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Obituary: Dr Jon Whiteley 1945–2020

By David Porter

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The death was announced this week by the Ashmolean Museum of curator Dr Jon Whiteley.

He joined the Museum in 1976 as assistant keeper in the Department of Western Art.

In a career of 38 years at the Ashmolean he was a dedicated teacher to generations of Oxford students, one of the country’s most distinguished art historians and a well-loved colleague and friend to everyone who knew and worked with him.

Director of the Ashmolean Dr Xa Sturgis paid tribute: "Over the centuries many individuals have helped shape the Ashmolean.

"Among them there are a few whose spirit still courses through the veins of the institution.

"Jon is one of those.

"The Ashmolean lived in Jon’s bones – to hear him speak about almost any aspect of the Museum’s history or its collections was always both inspiring and somewhat daunting in its demonstration of the depth and range of his knowledge, attention and thought.

"But even now, at this sad time, Jon still lives at the Ashmolean.

"He is there in the collections that he helped shape, but he is there too in the friendly welcome in the Print Room, in the work of our Learning department, in our concerts and our scholarship and what I hope is both our sense of public duty and an understanding of the importance of personal relationships both within institutions and in the way institutions relate to the world.

"By the time I arrived at the Museum a little over five years ago Jon had apparently retired.

"In the years since he not only continued to give lectures and talks, contribute to exhibition catalogues, give freely of his advice and knowledge, but he also wrote a complete catalogue of the collection of French paintings after 1800 which, with typical diligence and timing, he completed just before he fell ill.

"The catalogue will be published next year.

"We will miss Jon.

"He is much loved and our thoughts are with his wife, Linda, and his family, at this sad and difficult time."

Dr Whitely was made a chevalier (knight) of the French Order of Arts and Letters in May 2009 but in his youth, joined an elite cadre of 12 individuals including Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland who were Honorees of the Academy Juvenile Award, otherwise known as the junior Oscars.

At aged just six-years-old, following an appearance on BBC radio it was his reading of the Owl and the Pussycat which drew the attention of a London film producer, who sought out the young talent in the hope that his performance may translate to the silver screen.

He was, in turn asked to audition for the Dick Bogarde drama Hunted, being selcted ahead of many other child actors of the era.

The role led to further roles including a documentary for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (RSPCC) and a starring role in The Kidnappers alongside Aberdonian actor Vincent Winter

The pair played two brothers sent to live with their Canadian grandparents in Nova Scotia the early 1900s, and the film follows them after they discover an abandoned baby which they look after, having been denied their own dog.

Critics were so impressed with Whitely and Winter’s acting that they were both presented with a juvenile Academy Award in 1955, the second last actors to be awarded the honour, the last being Hailey Mills in 1960,

The Oscar category was introduced in 1934 so that the work of children did not have to be compared to adults, first being awarded to Shirley Temple.

During an interview several years ago Dr Whiteley admitted that the award meant little to him as he was not allowed to travel to the US to receive it in person and it arrived in the post.

His acting career stopped when he won a place at Pembroke College in Oxford, completing an undergraduate degree and a doctorate.

Following this, he became a curator at Christ Church Picture Gallery before taking up his role at the Ashmolean Museum.

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