Giles Waterfield, who has died aged 67 of a heart attack, was director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, in south London, from 1979 to 1996, and turned it from a sad, neglected institution into the well displayed, intellectually active and socially pioneering museum it is today.
Not a conventionally ambitious man, he chose to leave the gallery before its much praised remodelling was complete it reopened after a five-year refurbishment in 2000 to become a traveller, independent curator, lecturer and writer. He won the 2001 McKitterick prize for his first novel, The Long Afternoon, but the quality his students and many friends single out above all others was his capacity to inspire as a teacher.
A pleasing example of this arose out of the theft from Dulwich Picture Gallery for the third time of a small portrait by Rembrandt. A detective was billeted on Giles in case a call for ransom came in, and the picture was eventually recovered. Some years passed and Giles bumped into the policeman, who said he had found listening to him so interesting that he had gone on to study art history.
Giles was born in Bramley, Surrey, the son of Honor (nee Northern) and Anthony Waterfield, and spent his childhood in France and Geneva - his father worked for the Ministry of Aircraft Production and subsequently as a scientific adviser to the British embassy in Paris. Giles was educated at Eton and at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he studied English, then the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, where he specialised in 17th- and 18th-century architecture. After a stint at the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery and the Royal Pavilion, in 1979 he took on Dulwich.
Despite its building by Sir John Soane the first purpose-built public art gallery in England, and much admired by postmodernist architects and a collection of paintings that also included works byPoussin, Watteau and Canaletto, the gallery had been allowed by the 300-year-old foundation that owned it to decline. As Giles recalled, when he arrived there was a staff of five Nothing happened, no exhibitions, no conservation programme.The Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2011. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
The rebirth of the gallery was a classic example of the great and good in action. Giles turned to Lord Rothschild, then chairman of the Heritage Lottery Fund, who was a powerful help in negotiating the disentanglement of the gallery and its establishment as an independent charitable trust in 1994. Rothschilds friend Lord (John) Sainsbury of Preston Candover became chairman of the board and he in turn persuaded his wealthy friends to become trustees. They raised funds and a lottery-supported campaign led to the endowment, restoration and tactful extension of the museum by the architect Rick Mather.
Meanwhile, the gallery was developing a social arm that has since been imitated by much bigger museums. Giles was apparently apolitical, but his instincts were those of an old-fashioned liberal. We must do something for the unemployed, he said one day in 1984 to Gillian Wolfe, his pioneering head of education, and that was the beginning of an outreach programme that managed to get through even to alienated teenage offenders.
An important part of Giless life after leaving Dulwich was the Attingham Summer School, with which he had been involved since 1980. This is an intellectually rigorous, three-week course in historic architecture and the decorative and fine arts in the context of country houses. Its thousands of alumni, nearly all museum curators, have been forged into a fiercely loyal and quietly influential network by this artistic boot camp, as one called it. Giles became its co-director (1995-2003) and went on, with Sir Hugh Roberts, Surveyor of the Queens Works of Art, to found the Royal Collection studies course, which examines the Royal Collection in particular.
He was an associate lecturer at the Courtauld from 2002, and was an adviser to, or trustee of, a large number of leading art organisations, including the Royal Academy, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the National Trust, and Heritage Lottery Fund. With the Esme Fairbairn Foundation he set up a fund for exhibitions in regional museums; he was on the executive committee of the London Library and the advisory committee of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, and many more. This work was largely unpaid and he was a shining example of the civil society in action.
Among the exhibitions he organised was Art Treasures of England: The Regional Collections, at the Royal Academy (1998-99), which brought masterpieces to the capital to remind Londoners that the provinces are not a cultural desert. His show Below Stairs at the National Portrait Gallery (2003-04), with Anne French, was the first ever to be dedicated to servants, with portraits of servants from the 17th century onwards.
Last year, Giless history, The Peoples Galleries: Art Museums and Exhibitions in Britain, 1800-1914, was published by Yale University Press. He also wrote four novels, one of them, The Hound in the Left-Hand Corner (2002), a spot-on satire of museum culture in Tony Blairs Cool Britannia.
He had a subtle understanding of character, shown most movingly in The Long Afternoon (2000), which fictionalises the tragedy of his grandparents. They belonged to the British community in Menton on the Cote dAzur at the beginning of the 20th century, where they created a beautiful garden, the Clos du Peyronnet, which still belongs to Giless brother, William. The rich grandmother was delicate, and gradually stopped her talented husband working or doing anything at all. Years passed in a more and more pointless and cocooned existence, until the outbreak of the second world war. They moved west to Pau, but had lost any capacity to face the challenges of the outside world, and after dinner one evening they killed themselves.
Nothing could be further from Giless own life, which was positive, driven, full of intellectual curiosity and generosity towards his many friends. A great lover of travel, he had recently been to China.
He is survived by his partner, Joseph Whoriskey, and William.
Giles Adrian Waterfield, writer and curator, born 24 July 1949; died 5 November 2016