The Times, 4 March 2016
Marketing director who pioneered ‘blockbuster exhibitions’ with the 1972 Tutankhamun show in London
Philip Taverner, who has died from cancer aged 86, was the young marketing director at Times Newspapers in 1970 when he was summoned to the office of the company’s chairman, Denis Hamilton, to meet the Egyptian ambassador. He was told that The Times and Sunday Times were to sponsor a large exhibition at the British Museum based on the contents of the tomb of the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun marking the 50th anniversary of its discovery, and he was to organise it.
A public relations specialist had never been concerned with either history or exhibitions before, and was pitched into the task which was to preoccupy him for the next two years completely unprepared. It changed his life.
Treasures of Tutankhamun, a reconstruction of the tomb with all its funerary details as discovered by Howard Carter in 1922 which had been brought from Cairo in top security by the RAF, was scheduled to run from March to September 1972 but was so popular it had to be extended by three months, opening between 10am and 9pm on six days a week, and half a day on the seventh. It attracted almost 1,700,000 visitors, 7,000 a day and was the first of the blockbuster exhibitions. After London it went on a world tour until 1981.
Still working for The Times, Taverner went on to organise The Genius of China at the Royal Academy in 1973, and then, with a colleague, Peter Saabor, left to set up Carlton Cleeve in a small office near Marble Arch Tube station to organise more blockbusters, including Pompeii AD 79 (RTA, 1976-77), 1776 (National Maritime Museum, 1976), British Genius (Battersea Park, 1977), The Gold of Eldorado (Royal Academy, 1978-9) and The Horses of San Marco (Royal Academy, 1979).
Philip Taverner was born in Chelmsford the son of Wilfred Taverner, a Bank of England executive, and Leila Taverner. His life-long passion was gardening, a seed sown when at the age of seven he took command of his father’s garden. But he also suffered with rheumatic fever as a child, and long lonely hours were relieved by the company of encyclopaedias which prepared him for schooldays at Bryanston. He spent school holidays working as a farm labourer, and for a while his ambition was to be a farmer.
National Service intervened in 1947, after which he studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford where he joined the dramatic society. He even toured with Maggie Smith in an Oxford Playhouse production of Twelfth Night, but on graduating he went into industry, pursuing his interest in horticulture by working for Fisons at Felixstowe. He then joined the tyre company Pirelli in London and opened a public relations company for them, distributing the famous Pirelli Calendar, and after a brief period with the Thomson Organisation he moved across Lord Thomson of Fleet’s burgeoning commercial interests to become marketing director at Times Newspapers.
The success of its exhibition business for Carlton Cleeve – the last part of the name was taken from the Somerset village where he then lived –
was also its nemesis because institutions such as the Riyal Academy saw the commercial potential Carlton Cleeve had exploited and the organisation of major shows began to be taken in-house. He closed the company and took the opportunity to, literally, return to his roots by opening a garden centre in an ancient walled garden at Herriard Park in Hampshire.
But his museums reputation followed him and he became a judge for the annual Museum of the Year Award – now the Art Fund Museum of the Year – organised by the charity National Heritage and founded by John Letts, who became a close friend. Letts founded a new museum in Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Temple Meads Station, the Empire and Commonwealth Museum, and he asked Taverner to become its first director. It opened in 2002, but Taverner stood down soon after to become a trustee and, after first being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2006, severed connections.
He continued as a member for National Heritage’s committee, urging it to continue as a champion for museum goers after relinquishing the Museum of the Year Award in 2003 and then an adviser to the charity’s trustees. The family home for the last 20 years of his life was in Devizes, where he served on the Devizes Museum’s marketing and fundraising committee to the end of his life.
He leaves his wife of more then 50 years, Susannah, known as Zan, and their three sons Rupert, Jonathan and Crispin.
Philip Anthony Taverner, exhibition organiser, was born July 2, 1929, and died on February 6, 20186, aged 86.