dedicated to the aims of the Trust, and of good, if controversial taste, Learmont was never in the inner councils of NTS headquarters at Charlotte Square, in the way that the curator in England was central to the decision-making of the English Trust. He was a “doer”. He loathed sitting in long-winded committee meetings. He was on the proverbial road, at properties, often preparing for public viewing houses that had been allowed to become chaotic and shabby.
David Murray Learmont was born in Hovingham, where his father was a doctor; among his patients were the great Yorkshire family of Worsley. Childhood familiarity with their beautiful house, full of treasures, gave him a love of furniture and elegant objets d’art. After school at Sedbergh, at the time under the inspirational headmastership of Bruce Lockett, Learmont went to Switzerland to learn the culinary arts at the celebrated Hotel School at Lausanne. Among his life-long abilities was that of being a superb cook.
Returning to Britain, he applied for posts in the private sector of primary schooling, and was appointed a master at Isleden Court preparatory school and spent 12 happy years there from 1955 to 1967. When he was passed over for the headmastership he went to Dulwich College prep school, between 1967 and 1970, then came to the notice of the long-term director of the National Trust for Scotland (later Sir) James Stormonth Darling. He became a founder member of the Furniture History Society.
By 1970, Stormonth Darling and his chairman, the Earl of Wemyss, a shrewd judge of character, were becoming impatient with scholars and dilettantes. They wanted as their first curator a man who would actually roll up his sleeves and get down to work in presenting the properties — which NTS was acquiring thick and fast from a Scottish aristocracy whose next generation, as Wemyss acidly put it, “were deserting their posts”. Stormonth Darling and Wemyss took a chance on Learmont and his wife, Ann, a descendant of the Granville family who had been alongside William Wilberforce in the anti-slavery campaigns. Learmont was to fulfil their requirements for the next twenty-seven years.
During the ten-year period in which Lester Borley was director of NTS (Borley having succeeded Stormonth Darling), it did not matter that the curator was absent from important committee meetings since Borley himself, later the driving force in the British section of Europa Nostra, supplied the scholarship and expertise in art which was sometimes necessary in putting the curatorial case.
He did not claim to be a scholar of the calibre of the curators who worked in the English Trust. But as an “action man”, leading the dedicated team of Christopher Hartley and John Batty, he achieved necessary transformation at an array of houses, ranging from the mighty Culzean Castle on the Ayrshire coast to the House of Dun, Kellie Castle and Falkland Palace in Fife. He also turned his attention to the great Aberdeenshire properties such as Castle Fraser, Crathes Castle, Craigievar Castle and smaller properties such as Hugh Miller’s Cottage in the Cromarty Firth Black Isle and the little houses at Dunkeld in Perthshire. One of his many triumphs was setting up the fascinating kitchen of the Georgian House, near NTS headquarters, in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square.
Learmont had a particular gift, invaluable in a curator of National Trust for Scotland houses, of an absolutely outstanding eye for the right carpet. As NTS’s first curator, he was asked to furnish — or in Scots parlance, “find furnishings” — for rooms in recently acquired houses that had either been neglected, or had lost contents to the extended families of previous owners. Learmont’s astonishing capacity to remember the ambience of many rooms and their exact dimensions was a tremendous attribute in his many, many visits to Edinburgh sales rooms on behalf of NTS.
He was responsible for a great deal of outstanding acquisitions. His detractors would mutter that “David is a first-class interior decorator” and would use the somewhat derogatory term “Learmontising” to describe what they perceived as the stereotyping of the interior of NTS properties. In my opinion, and that of my wife as property managers at the House of the Binns, given by my mother in 1944, this was unfair. Learmont’s aim was to show NTS houses as the sort of homes in which people would wish to live, surrounded by paintings, and plenishings of cultural and historic interest and importance.
The following obituary was first published on 6 August 2009 in the Daily Telegraph.
David Learmont, who died on July 21 aged 74, was the first curator of the National Trust for Scotland, an appointment he held with great distinction for more than 28 years.
David Murray Learmont was born on June 19 1935 at Hovingham, in Yorkshire, his favourite English county and one with which he maintained a close connection throughout his life. The son of a GP, he was educated at Sedbergh and from there went to Switzerland, as a student at the Hotel School in Lausanne. This was followed by 15 years as a prep school master, and it was at this stage in his life that he realised that his overriding interests lay in the fine arts.
