Joe Links was a modest man who was extremely wise, versatile and able; he was always polite and worked hard all his life not to make an enemy. ‘I have had a very private life and I hope to go on being private for what’s left of it,’ he said in 1989.
He was born in north London in 1904; his father was a Jewish a refugee from Hungary who had started the fur business Calman Links. His mother died before he was thirteen and he had to leave school aged fourteen; his father had become ill and wanted to teach him the fur trade before he died: ‘I was an unwilling and sullen pupil,’ he wrote, but he later appreciated not having to make a decision about a career. ‘There was the business and I jolly well had to go and earn my living at it.’ Although he thought of himself as a bad salesman, he made the business more upmarket, his father had mostly traded in skunk skins, eventually becoming a director of the Hudson’s Bay Company and gaining the royal warrant as the Queen’s furrier. In 1956 he wrote The Book of Fur which was published by James Barrie.
In the 1930s he published a series of crime dossiers with Dennis Wheatley with whom he shared a love, and great knowledge, of fine German wine. These books, with manually inserted clues, published by Hutchinson, were phenomenally popular and were reissued by Webb and Bower in the 1980s.
During the war Links was a Wing-Commander in the Royal Air Force working on barrage balloons in the Air Ministry. Through his war work he met Robert Lutyens and through him his sister Mary, who was divorced with a daughter, and whom Links married in 1945. Their honeymoon was spent on a troop ship going to New York. When his new wife objected to this as a rather unromantic honeymoon, they tried Venice as a more suitable option..
On this first visit to Venice they both became ‘hooked for life’, they followed Ruskin around with The Stones of Venice and after that, for thirty years they went to Venice two or three times every year. He becoming a prime mover in the establishment of the Venice in Peril Fund.. The interest which he developed in both Canaletto and Ruskin developed out of his passion for Venice; in 1962 Mary gave him a copy of W. G. Constable’s monograph on Canaletto in which Constable had noted a missing painting which Links recognised as the painting hanging over his sister-in-law’s fireplace. He and Constable started a correspondence and when Constable came to England, he asked Links whether he would take over the second edition of the book; it took him six years rather than the six months Constable had anticipated and Canaletto (Clarendon Press) was published in 1976. Links found Canaletto ‘endlessly fascinating’ and he wrote several books about him; Views of Venice by Canaletto engraved by Antonio Visentini was published in New York in 1971 and Canaletto and his Patrons was published by Paul Elek in 1977. Without any formal training Links became the world expert on Canaletto, a notoriously difficult painter to date and he helped with the exhibition at the Queens Gallery in 1980 where he was able to examine many Canalettos in detail for the first time and the big Canaletto exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1989/90 was conceived by him and made possible by his encyclopedic knowledge; the loan of seventy paintings from private collections, many of which had never been seen in public, was due to his contacts and enthusiasm.
His friends had constantly asked for advice before they went to Venice; he wrote them letters, describing what to see and do, which, with his characteristic generosity he enjoyed doing, until one friend, the publisher Max Reinhart of Bodley Head, suggested turning his advice into a book. So his best loved book, Venice for Pleasure (1966) originated, described by Bernard Levin as ‘Not only the best guide-book to that city ever written, but the best guide-book to anycity ever written.’ A fifth expanded edition was published by Pallas Athene in 1994. He also wrote The Ruskins in Normandy (John Murray 1968),Townscape Painting and Drawing (Batsford 1972) and Traveller’s in Europe (Bodley Head 1980).
He had an extremely happy marriage; he and Mary were unfailingly polite to each other and she said of him ‘he made me nice again.’ They loved working together and made a good team; he typed everything she wrote, wearing a short, black nylon jacket for his work. He built up an extraordinary collection of reference files and was endlessly curious, interested in everything and took a great joy in life, even doing the Cresta Run on a bobsleigh. Often after dinner they would read out loud to each other; he was a great fan of Raymond Chandler, but their literary and musical tastes were broad. He loved Mozart and knew Cole Porter, to whom they would dance, by heart. Links was very keen on good food and wine and they were both famous for their dry martinis. When younger, they had led a very stylish life and had a house in Sussex where they entertained. Links was interested in clothes, especially ties, and he was always immaculately dressed. Even though Links did not share his wife’s enthusiasm for Krishnamurti, with whom she had grown up, when Krishnamurti was dying in California he accompanied her to his death bed, and was delighted when he discovered that in his will, Krishnamurti had left him his extensive collection of Charvet ties.
It is improbable that anyone who was self-taught today would be acknowledged by the art history world as the expert in his field, even though he thought of himself as a cataloguer more than a art historian; J.G. Links achieved this while maintaining total integrity, modesty and a delight in life.
Joseph Gluckstein Links born 13th December 1904.
Published in the Independent