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LIVES LIVED: A gifted mentor and educator

Professor Emeritus David McTavish died on Nov. 27, in Kingston, depriving the Queen’s community of a gifted scholar, educator and friend.

Professor Emeritus David McTavish studied at the University of Toronto before completing a Ph.D. at the University of London’s prestigious Courtauld Institute of Art (1978). His exemplary dissertation on the Italian Mannerist painter Giuseppe Porta Salviati was published in 1981, and more than 30 years later it remains the seminal monograph on this important artist. Dr. McTavish’s reputation as an Italian Renaissance scholar and drawings specialist was international. He was extraordinarily broad in his knowledge of the visual arts, but was particularly esteemed for his authoritative opinion in his field, loved for his soft-spoken nature, reluctant to seek the limelight.

Professor Emeritus David McTavish
Professor Emeritus David McTavish

Dr. McTavish began teaching art history at Queen's in 1973 and was promoted to full professor in 1989. He was Curator of European Painting and Sculpture at the Art Gallery of Ontario from 1986 to 1989, where he had served as chair of the first collection committee of the newly-formed Department of Prints and Drawings in 1978. Upon his return to full-time teaching at Queen’s, Dr. McTavish served as Head of Department (1989-1997), and simultaneously as Director of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre (1991-2001). Under his watch the art history graduate programs began, the Bader fellowships for Ph.D. students were put in place and the first of two endowed Bader chairs was established, and the Macdonald Stewart Lectures in Venetian Culture were inaugurated. He taught and directed the Department of Art’s Venice Summer School, and his staunch support of this treasured student experience ensured its survival; it will celebrate its 45th anniversary in 2015. Dr. McTavish was also a driving force in shaping the university collection at Queen’s, leading the Agnes Etherington Art Centre (AEAC) through an $8 million fundraising campaign towards a major renovation project in the late 1990s. He was instrumental in attracting at least two major private bequests which established the AEAC as a premier university collection with a strength in European historical art: an impressive assembly of Italian drawings from Duke Roberto Ferretti, and the bulk of the collection of Old Master paintings belonging to Drs. Alfred and Isabel Bader. Dr. McTavish curated numerous important exhibitions at the AEAC and the AGO, and since 2009 had been advisor to the acquisitions committee of the board of the National Gallery of Canada.

Dr. McTavish retired from the university in 2013 but continued to engage with a range of professorial duties, from graduate supervision to research and publication with commitment and dedication. He was particularly active over the course of the last year in research relating to El Greco’s Adoration of the Shepherds, a picture he first attributed to the painter and later helped to secure for the AEAC. The publication of this magisterial study was well timed to the celebrations surrounding the 400th anniversary of the death of the painter, and another essay on the subject, completed during the last weeks of David’s life, is to be published in the acts of a conference he attended in Greece last summer.  

David’s scholarship was concerned with relationships, networks, the way information moved, and indeed, he dedicated much of his life to facilitating these same things in our community and beyond. He genuinely cared about people, something that shone through in the speech he gave at his retirement celebration, in which he reflected on three “Cs” – community, civility and collegiality – things he valued about his time at Queen’s, and indeed, things he modelled as a gifted mentor and educator. David brought to his teaching a generosity of spirit and an enthusiasm for his subject that was infectious, and through his own example, inspired his students to new levels of intellectual rigour. His legacy is evident in the remarkable works he has contributed in print, in the many initiatives he facilitated on campus, but it resides most powerfully in the countless generations of students in whom he has instilled an enduring appreciation for the visual arts, and especially in those whom he has inspired to pursue careers in the history of art, many of them contributors to a forthcoming Festschrift edited by his colleague, Una D’Elia, Rethinking Renaissance Drawings: Essays in Honour of David McTavish (McGill-Queen’s Press in 2015). David McTavish is survived by his wife Anndale, their daughter Sarah and her husband, Gregor Campbell, as well his beloved grandson, Sebastian.

Allison Sherman is a former student of Dr. McTavish’s, and is currently the Graduate Chair for the Department of Art History as well as the Director of the Queen’s Venice Summer School. Pierre Du Prey is a Professor and Queen's Research Chair Emeritus in the Department of Art History.