Happily, this coincided with a decision by the Trust to appoint its first curator, responsible for the interiors of all its properties, and Learmont was selected for the post by James (later Sir James) Stormonth Darling, an iconic figure as its director for almost four decades.
It turned out to be an inspired choice. For Learmont it had the added attraction of allowing him to return to his Scottish roots (his family came from the Isle of Whithorn, Wigtownshire) for the remainder of his life.
It was an appointment which involved long periods on the road, visiting and working at Trust properties throughout Scotland. At his interview he had failed to disclose that he did not possess a driving licence, but with characteristic determination he had put this right in the short period before he took up the post in 1970.
Learmont's tenure as curator coincided with a large number of both great houses and smaller properties coming to the Trust – among them Haddo House, Craigievar Castle, Drum Castle, Castle Fraser, Fyvie Castle and Brodie Castle in the north-east; there were also House of Dun in Angus and the Georgian House and Gladstone's Land in Edinburgh. Others, notably Hill of Tarvit and Kellie Castle in Fife, Culzean Castle in Ayrshire and Brodick Castle on the Isle of Arran, required major refurbishment.
All this involved much work by Learmont and his small dedicated team, consisting of Christopher Hartley and John Batty. They were very much a hands-on team, happy to take off their jackets, roll up their sleeves and work very long hours.
The triumvirate of the National Trust for Scotland – Lord Wemyss as president, the Marquess of Bute as chairman and Jamie Stormonth Darling as director – was happy to ride Learmont on a very light rein. As Lord Bute memorably remarked, however, "Interiors are heady stuff", and in due course he formed a curatorial committee, with Sir Steven Runciman as its first convener, to provide guidance when it was thought necessary. Learmont was a persuasive advocate for courses which he believed to be correct, but if overruled he always accepted this with good grace. He retired in 1998.
He was a kind and generous man, and had a great gift for bestowing nicknames on his colleagues; they were always apt, but never unkind.
The large attendance at his funeral, from all over Scotland and beyond, was a tribute to both his character and his achievements.
David Learmont married, in 1960, Ann Granville Sharp, who survives him with their two sons. It was a very happy marriage, and at Malleny House – a Trust property in Midlothian at which they lived from his appointment as curator – they were welcoming and generous hosts.
The following obituary by Christopher Hartley (with pictures of David Learmont, and 'the kitchen at the House of Dun, Montrose, lovingly curated by Learmont) appeared in the Guardian newspaper on 13 August 2009.
David Learmont, who has died aged 74, was responsible for the presentation of the interiors of all National Trust for Scotland properties. His work was characterised by a sense of welcome, freshness, charm and impeccable, old-fashioned housekeeping.
David Learmont David Learmont
His most significant contribution to the country-house world was in the presentation of "below stairs" rooms. He used his own culinary skills and knowledge of traditional practices to set up a series of historic kitchens in trust properties, from cottages to great castles. What distinguishes his kitchens and domestic offices is that they are set out as working places, fully equipped, and with everything in a logical place and ready for use. Notable are those at Brodie Castle, Brodick Castle and the House of Dun, Montrose.
David was born in Hovingham, Yorkshire, where his Scottish father was a general practitioner. His mother's family were from Shetland. Educated at Sedbergh school in Cumbria, and then the Hotel school in Lausanne, Switzerland, David spent some years teaching French in schools in the south-east of England. In 1970 he became assistant to the National Trust for Scotland's architect, Schomberg Scott, who also curated the growing collections, and was soon appointed the trust's first full-time curator. He was joined by John Batty in 1970 and by me in 1977, in both cases as his assistant.
The Georgian House, which opened in 1975, was a major project of David's early years – a full restoration and recreation of an Edinburgh town house in Charlotte Square. He proved his skill, revealed his amazing energy and his complete understanding of period detail. His resourcefulness in tracking down suitable items, whether as purchases, gifts, bequests or loans, was unending. The success of the project led, a few years later, to the setting-up of a 17th-century equivalent, Gladstone's Land, in the Old Town. Today, many visitors see the domestic history of Edinburgh through these two properties.
