Reader in fine art
Born: 2 December, 1947, in London.
Died: 27 December, 2006, in Edinburgh, aged 59.
JOHN Higgitt was an ornament to his profession and to the University of Edinburgh, where he taught medieval art from 1974. A man of curious and profound erudition, he was a scholar of a type that is becoming increasingly rare in today's target-driven assessment culture.
Fired from boyhood by a disinterested love of knowledge for its own sake, he was a medievalist through and through, to whom nothing in that millennium and more was alien. He saw the university as an intellectual community and forged networks with specialists in French, Italian, classics, Gaelic, history and archaeology, and his prowess as a linguist enabled him to find common ground with colleagues right across the humanities.
He displayed boundless energy in hunting down obscure medieval monuments across the length and breadth of Europe, and the vast fund of practical experience and visual data built up in this way over the decades - and extended much further afield, from Turkey to China - informed and enriched both his scholarship and his teaching, often in unexpected ways. He was a cornerstone of medieval studies in Edinburgh, a faithful attendee at medieval seminars and always ready with a helpful question and encouraging comment. His wry and subtle sense of humour made him a most engaging colleague.
Higgitt was a born scholar, and showed it early on in a precociously brilliant article on the Roman background to medieval England. Over the years, there followed two books, four edited books and over two dozen major contributions to scholarship on early medieval art, particularly in those areas he made most his own and in which he was a recognised master, namely early medieval epigraphy and sculpture in the British Isles, and objects from combs to sundials.
His forte was the intensive scrutiny of inscriptions, for example in the eight volumes of the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture, to which he contributed such searching analyses. It was not just the forms of the letters and their chronology that fascinated him, but their context. Thus he suggested, for example, that inscriptions set between the base of a cross and its shaft mark a transition from the secular to the spiritual, or that inscriptions set low on cross-shafts made it easier for people to read them on their knees.
Such special insights have been termed irreplaceable by his peers. He served faithfully on the Ancient Monuments Board for Scotland, on the archaeological advisory body for Historic Scotland, and - mindful of the precarious survival of Scotland's sculptural heritage - he helped to found (and chaired) the National Committee on the Carved Stones of Scotland. This dealt with all forms of carved monuments from the prehistoric rock art of Argyll to the gravestones of recent cemeteries, and he was careful to ensure that all received attention, not favouring his beloved medieval stones. Over the years, he did much to ensure the long-term conservation of ruins in Scotland.
His greatest work, however, was in a very different field, though this too testified to his deep commitment to Scotland and its art. His monograph on the Murthly Hours, a masterpiece of late 13th-century book painting, was widely hailed as a richly contextualised, sophisticated and wide-ranging study not just of the paintings themselves but of lay literacy and of medieval spirituality. It contained learned forays into codicology, iconography, and a diplomatic as well as stylish display of detective work which revealed the complex vicissitudes of the book's ownership over the centuries. Just before his death, he drew on his deepest resources to finish his last book - a ground-breaking survey of Scotland's medieval libraries, part of the British Library Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues.
The selfless conduct of his academic life gave the measure of the man. An instinctive gentleman, he was a great listener and readily extended emotional and practical support to those in need. Kind, gentle and generous to a fault, he was also a man of principle, and when he had taken up a position on some moral issue, he was not to be budged. His lifelong commitment to socialism, to various charities and to Amnesty International reflected this moral core.
Walking and music were among his chief delights, but he was above all a loving, devoted family man who derived great happiness and solace from his wife and two daughters and took great pride in their achievements. He bore his final illness with quite remarkable serenity, showing no self-pity and projecting to his many visitors a marvellous lack of fear. It was he who energised them so that they left happier than they had come. Over 250 people flocked to his funeral - the clearest evidence that his life had made a real difference.