Obituary

11th September 2009 at 01:00

Anthony Ray 1926-2009

Persuading teenage schoolboys of the charms of medieval earthenware is not a task that many teachers would take on willingly. But for Anthony Ray, it was merely a way of reconciling the two strands of his double life.

Mr Ray, who taught languages for 38 years at Eton, combined his teaching career with extensive research into delft, or tin-glazed earthenware. So when he was not outlining verb conjugations for schoolboys, he was often to be found advising London's Victoria and Albert Museum on pottery.

Mr Ray was born in 1926 in Darjeeling, India, the son of the Calcutta commissioner of police. Like most children of the Raj, he was educated in England, spending his summer holidays in Scarborough. Towards the end of the Second World War, he was drafted into the navy. Later, he studied at University College, Oxford, with the aim of progressing on to a PhD. But in 1951, a chance meeting with Robert Birley, his former headmaster, led to an offer of work as a languages teacher at Eton.

Mr Ray was to remain at Eton for the rest of his career. His facility with language was renowned throughout the school: not only did he speak six mainstream European languages fluently; he could also converse in Welsh, Hindi and Croatian. Eric Anderson, headmaster when he retired, described him as "a gentleman scholar of genius".

He also had a more general love of language and wordplay. Mr Anderson recalls being advised by Mr Ray that a Catholic cleric in the Far East had just been promoted: he was now Cardinal Sin.

But his love for the job was inspired by more than pure scholarship. He enjoyed the company of the young, and instinctively understood them. Humour and warmth infused his lessons; his job, he felt, was to encourage the individual in every boy.

Teaching also gave him scope to pursue his own interests. Always a handy woodworker, he ran a short course in furniture-making. And, having taught himself photography, he set up a school photographic society.

In 1966, he took over as housemaster of Penn House, renowned for its tradition of "fagging" (the use of younger pupils as servants to senior boys). Mr Ray, however, wanted to create a homelike environment, reflecting the family life he had missed during his childhood. Despite initial pupil scepticism, his personal warmth gradually won them over: during the annual Christmas supper, for example, he performed comic songs about the antics of house characters.

Part of a housemaster's job was to invite groups of pupils to his home every week. And so Mr Ray's were introduced to his collection of delftware, his infectious enthusiasm winning over even those boys with little interest in pottery.

This enthusiasm for delftware became a second career, running in parallel to his work at Eton. He was a natural collector - as a boy he collected stamps - and was keen to take home anything that caught his eye.

Eventually he was invited by Oxford's Ashmolean museum to catalogue its collection of English delftware, leading to a series of related monographs. Mr Ray then turned his attention to Dutch delft, and later catalogued the Victoria and Albert Museum's Spanish pottery. His most significant work, Spanish Pottery 1298-1898, followed.

But his interests were not limited to pottery. He was fascinated by modern art, and in 1956 married Veronica Slater, a potter and painter. She was 10 years his junior; her introduction into Eton life made a significant impression on many of the senior boys.

Mr Ray also enjoyed music, his interests ranging from jazz to classical to avant-garde. In later years, he and Veronica bought a house in rural Wales, where he could happily play this music at excessive volume, disturbing only sheep.

On retirement, he continued to write and research. At the time he suffered a heart attack, followed by a stroke, he was working on a book about 15th-century Italian pottery.

Mr Ray died on August 7. He is survived by his wife, Veronica, and their two sons and two daughters.

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