Paul Lawson who died, on 8 September 2023 after a protracted illness, was a dynamo of a man. In his heyday, as principal keeper and then head of Bradford Museums, Galleries and Libraries for well over two decades from the 1970s onwards, he electrified the cultural landscape of the city.
His restless, fierce intellect created a force field around him, crackling with energy, where everything seemed to accelerate.
It says a lot about Paul, that colleagues felt free to take up the cudgels with him if warranted. They knew, however fiery the run in, he would cut them some slack, just as his quirks aroused exasperated yet affectionate tolerance. Looking back, it feels like a very different, more bracing age.
Caroline Krzesinska, Paul’s long-standing colleague in Bradford before she left for Museums Sheffield, recalls: “As a first year student at Nottingham I was told about this ‘able and brilliant’ student a year or two in front of me. It was Paul Lawson of course.
"The Paul I met in 1977 at Cartwright Hall was energetic, entirely unconventional and yes, brilliant. He opened up the idea of what collections and exhibitions should be about and certainly for whom they should be.”
Born in Scotland, Paul was schooled in Tadcaster, North Yorkshire. Armed with degrees from the Universities of Nottingham and Leicester respectively, he began his museum career in Liverpool, where his love affair with decorative arts burgeoned.
He ended his formal career in Leeds, with the launch of Leeds University’s fabulous textile collections. However, it is Bradford with which he will be predominantly associated.
Paul was a bon vivant, with his love of pâté (which he sometimes made himself to distribute as Christmas gifts), wild salmon and pheasant. Yet his Scottish Presbyterianism was more bred in the bone than was immediately apparent.
His staunch, unwavering support of my work with Bradford Museums and Galleries, be it community consultation, building up the International Collections, or curating and touring innovative exhibitions, was rooted in the conviction that this was the ethical thing to do.
The composition of Bradford’s population, with its diversity of cultures, framed his approach to everything that he undertook. In this, he was far ahead of his time and truly a pioneer. His approach was never dour or mechanical. Once his imagination was fired, he could be impressively decisive.
For instance, I had assembled a last-minute, stopgap exhibition using objects I had been acquiring since 1990 for the International Collections. It was the first time Paul, or indeed anyone else myself included, had seen it displayed in one space.
Paul issued the edict that the International Collections should go on permanent display in a dedicated gallery in Cartwright Hall. Thus, the Transcultural Gallery, with a number of significant, additional acquisitions such as Anish Kapoor’s Turning the World Inside Out and Salima Hashmi’s Zones of Dreams,was launched in 1997.
Paul’s unorthodoxy notwithstanding, he was deft and canny in his interactions with elected members. He fully understood their power to hinder or progress key museum policies and projects. He managed to maintain a remarkably amiable relationship with almost all of them.
They in their turn liked him, largely I suspect, because they recognised that the respect he showed for their office was genuine.
In his marriage to Margaret (nee Minshull) in 1992, Paul found great contentment. As his health began to decline even further, Margaret and her daughters Chris and Kathy (who lived much further away), tended him with utmost devotion and tenderness.
His passions continued to be decorative arts and vernacular architecture. His knowledge of these subjects, particularly stained glass, was phenomenal. His failing body slowed down the production of his magnum opus on the Pre-Raphaelites in Yorkshire, intended to be his big retirement project.
However, it has been completed with the wonderful Margaret, a talented librarian in her own right, acting as his amanuensis. Its publication would be a fitting legacy for this colourful personality.
Nima Poovaya-Smith is a museum curator, art historian and writer