Oration for Lars Tharp

By Mr Nigel Siesage

Anyone who watches Lars Tharp on the Antiques Roadshow cannot fail to be impressed by the seemingly miraculous way in which he identifies a wide variety of previously unseen objects, giving minute details of their designers, manufacturing processes and social and economic backgrounds – and then provides the eagerly anticipated valuation, bringing delight or (occasionally) disappointment to the owners.

Such expertise, though not unique, is rare; and it comes as a result of a combination of a fine intellect, deep study and a well-developed aesthetic sense. When those are joined, as in our honorand, with great personal warmth and geniality, it is a rare combination indeed.

Though Lars was born in Denmark (a country for which he has great affection) it is our good fortune that his family moved to Leicester when he was about six. His secondary school was Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys, next to the University, where he had some contact with the University, playing the cello in our Baroque Orchestra for instance; but Lars understandably opted to go to Cambridge, where he read Archaeology and Anthropology – and continued his wider engagement in the arts, playing his cello at University level, acting in and producing plays and running the Archaeological Field Club.

At the point of his graduation in 1976, then, we see the emergence of a rounded individual with wide tastes, but there is limited evidence of the future ceramics expert, historian and broadcaster. The critical development came when Lars, recognising, as he puts it, that there was “a dearth of jobs for Palaeolithic archaeologists”, and conscious of an ability to recognise and remember objects, contrived a meeting with a director

of the London auctioneers, Sotheby’s. This resulted in an apprenticeship in Sotheby’s Chinese department.

Lars flourished there, rising by 1983 to be a director himself, and three years later was invited to join the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow as one of its resident experts. He has appeared in all subsequent series, the 2016 series being his 30th anniversary on the show. This has led to numerous other broadcast appearances, including his own 12-part series Inside Antiques, and - something which particularly pleased him - membership of the winning team of alumni from his Cambridge college on University Challenge.

His area of special expertise is ceramics – and particularly the Song Dynasty of 10th-13th century China – a period of great military, scientific, economic and artistic innovation, which produced, among other things, the first use of gunpowder, the first banknotes, and what has been described as the foremost expression of ceramic art. Lars has lectured around the world on the subject, and in two BBC films, Treasures of Chinese Porcelain and China in Six Easy Pieces, has described the later development and backbreaking effort of countless labourers employed in the manufacture and transport of porcelain to Europe. He has also devised and curated three ceramics exhibitions and is President of the International Ceramics Fair.

A genuinely enquiring mind will notice and explore unexpected intellectual byways; and so it was when Lars observed the way in which the eighteenth century British artist and social commentator, William Hogarth, depicted examples of major ceramic traditions in his paintings and prints. This opened up a field of research leading to a number of exhibitions and a book, Hogarth’s China, an innovative synthesis of ceramic, social and art history.

From this it was a relatively small step to further work on Hogarth, a television programme about Hogarth’s love of dogs, vice-chairmanship of

the Hogarth Trust, and Directorship of London’s Foundling Museum, Hogarth having been a governor of the Foundling Hospital at its inception.

This barely scratches the surface of Lars’s activities and public involvement. He lectures extensively around the world. He has served on the jury of the Art Fund’s Museums and Galleries Annual Prize, is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London and a Freeman of the City of London.

Locally he is actively involved in several societies and charities, including the Leicester Archaeological and Historical Society and the Leicestershire International Music Festival. He championed the National Trust’s campaign to purchase and open the beautiful arts and crafts house, Stoneywell, just outside Leicester. His lifelong love of art is matched by his appreciation of music, and if the BBC ever has the good sense to invite him to that well-known desert island, his luxury – if he cannot take a Gainsborough – will be his beloved cello.

The other local University was quicker off the mark in awarding him an honorary degree, but at this University he delivered the Frank May Anniversary Lecture in 2007, and he looks forward to attending these congregations again next year to see his elder daughter, Helena, graduate as a doctor, indirectly satisfying one of his personal childhood ambitions.

It is, in the best sense, fortunate that he took a different path, or we might have been deprived of his wide-ranging, erudite, witty and imaginative contributions to our understanding and appreciation of so many aspects of culture, art and social history. We honour him for these, for his exceptional communication skills and for his rare ability, as one friend has expressed it, to straddle the academic, commercial and broadcasting worlds without compromise to any one of them.

Mr Chancellor, on the recommendation of the Senate and the Council, I present Lars Broholm Tharp, that you may confer on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters.

Delivered by Mr Nigel Siesage on 14 July 2016

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