Laurance P. Roberts, 95, scholar of Asian art, director of N.Y. museum

March 12, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Laurance Page Roberts, an internationally known Asian art scholar who had been director of the American Academy in Rome, died Sunday of a heart attack at his Bolton Hill home. He was 95.

Mr. Roberts' career in the world of art and culture spanned about 70 years. He had lived in a Bolton Street rowhouse since 1988, when he and his wife moved to Baltimore after 15 years in Venice, Italy.

Born into a life of privilege in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., Mr. Roberts was a descendant of settlers who arrived in Pennsylvania in the 1600s to accept a land grant from William Penn. His paternal grandfather, George B. Roberts, was president of the Pennsylvania Railroad from 1880 to 1897, and his father, G. Brinton Roberts, was prominent in Philadelphia banking and commerce.

He grew up at Llanengan, the family's estate in Bala Cynwyd, and graduated from St. George's School in Newport, R.I., in 1925. He earned his bachelor's degree in fine arts from Princeton in 1929.

After briefly working for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Mr. Roberts moved to Beijing to study Chinese art and language. It was the beginning of a lifelong career that earned him an international reputation as an Asian art scholar, with an emphasis on Japanese art.

He was the author of A Directory of Japanese Artists: Paintings, Sculpture, Ceramics, Prints, Lacquer, a standard work in the field first published in 1976. Other publications included Guide to Japanese Museums and Catalogue of the Bernard Berenson Collection of Asian Art at Villa I Tatti, in Florence.

In 1934, he became curator of Asian art at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York, and in 1938 was named director of the museum. While at the museum, he met Isabel Spaulding, who worked in the education department. They married in 1937.

While he served in Army intelligence in Washington during World War II, Mrs. Roberts served as director of the museum. After his discharge in 1946, he resigned from the museum to become director of the American Academy in Rome, the only American overseas center for independent study and research in the arts and humanities.

"We were so lucky. We had a 17th-century villa to live in, and Rome was full of enthusiasm after the Fascist years. In film and art, Rome had taken the place of Paris, and it was a beehive of activity," Mrs. Roberts said.

It was while serving as director of the American Academy that Mr. Roberts established a second reputation as an administrator.

"An article in the New Yorker said that during his tenure it was the golden age of the American Academy. He was widely acquainted in the cultural field and knew many, many people both in America and abroad," said William R. Johnston, assistant director of the Walters Art Museum and a longtime friend.

"It really was the place for luminaries rather than the U.S. Embassy. Leonard Bernstein and Samuel Barber were in residence at the time. And it was because of Laurance's unique social skills that it became the great center for the literati and cognoscenti," said Stephen W. Fisher, a Baltimore collector of Asian art and president of Friends of the Asian Collection at the Walters.

Wishing to resume the study of Asian art, he resigned from the academy and returned to New York in 1960, when he joined with then-Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller in establishing the New York State Council of the Arts, the first such council in the United States.

Mr. Roberts and his wife made Venice their home while he traveled frequently to Japan to study and write, until settling in Baltimore.

"Upon arrival in Baltimore, Laurance and Isabel established a brilliant salon, which they nurtured and shared with a broad and diverse group of friends and colleagues. Their friends encompass people of all ages, all nationalities and all races," said Frederick Singley Koontz, a friend and lawyer.

He described Mr. Roberts as a "consummate gentleman" and a "self-effacing scholar with a quick and brilliant wit which always shown through with quiet dignity."

He continued his daily study of Chinese and maintained a voluminous worldwide correspondence, preferring to write letters in long hand with a fountain pen.

Services are private.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by several nephews and nieces.

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