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Evans, Joan, Dame

Date born: 1893

Place born: Abbots Langley, Hertfordshire, United Kingdom

Date died: 1977

Place died: Wotton under Edge, Gloucestershire, United Kingdom

Oxford-trained private medievalist art historian and collector. Evans was the daughter of Sir John Evans (1823-1908) an archaeologist, and his third wife, Maria Millington Lathbury (1856–1944). Her mother attended Oxford at age 30 and married at 36. Joan Evan's half-brother by more than forty years was the archaeologist Arthur Evans (q.v.). The girl had a lonely childhood, essentially raised by her nanny. She suffered a nervous breakdown at the death of her father in 1908 and was only restored by a family friend, Margaret Jourdain, who insisted she write a history of jewelry. She attended St Hugh's College, Oxford, from 1914 graduating in archaeology (with honors) in 1916 under J. D. Beazley (q.v.). But a lack of sympathy with Beazley's attributions methodology led her to pursue later periods. In 1917 she took a temporary position as St Hugh's librarian which lasted until 1922. A B.Litt was awarded in 1920. In 1921 she published her book, English Jewellery from the 5th Century BC to 1800. English art, however, was not her primary focus. Her scholarly interest was established in 1925 by the book Life in Mediaeval France. The University of London awarded her a D. Litt, in 1930. In 1931 she used her research in adornment to write Pattern: a Study of Ornament in Western Europe from 1180 to 1900, a monumental study which reframed the scholarly concept of decoration. That same year she was named honorary librarian of the Courtauld Institute, London. Oxford University bestowed a D. Litt, on her in 1932. Evans produced the second of her studies of French medieval life in 1936, Monastic Life at Cluny, 930–1157, followed in 1939 by Taste and Temperament. In rapid succession, Art in Mediaeval France (1948), English Art, 1307–1461 (1949), Cluniac Art of the Romanesque Period (1950), and Dress in Mediaeval France (1952) were published. A second history of ornament, A History of Jewellery, 1100–1870 was issued in 1953. These were interspersed by histories of more contemporary subjects, such as her biography of Chateaubriand in 1939, on Madame de Sérilly in 1946, and Joseph Joubert, published in 1947. In 1943 she published a family memoir, Time and Chance: the Story of Arthur Evans and his Forebears. Evans bought a medieval Cluniac chapel, Chappelle des Moines de Berzé and donated it to the town of Mâcon in 1947. In 1948 she was elected president of the Royal Archaeological Institute (through 1951). Evans greatly admired the Victorian age and indeed saw herself as an extension of it in many ways. After a biography of John Ruskin (q.v.) in 1954, she co-edited with John Howard Whitehead, Ruskin's diaries in 1956, a work demonstrating almost a personal understanding of the work of the most influential art writer of the nineteenth century in Britain. That same year her A History of the Society of Antiquaries appeared in 1956, as well as an honorary doctor of letters from Cambridge. Evans was elected the first woman president of the Society of Antiquaries in 1959 (through 1964) a position which had previously been held by both her father and half brother, and awarded the gold medal the Society in 1973. She donated her gem and jewelry collection to the Victoria and Albert Museum beginning in 1960. She was a trustee of the British Museum (1963-1967). In 1966 she published a view of the middle ages in general, The Flowering of the Middle Ages and a biography of the family of Netherlandish scholar William Martin Conway (q.v.). In her personal life, she donated time and money to many charitable historic causes, nearly all of them anonymously. Most publicly, she helped purchase the ridge above Wotton under Edge for the National Trust. She resided there at Thousand Acres, the family home at Wotton, for the remainder of her life. Evans died at Wotton under Edge in 1977 and her body cremated. Her will left collections to the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and the Birmingham City Art Gallery.

Evans never had an academic appointment. Scholarly opinion of her work is generally that she too strongly felt the urge to match the publishing output of other family members to match their excellence. Her books lack evidentiary detail which a slower publication schedule might have allowed. Her work on Ruskin is one of great sensitivity and her study on ornament remains important.

Home Country: United Kingdom

Sources: Evans, Joan. Prelude & Fugue, an Autobiography. London: Museum Press, 1964; Garlick, Kenneth. "Evans, Joan, Dame." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004; Coldstream, Nicola. "Joan Evans (1893-1977): Art Historian and Antiquary." in, Chance, Jane, ed. Women Medievalists in the Academy. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005, pp. 399-422; [obituary:] "Dame Joan Evans, Historian of French and English Medieval Art." Times (London) July 15, 1977, p.18.

Bibliography: English Jewellery from the Fifth Century A.D. to 1800. London, Methuen & co., 1921; Pattern, a Study of Ornament in Western Europe from 1180 to 1900. 2 vols. Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1931; The Romanesque Architecture of the Order of Cluny. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1938; English Art, 1307-1461. The Oxford History of English Art: 5. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949; Art in Mediaeval France, 987-1498. London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1948; Cluniac Art of the Romanesque Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1950; edited, with Whitehouse, John Howard. Ruskin, John. Diaries. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956-59; Dress in Mediaeval France. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952; The Conways: a History of Three Generations. London: Museum Press, 1966.