The 1970s and 80s were years of expansion for the NTS, with something like a new property being taken on every other year. The roll call is impressive: Drum Castle, Haddo House, Brodie Castle, Castle Fraser, the House of Dun, the Hill House, Fyvie Castle and Culross Palace, among others. All made different demands. Work continued on existing properties that had come to the trust in earlier years. A fire at Crathes Castle in 1966 that had destroyed the Victorian wing caused a major rethink of the display of the surviving tower-house.
The departure of an institutional tenant at Hill of Tarvit in Fife necessitated the redisplay of that important Edwardian house designed by Sir Robert Lorimer, giving David the opportunity to reassemble items dispersed from rooms previously in institutional use and to do justice to Miss EC Sharp's 1949 bequest.
At Culzean Castle, on the Ayrshire coast, David masterminded a complete restoration of the Robert Adam interior. With consultants such as Peter Thornton of the Victorian and Albert museum, and historical research at the Sir John Soane museum, many fittings were identified and restored to their original places.
Tired houses were gently coaxed back into life, collections carefully repaired. House staff and guides were trained. David rolled up his sleeves and helped to black-lead grates and polish furniture, in the age-old tradition of well-run houses. His enthusiasm was infectious.
In 1984 he was able to redisplay Leith Hall, the trust's second country house, donated in 1945. One of the trust's most sensitive properties and a real treasure, it had been unfortunately subdivided. The Leith Hay collection was once again reinstated throughout the house, telling its poignant story of 350 years of continuous ownership by the Leith Hay family. David's work breathed such a sense of continuity and welcome into the house that a visiting furniture historian asked if the family were away for the day, not realising that the family had not lived there for some time.
In 1997, the year of his retirement, David fulfilled an ambition to recreate the kitchen at Culzean Castle, now fully equipped with a gleaming copper batterie de cuisine. His expertise in this field was sought by private owners and museum curators.
He curated two major exhibitions for the trust. In 1980, items from the Beckford and Hamilton silver collection from Brodick Castle were shown in London, York and Brussels. In 1981 the trust's Golden Jubilee exhibition, Treasures in Trust, was shown at the Royal Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. It was opened by the Queen, and David conducted her round the exhibition.
The hub of the curator's department was David's first-floor office in Edinburgh, where morning coffee and afternoon tea were taken from china cups. Mugs were not allowed. Tea was poured from an 18th-century "duty dodger" silver teapot. The dress code for secretaries was skirts: trousers were not permitted.
David had an ebullient sense of fun, sound Yorkshire common sense, indefatigable energy, amazing attention to detail, a phenomenal visual memory and a wide knowledge, which he enjoyed sharing. Central to his life was his family, his house and a succession of collie dogs that he loved to take for walks on the Pentland Hills, outside Edinburgh.
The following obituary was first published on 17 August 2009 in The Times.
David Learmont was an energetic, meticulous and effective curator of the National Trust for Scotland. He spent nearly three decades with the trust, which he joined in 1970 as assistant to Schomberg Scott, its architectural adviser.
During that time the trust’s portfolio of properties and responsibilities expanded vastly, and alongside that expansion Learmont developed the curatorial department and led it with great success for 27 years.
The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) was created in 1931, in an era in which much vernacular urban architecture was threatened, particularly by the Housing Act 1935, whose aims of urban renewal often resulted in urban destruction.
Robert Hurd, in his Scotland under Trust, published just before the war, listed the key buildings in the care of the NTS and the iconic landscapes that were seen to be under threat. There was no hint of the cascade of castles and country houses that in the postwar period would be placed at risk by changing economic and social circumstances. There had been some discussion about the needs of country houses. In the 1930s the Marquess of Lothian wrote perceptively about the problems, which was to lead to the Country House Scheme being adopted by both trusts. The House of the Binns was the first property taken into care in Scotland, in 1944.
Hugh Dalton, when Chancellor of the Exchequer, set up the National Land Fund in 1946 as a memorial to those who had fallen in war, and it became the source of support for the National Heritage Memorial Fund. Sir Ernest Gower’s influential report in the early 1950s into the needs of country houses established statutory mechanisms from which the NTS was also to benefit.
After the war the spirited but underfunded NTS seemed to be an effective means of offering some salvation for important houses at risk. Culzean Castle and Leith Hall came to it in 1945, Hill of Tarvit in 1949, Crathes in 1951 and Falkland Palace in 1952, followed by Brodick in 1958, Craigievar in 1963 and Kellie Castle in 1970.
