Eleanor Spencer, medieval art scholar

November 19, 1992|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

In an obituary yesterday on Dr. Eleanor P. Spencer, the name of author Richard H. Howland was misspelled.

The Sun regrets the error.

Dr. Eleanor P. Spencer -- known to scholars for her expertise in illuminated medieval manuscripts and cherished by friends for a radiant personality -- died Tuesday at a nursing home outside Paris. She was 97.

Dr. Spencer was considered one of the most distinguished American scholars of medieval art.

Her specialty and passion were medieval manuscripts of the late 15th century, mostly prayer books.

A professor emeritus of fine art at Goucher College, where shtaught between 1930 and 1962, Dr. Spencer died in her sleep of natural causes in the town of Crosne, according to a college official. An exact cause of death was not known.


A former resident of Roland Park and Guilford, she had no survivors.

"She was a radiant person and I don't use the word lightly," said Dr. Claire Sherman of the National Gallery in Washington. "Anyone who came to Paris to work in the area of illuminated manuscripts was quickly welcomed into her circle. She was such a kind person -- very generous to young people. Eleanor was always willing to learn and open to all kinds of ideas."

When Dr. Spencer first arrived at Goucher, the United States was crippled by the Great Depression; the college was downtown on 23rd Street, and Eleanor Spencer was its only instructor of art history.

Under her leadership, Goucher established a major in fine art and the art department quickly became the third largest on campus.

"Her spirit was indomitable," said Dr. Lilian Randall, research curator of manuscripts at the Walters Art Gallery, where Dr. Spencer did much of her work. "She was enthusiastic about her own work and the work of her colleagues. She was very generous in sharing information."

Born in Northampton, Mass., she received a bachelor's degree from Smith College in 1917 and later earned a master's degree there. She studied for a year at the Sorbonne in Paris, returned to America in 1921 and earned her doctorate from Radcliffe.

After almost a decade teaching at Smith, Mount Holyoke and Wellesley colleges, Dr. Spencer arrived at Goucher.

During those years in Baltimore, she worked with the Works Project Administration, a New Deal agency established to relieve unemployment during the Depression.

In an interview with The Sun, Dr. Spencer remembered those days helping "artists and architects who could no longer sell their works. We asked the artists and architects what they wanted to do and they worked out their projects and we OK'd them. Today people are given charity but in the '30s the artists didn't ask for it. They helped each other -- and the government helped, too. It was an honest way."

She co-authored a book in 1953 with Richard Hubbard Holland, "The Architecture of Baltimore, a Pictorial History." In 1982, she donated a rare Book of Hours illuminated by Maitre Francois to the Walters Art Gallery, where she was on the board of directors.

After retiring from Goucher in 1962, she received a Fulbright Fellowship grant, which allowed her to study in Paris, where she was a frequent visitor to the Bibliotheque Nationale. She also traveled to Europe's other major libraries and, while living abroad, was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities grant.

In 1989, Goucher established the Eleanor Spencer Fund, which provides grants to students who want to travel for art research. A student art gallery at the college has also been named in her honor.

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