Robert Woof CBE

b. 1931 – d. 2005

Dr Robert Samuel Woof (20 April 1931 – 7 November 2005) was an English scholar, most famous for having been the first Director of the Wordsworth Trust and Museums Director of the Wordsworth Museum at Dove Cottage in Grasmere, Lake District, Cumbria. Dove Cottage is known as the centre for British Romanticism movement, having been the home of William Wordsworth from 1799–1808.


Robert Woof CBE remembered – by Paul Johnson

Robert Woof occupied a unique position in the English literary scene. At the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere he transformed what had been a charming but antiquated cottage-museum into the finest complex in the world devoted to the life, works and study of a great poet and his contemporaries. To do this he required three essential assets: the ability to raise large sums of money, a deep and ever-increasing knowledge of his subject, and a fierce and loving enthusiasm which enraptured scholars and experts, donors and officials and, above all, visitors. He had all three in abundance.

Robert was a driven man who, almost literally, worked himself to death, fighting off encroaching cancer by redoubling his efforts and at 74 putting in a hard day’s work up to the last moment. It was therefore only right that he should have lived to see, complete and functioning, the superb state-of-the-art research building which he conceived and planned throughout, and whose construction he supervised in the smallest detail. It contains an astonishing collection of first editions, manuscripts, letters and documents from the age of Wordsworth, and to go round it in his company was a rare privilege. The objects themselves, most of which he had acquired, were rare and fascinating. So was the unceasing torrent of information about them which handling them stimulated in this dedicated man: it poured forth like the water of Scale Force or Dungeon Ghyll, two of the poet’s favourite cascades.

Equally vivifying was the tour he gave you of the art gallery he created, which houses not only the best collection of portraits of the Lake Poets but many superb watercolours and paintings of the district. Robert had brought them together by cunning forays into the auctions and assiduous begging from private owners, and he gradually acquired a tremendous knowledge of the age’s art, which found expression in a long essay, ‘Poets, Painters and Watercolours’, which he contributed to the outstanding catalogue he published for the last exhibition he staged at the Wordsworth Trust, The Spooner Collection of British Watercolours. It also shone forth in the full-length book Treasures of the Wordsworth Trust, which he published, with an introduction by Seamus Heaney, to mark the completion of the new building.

These annual exhibitions were one of the main glories of the trust. In preparing them, Robert was able to draw on his own encyclopaedic knowledge; the help of countless admirers among academics, collectors and experts from public institutions; and not least Pamela, whose devotion to English literature is equal to his own. (The volume onParadise Lost which she contributed to the trust’s recent exhibition on the illustrators of Milton is a little masterpiece of erudition and insight.) Each year, then, a new aspect of Wordsworth’s time was splendidly illumined. Robert’s standing in the world of museums was such, and the trust imposed in him by private owners so complete, that he was able to borrow and display choice and rare items in these sumptuous feasts, many of them never before seen by the public. The accompanying catalogues were of the highest quality, for Robert knew all about typefaces, colour reproduction and binding, and had good relations with art printers, who held him in the most profound respect. I particularly admired his two shows devoted to women, Romantic Women Writers (1994) and Hyenas in Petticoats (1997), the topographical study Towards Tintern Abbey (1998) and the superb exhibition on Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1997). Robert also wrote Shelley: An Ineffectual Angel?, which accompanied the display devoted to the poet in 1992. I think my favourite book of his, however, was the catalogue on English Poetry: The First Thousand Years, which accompanied the exceptional exhibition of portraits and manuscripts he assembled with loving devotion and triumphant begging in 2000. I have never seen anything which so tellingly illustrated the riches of our poetical heritage, and being taken round by Robert, with his thrilling descants on the manuscripts he had put together, was something I shall remember as long as I live.

Here, indeed, was the key to Robert’s work. He wanted to draw the visitor as close as possible to the personalities and writings of the Wordsworth age, using all the resources of scholarship, modern technology and a brilliant imagination. He brought to life the details, the minutiae of those days, and the sheer glory of poetical creation. In the place he fashioned by the side of that immortal water Grasmere, with its attendant hills Helm Crag and Silver Howe, the atmosphere he produced was so authentic that one would not have been surprised to stumble across Dorothy sowing wild-flower seeds, or Hazlitt in angry argument with Leigh Hunt, or Coleridge buttonholing a stranger to impart to him the mysteries of metaphysics. There are many ways in which to teach the love of literature but Robert Woof chose one of the best and most delightful – the recreating of its setting and personalities, so that we feel we know both intimately. He gave his life to this project, saw it reach a triumphant climax, and now has the reward of seeing Wordsworth and his friends not through a glass darkly, but face to face.