Sir Michael Levey

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Distinguished art historian

Michael Levey was born in 1927 and educated at The Oratory and Exeter College, Oxford. After military service in Egypt in 1945-8, he took up a career in the fine arts, becoming an assistant keeper at the National Gallery in 1951, Slade Professor of Fine Art, Cambridge , in 1963, and Director of the National Gallery from 1973 to 1986. He was also  Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford (1994-5) and an honorary fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, and was awarded an Honorary DLitt by the University of Manchester .

He wrote several important books on the history of art, and on various collections and  Florence , as well as three novels and an autobiographical memoir, The Chapel is on Fire (Pimlico, 2001). This memoir includes evocative accounts of an English childhood between the wars and military life in Egypt at the end of the second world war. Most interesting to humanists will be his descriptions of his upbringing in a London suburb as the child of an intolerant Roman Catholic and of his loss of faith – the ‘burning chapel’ of the title refers both to a real school chapel and to the author’s Catholic faith.

In July 2001 he was one of the signatories to a letter published in The Independent which urged the Government to reconsider its support for the expansion of maintained religious schools. He was also an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Association and a vice-president of GALHA.