Daniel Varney Thompson (1902-1980) was an art conservator and historian, professor, engineer, and writer. A noted authority on medieval painting, Varney lived and worked primarily in the Boston area and London.
Daniel Varney Thompson was born in New Jersey in 1902. He was the son of Grace Randall Thompson and Daniel Varney Thompson, Sr., a classics teacher at the Lawrenceville School and later headmaster of Boston Latin School. American composer Randall Thompson was his older brother. Following family tradition, Thompson attended Harvard, earning the A.B. in 1922 and A.M. in 1926, focusing his attention on fine arts, physical chemistry, and literature. Daniel V. Thompson stopped using the designation Jr. after his father's death in 1932.
Between 1922 and 1925 Thompson was employed in the Fogg Museum's laboratory devoted to analyzing art materials for the purposes of detecting forgeries, preserving works of art, and devising methods to aid working artists. During this period, Thompson went to Italy as a Sheldon Fellow in Fine Arts, to learn medieval fresco painting techniques from Edward W. Forbes, Director of the Fogg Museum. He also had an opportunity to study medieval and Renaissance painting techniques with Inicio Federico Joni, and while in Italy began life-long friendships with the Forbes family and Bernard Berenson. Thompson served as a technical advisor to the 1924-1925 Second Harvard China Expedition; he traveled to China by way of India, where he studied wall paintings in caves at Ajanta and Elura and researched newly discovered scrolls.
Daniel Varney Thompson was on the faculty of Yale from 1926-1933, where he taught art history, and tempera painting courses, and laid the foundation for the Department of Fine Arts when Yale became a university in 1932. During his time at Yale, Thompson married Cecile [Cecily] de Luze Simonds.
When The American Council of Learned Societies awarded Thompson a research fellowship for the academic year 1933/34, he returned to Europe and surveyed major libraries for materials concerning the history of technology of the arts. Thompson was then invited to be Professor of the History of Technology at the University of London. He was on the faculty from 1934-1946, and also served as research and technical advisor, developing a laboratory at the Courtauld Institute for analysis of art materials.
During World War II, the Courtauld's laboratory - which had facilities for emission, absorption, and x-ray spectrography - was offered to the Ministry of Aircraft Production. To avoid compromising the University's tax-free status, Thompson formed and served as managing director of Daniel Varney Limited, a private company which leased the premises and equipment. From 1940 to 1945, the company was operated in the name of the Courtauld Institute, employing 200 people in tool making, gauge making, fine mechanisms, and development and production of optics instruments. After the war, Daniel Varney Limited shifted its interests to high vacuum diffusion pumps, gas manipulation, and glassblowing.
Upon returning to the United States in 1947, Thompson settled in the Boston area, becoming a technical consultant. He worked on projects for E-Z Mills, Inc., Sylvania Eloctronics, Comstock & Wescott, Inc., and other corporations. He was chief engineer of Jarrell-Ash Co., 1953-1955, redesigning optical instruments, spectrography, and schlieren systems. Between 1955 and 1957, Thompson served as Vice President of Swett & Sibley, involved with the design and development of optical instruments, scanning spectrometers, and densistometers. He then moved to Avco Corporation, where for the next decade he was a Senior Staff Consultant working on optical design in rocket instrumentation. Thompson retired from his engineering career in 1967.
Daniel V. Thompson wrote and published extensively. Art-related writings include translations and a monograph published by Yale University Press, and numerous articles and reviews. Translations are: Cennino Cennini's
Il Libro dell'Arte
(3 volumes: Text of
Il Libro dell'Arte
The Craftsman's Handbook
, 1933; and
The Practice of Tempera Painting
, 1936), and
An Anonymous Fourteenth Century Treatise
De arte illuminadi
) (with his student George Heard Hamilton), 1936. A monograph,
The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting
(foreword by Bernard Berenson) appeared in 1936.
Most of Thompson's scientific and technical writings are unpublished and relate to projects for which he served as a consulting engineer.
Soon after retiring, Thompson began a new career that he continued for the remainder of his life. A serious cook and long-time gardener, he began writing about these topics, producing weekly columns that were published by newspapers from Maine to Chicago and contributing articles to
, and similar periodicals. Thompson also lectured to garden clubs and judged garden and flower competitions.
Daniel Varney Thompson died on January 4, 1980, following an automobile accident in Malaga, Spain.