The Warburg Institute is housed in a squat, square, five storey purpose built structure on Woburn Square in Bloomsbury. It’s been there since 1957 and, although many people have complained about its ugliness, I liked its graceful and capacious proportions. I was early, of course, so I wandered around outside for a bit, trying to pick up a trace of something, I’m not sure what. Virginia Woolf’s perfume perhaps. Leonard’s aftershave. I hadn’t been in Bloomsbury before. A fine rain drifted down from a grey sky but it wasn’t really cold. The grass in the small rectangular park was wet, though, there were muddy puddles everywhere, the trees were bare, yellow and purple crocuses, far too soon, were trying to push their way up into the February air. Most of those passing looked like students heading for class—the Warburg, like the Courtauld, like King’s College, is part of the University of London.
My meeting at ten was with Jill Kraye. An American, Chicago born, but in manner more like a New Yorker, she had studied at Colombia University before joined the Institute in 1974 as Assistant Librarian and has been there, in various capacities, including Librarian, ever since. Most recently, as Professor of the History of Renaissance Philosophy. She was intense, engaging, immediate, as she took me from reception up a wide, generously proportioned marble staircase with polished wooden banisters and along a corridor to a small office on the right at the end: not hers, but that of Charles Hope, a former Director, whom she thought I might like to meet as well. He was a suave fellow, an Englishman, with impeccable manners; inadvertently, or perhaps advertently (how do you tell?) intimidating. I spent about an hour with them, listening rather than talking, as they held a conversation, for my benefit, about Joe Trapp.
And much else besides. The Warburg has been in crisis over the last few years, because the university, allegedly, was attempting to sell it; or rather, sell the building it is housed in, after merging its collection—350,000 books, a like number of photographs, a unique, hundred year old archive—with that of the Senate House library in nearby Malet Street off Russell Square. In this scenario, the Institute as a home for scholars and students would, presumably, have gradually disappeared. The plans, whatever they actually involved—the UOL denied any intention to sell—were greeted with outrage. Petitions were drawn up and signed; letters were written; there were editorials and news articles published. Charles Hope explained that he had abandoned his scholarly work and dedicated himself, over a period of years, to coming to a precise understanding of the legal position of the Warburg vis à vis the University of London.
The Institute and the UOL ended up, in 2010, going to court to seek a determination upon the legalities of the relationship. Money was of the essence: the proximate cause of the dispute had been the university’s decision, in 2007-08, to more than double the so-called estates charge on the Institute. They said this ‘space charge’—which somehow rose from about £8,000 in 2006-07 to £643,000 in 2007-08—was in line with normal full-economic cost principles used by other universities. In other words, the UOL was massively inflating the rent they charged the Institute for the use of its own building—the construction of which they had committed to many years before in the founding Trust Deed. Along with concurrent funding cuts, this would have left the Warburg in serious financial difficulty. That, too, in the way of such things, would most likely have been used against it: see, it’s not economically viable, we need to do something about that.
The Trust Deed was signed in November 1944 by the UOL and Eric Warburg, then a major in the US army, on behalf of his family. Viscount Lee of Fareham, he who was there at the founding of the Courtauld, was also a party to this agreement (he is the ‘Another’, above). It was typed up—courier not pica—on a single sheet of cheap wartime paper, using both sides of the page, and listed the contents of library as about eighty thousand books and a large collection of photographs (no mention of the archive); and stated that the University will maintain and preserve the Warburg Library in perpetuity in accordance with this Deed . . . and will keep it adequately equipped and staffed as an independent unit.
What could be clearer than that? The High Court, in its wisdom, ruled that the university did indeed have an obligation to keep the Institute equipped and staffed. Mrs Justice Proudman (that name!) further said that the levying of space charges is not, to my mind, permissible. The imposition of university-wide space charges flies in the face of this provision as it merely treats the Institute as a constituent part of UOL without regard to its special character or its position as an independent unit. The UOL was, however, given leave to appeal certain elements of the judgment; which, inter alia, it claimed as a victory. Why a university might choose to levy ‘space charges’ on one of its own colleges or other bodies is a conundrum. It looks very like another creative accountant’s method of cutting costs.
Charles said that, although the Institute seemed to have successfully fought off this attempt to vary the terms of the Trust Deed (the judgment was brought down in November, 2014), he wasn’t confident it was the end of the matter. Further efforts would likely be made to undermine the Institute which, people say, will probably end up crossing the Atlantic to find a safer home at some American institution. There is talk, for instance, of re-locating it to the Getty Centre in Los Angeles. Others have speculated it might return to Germany, perhaps even to Hamburg itself. Wouldn’t that be peculiar? The Deed was signed while V1s and V2s were exploding into the streets of London; now, the UOL seemed determined to accomplish what the Nazis could not: destruction of the Warburg.