John Sankey obituary

·2 min read

My father, John Sankey, who has died aged 91, was a diplomat who took up historical research, having become fascinated by the life and work of Sir Thomas Brock, sculptor of the Queen Victoria Memorial outside Buckingham Palace.

Commencing his career in the Colonial Office in 1953, John received his first posting in New York at the United Nations. On his return, in 1964 he transferred to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. After postings in Guyana, Singapore, Malta and the Netherlands, he returned to London as the first head of the newly formed Central African Department. John’s final postings were as High Commissioner to Tanzania (1982-8)5, and UK permanent representative to the UN, Geneva (1985-90). He was appointed CMG in 1983.

While at the Colonial Office he met Gwen Putnam, and in 1958 they got married. In the 1970s they purchased a house known as “Merrieweathers” in Mayfield, East Sussex. Intrigued by the initials TB on a stained-glass window, John discovered that Merrieweathers had been owned by Brock. This began his enduring fascination with the sculptor.

In retirement, John turned his Brock research into a doctoral thesis at Leeds University, and then a book, Thomas Brock, Forgotten Sculptor of the Victoria Memorial (2012). In 2011, in his 80s, he ascended 17 ladders within scaffolding around the memorial to view refurbishment work. He continued to work on Brock until his death, donating his scholarly archive to the Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum.

In 1990, John was appointed secretary general of the Society of London Art Dealers and later became a director of the Art Loss Register.

Born in Woolwich, London, John was the son of Ivy (nee Millward) and Harry Sankey, a clerk and first world war veteran. He attended St Peter’s primary school, which was evacuated to Hawkhurst, Kent, in 1939, and recalled watching the Battle of Britain fought overhead. After attending the Cardinal Vaughan school, at that time evacuated to Windsor, John received a scholarship to read classics at Cambridge University. He was an enthusiastic oarsman for his college, Peterhouse, and graduated with first-class honours.

He did national service with the Royal Artillery, seeing active service during the Malay Emergency. His time in Singapore and Malaya sparked a lifelong interest in people from all cultures and walks of life and a love of curry served with coconut and sliced banana.

A Catholic of great dedication and faith, John supported Gwen’s work as president of St Francis Leprosy Guild and was a member of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre.

Always a fun and generous host, and a loving father, John is survived by Gwen and by four children, Caroline, Martin, Paul and me, and eight grandchildren.

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