Schomberg Scott was clearly not able to deal comprehensively with this sudden growth in the portfolio and in the early 1960s had support from Hugo Burrow and Christine McWilliam to perform certain curatorial functions, but the trust was ill prepared for the burden of sustaining the structures and contents of these fine properties, and in 1970 Learmont was recruited as an assistant to Schomberg Scott to deal with the curatorial problem.
David Murray Learmont was born in 1935 in Hovingham, Yorkshire. He had no formal training in the decorative arts but had developed a lifetime interest in fine furnishings and objets d’art from his father, a country doctor in Hovingham, and from his mother, who could often be found at roups and displenishment sales, bearing home fine objects that were to influence Learmont’s taste.
He was a founder member of the Furniture History Society, later serving on its council, and he wrote knowledgeably about Scottish furniture of which he had become a collector. Hovingham was the fiefdom of Marcus Worsley, active in the National Trust and whose son, Guy, was a notable writer on architectural history. It is not surprising that Learmont absorbed much without formal training.
He was educated at Sedbergh School, which also imbued him with a love of nature and stimulated his interest in drawing and painting. After school he studied for three years at the professional school of the Swiss Hotelkeepers Association in Lausanne, which gave him a fondness for fine food and taught him the discipline of the creative process that relies on meticulous detail and a concern for good materials. On his return to the UK he entered a career as a prep school teacher first at Isleden Court, where he married the young matron, Ann Granville Sharp. They moved for three years to Dulwich College prep school before he was attracted to the vacancy with the NTS in 1970.
His first real challenge came in 1974 when it had been decided to re-create No 7 Charlotte Square in Edinburgh as an example of a furnished Georgian house of the early 19th century. The trust needed £100,000 to refurnish the four-storey house. The money was soon raised, largely through Eric Ivory, chairman of Ivory & Sime, who had previously established the Furniture Repair Fund through which the trust had been able to start managing its collections properly.
One of the most attractive features of the Georgian House is its period kitchen, which was largely re-equipped from the skips outside other properties in the New Town that were being modernised.
The Baird Trust had adapted the top floor of the Georgian House as a pied à terre for the Moderators of the Church of Scotland. On one occasion some American visitors to the Georgian House encountered a distinguished black-garbed, gaitered and jaboted figure descending the stairs, and taking him to be “part of the act” not only complimented him on his role but tipped him five shillings. The “actor” was in fact the Very Rev Dr Fraser McLuskey, that year’s Moderator, going about his official duties.
The sequence of great houses which were then to come into the ownership of the NTS included the House of Dun, Castle Fraser, Drum Castle, Haddo House and Brodie Castle.
Learmont, with his colleagues Christopher Hartley and John Batty, worked tirelessly, employing a host of craftsmen specialists in the multitude of skills required to conserve, create and sustain the atmosphere of so many great houses of different periods.
The trust portfolio was capped in 1984 by the acquisition of Fyvie Castle, one of the great castles of Aberdeenshire, and all its contents, with the support of the National Heritage Memorial Fund. Lord Charteris of Amisfield, the first chairman of the fund, always maintained that its £3 million grant represented the best bargain ever struck, because one picture in its splendid collection, that of Colonel William Gordon painted on the Grand Tour by Batoni, would easily command £6 million at auction were it not inalienable.
Through its collaboration with the National Galleries of Scotland, the trust was able to reach a much wider public through loan exhibitions from its important collections. In 1978 through the goodwill of Dick Kingsett of Agnew’s, the trust showed the best of its Dutch and Flemish pictures in London. In 1985 the Treasures of Fyvie exhibition was staged at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and at Agnew’s, where many of the original portraits had been purchased by the Forbes-Leith family in the 19th century.
In 1988 the unusual collection of silver formed by William Beckford and the Hamilton family as shown at Brodick Castle was exhibited at Spink in London and subsequently in York and eventually in Brussels by the Banque Bruxelles Lambert at its gallery in the Place Royale. The Treasure Houses of Britain exhibition organised by Gervase Jackson-Stopps for the National Gallery of Art in Washington also included material from the Beckford collection, as well as the Batoni portrait of Colonel Gordon. None of this remarkable development in the public awareness of the rich collections of the trust would have been possible without the contacts developed by Learmont, whose charm overcame many obstacles.
Learmont is survived by his wife, Ann, and two sons.