University of Melbourne Archives

Ursula Hoff Papers

by Jane Ellen, Archivist

(from the UMA Bulletin no. 17, May 2005)

In 2004 the UMA acquired the personal papers of the distinguished art historian and curator Dr Ursula Hoff. This follows an earlier accession of her papers that Dr Hoff donated to the UMA in 1986. The Hoff papers enhance our other collections of art historians, Sir Joseph Burke, Franz Philipp and Margaret Manion and, taken as an entity, this area can now be considered one of our collection strengths.

Ursula Hoff was born in London in 1909, the only daughter of German parents. She was educated in both Germany and England and in 1934 was awarded a Ph.D from Hamburg for a thesis on Rembrandt, studying under renowned art historian Erwin Panofsky. She later worked at the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes in London before accepting a position as an administrative assistant at the University of Melbourne's University College and arrived here in 1939. This seemingly odd career move came about through the offices of the Colleges Principal, Dr Greta Hort, who wished to offer sanctuary to a Jewish female scholar from the perils represented by Europe on the outbreak of World War II (Dr Hoff was half-Jewish).

In 1943 Sir Daryl Lindsay invited her to join the staff of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV); she was the first university-trained art historian to work as a curator in an Australian gallery. She initially worked at the NGV as Assistant Keeper from 1943 to 1949 before becoming Curator of Prints and Drawings in 1956 and later Assistant Director from 1968-1973. She had a strong interest in Australian art and promoted the work most notably of John Brack, Arthur Boyd and Fred Williams.

She published monographs on the Heidelberg School, Charles Conder, Arthur Boyd, John Brack and William Blake; edited the NGV's journal, the Annual Bulletin of Victoria and contributed dozens of essays and articles to art journals and scholarly publications. Her magnum opus was the multi-volume catalogue of European paintings before 1800 held in the NGV, first published in 1961 and going through several subsequent editions.

In 1948 Dr Hoff also began teaching in the University's newly-established Fine Arts Department under Professor Joseph Burke. The Department was the first in Australia to teach art history and was one of few in the world. Along with her colleagues, Burke, Bernard Smith and Franz Philipp, Ursula Hoff was responsible for training the first generation and subsequent ones - of Australian art historians and curators.

Upon retirement from the NGV in 1975 she became the London-based advisor to the Felton Bequests Committee where she remained until 1984. During this period she was responsible for many major acquisitions. After her return to Melbourne in 1984 Dr Hoff became a Senior Associate of the Fine Arts Department, giving lectures and supervising some post-graduate students as well as continuing with her own research and publications. She was awarded honorary doctorates from Melbourne, Monash and Latrobe universities; an OBE in 1970 and an Order of Australia in 1985. She died peacefully in Melbourne on 10 January 2005. A tribute ceremony was held in the Great Hall of the NGV on 24 February.

Dr Hoff's papers principally contain correspondence and research files. Amongst the former are extended sequences of correspondence Dr Hoff's wide circle of colleagues and friends. These include Sir Daryl Lindsay, John and Helen Brack, Arthur Boyd, Margaret Stones; her colleagues at the University of Melbourne including Bernard Smith, Franz Philipp and Joseph Burke; members of the Felton Bequests Committee; and curators, gallery directors and art historians throughout the country. Also held are the letters between Ursula and her parents - surprisingly perhaps, these are all written in English - and with other family members. Dr Hoff didn't keep copies of the letters she sent but she did tend to draft a letter beforehand and retain the draft so the content and style of her own voice is present.

The research material comprises the working documents she created for both the lectures and talks Dr Hoff gave throughout her long career and for her many published works. It provides a window into her research practice and methodology; for example she obviously undertook meticulous fact-checking and a prodigious breadth of reading for all her research, be it for a scholarly publication or for one of the recreational talks she occasionally gave to the Catalysts, the group of Melbourne women who meet to discuss intellectual and cultural subjects and to which Dr Hoff belonged for many years.

In addition to documenting a distinguished life and career, the papers also illuminate several areas: the development of art history as an academic discipline in Australia, the shaping of the NGV's collections through the Felton Bequest, and more broadly would support a study of the contribution made to the University of Melbourne and to Australian society by the Jewish intellectuals who came here as refugees from Nazism and whose personal papers are also held by the UMA, such as Franz Philipp, Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack, Leonhard Adam, Fritz Loewe, Sophie Ducker and Richard Samuel.

Diaries kept by Dr Hoff during her period in London as adviser to the Felton Bequest will be deposited with the UMA at a later date.

The collection is listed and available for use.

top of page