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David Scrase obituary

Sharp-tongued curator, expert on early Italian art and devotee of the ballerina Margot Fonteyn.

Source: The Times.

David Scrase loved giving impromptu gifts. Colleagues at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge recalled returning to their desks to find fresh fish or asparagus from a local market stall sitting on their chairs, often by way of apology after he had said something outrageous. He was equally good at charming others into giving gifts, notably the old ladies whose company he relished.

Scrase joined the Fitzwilliam in 1976 as assistant keeper of paintings and drawings, and remained there until retiring in 2013 as assistant director of collections. His knowledge of those collections was unsurpassed, while his museum tours and lectures, more virtuoso performances than talks, became hot tickets. With floppy grey hair, a sleek black scarf and latterly rimless glasses perched precariously on the end of his nose, he would make a dramatic pause before conspiratorially whispering the back story of a particular flower drawing or a Leonardo da Vinci sketch.

Although Scrase claimed to be no art historian, his memory and knowledge of the subject were both profound and wide ranging. His greatest passion was for Italian art, particularly drawings, and in 2011 he achieved a career-long ambition by publishing Italian Drawings at the Fitzwilliam Museum, a remarkable catalogue covering works from the 14th to the 20th centuries.

Yet there was far more to him than art, central though that was to his life. His ear for music was as sharp as his eye, he was a devoted balletomane, and a voracious reader, hoovering up books on a wide range of subjects. He was also an outstanding cook, taking as his maxim: "There is no dish that cannot be improved by the addition of alcohol."

David Ellison Scrase was born in south London in 1949, the son of Deryck Scrase, a businessman, and his wife Katharine (née Ellison), a PE teacher; they separated when David was young and he saw little of his father. He was a non-identical triplet, although one sibling died at birth. His extrovert brother John, with whom the introvert David had a complicated yet affectionate relationship, died three years ago.

At 18 months he contracted polio, which meant that much his childhood was spent in hospital. Despite being left with a dysfunctional right arm, he never asked friends to make allowances. He excelled in classics at Westminster School, but at Pembroke College, Oxford, decided to read Chinese, claiming that classics or English would have been "too easy".

As a child Scrase was taken to see a performance by Margot Fonteyn and afterwards was presented to the ballerina. She took a shine to this sensitive, intelligent and observant child and they developed a long friendship. While at school he would skip prep to see her perform at Covent Garden, climbing back in through a window after lights out. Later he spent the intervals of performances assembling small bouquets of flowers for friends to throw on stage during her curtain calls. In 1969 he took issue with a less-than-generous review of his heroine in The Times, writing to complain that a performance so "thoroughly satisfying in an emotional and aesthetic way should be so belittled".

At dinner parties he entertained friends by leaping up from his seat, singing the music of Romeo and Juliet, and dancing both parts as he had seen them danced by Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. On occasions he would turn up with old opera recordings by singers such as Rosa Ponselle or Maria Callas and play one aria after another, miming the part as he went along.

On graduating in 1971 Scrase took the Sotheby's course for art historians. "I had a brilliant teacher who taught you to look for yourself for quality," he explained. "He taught us to look for unity in an object." However, he turned down a job there to work as an archivist for Sadler's Wells Opera, where he undertook the initial research for what became Fonteyn's television series The Magic of Dance.

He joined the British Museum's coins and medals department, giving twice weekly lectures in London on decorative and fine arts, moving to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1976, where his morning pirouettes in the office were not a pretty sight. In 1983 he took the Flowers of Three Centuries exhibition to the US, proudly pointing out to wealthy American ladies that "half of them were done by women".

Hand in hand with Scrase's charm came his waspish humour and acerbic tongue. He could be painfully blunt, even with those he loved. One friend recalled him declaring to the wife of a well-known musician: "I can tell you are married to someone famous because you are so boring." Despite this, he maintained a wide circle of friends and worked hard at keeping them - hence the fish and asparagus.

In 1988 he met his partner Rick Mather, the architect whose design of The Times's headquarters in Wapping, its home until 2010, had the best environmental rating of any office building in London when it was completed in 1991.

Shortly after Mather's death (obituary, April 24, 2013), Scrase retired. He continued to serve on committees, to entertain his friends, to visit Covent Garden and to keep up with gossip, of which he was an outstanding purveyor. However, a light had gone out.

David Scrase, art historian, was born on March 15, 1949. He died on October 31, 2020, from head injuries after a fall, aged 71.