Born: February 19, 1945;

Died: May 16, 2020.

THREE years ago, at the urging of a visiting journalist, Jon Whiteley retrieved, the Oscar he had been received through the post one day in 1955, when he was still a schoolboy.

He had initially been reluctant to look for it, saying it “might in a drawer somewhere. It’s not lost…I don’t think”. Pressed as to its whereabouts, he found it in a drawer. Oscar’s feet had become detached from their plinth. “I never liked it as an object – it’s rather art deco,” he did concede. “I thought it would be something like Eros in Piccadilly; something more baroque and glamorous. This stark, staring lump of metal was a disappointment.”

Whiteley, who has died following a short illness at the age of 75, was a former assistant keeper of the Ashmolean, Oxford University’s museum of art and archaeology. Former colleagues and students have paid tribute to his “towering intellect” and “razor-sharp wit”.

At the age of six he had appeared alongside Dirk Bogarde in Hunted (1952), a film shot partly in the fishing port of Portpatrick, in south-west Scotland.

This newspaper said: “[He] plays, with that relaxed pathos of the very young which is so much more effective than the best efforts of experienced actors”. Our sister paper, the Evening Times, went further, saying he would be hailed as a new star “although he is still in short trousers, but really he is just a little boy being very natural. His soft Aberdeen accent is a delight, and his face has more appeal than all the Hollywood glamour girls put together”.

Jon James Lamont Whiteley was born on February 19 1945, in rural Monmusk, Aberdeenshire. His mother Christine (née Grant) was a graduate in speech and drama and an accomplished elocution coach, who passed on her love of literature and speech to Jon and his sisters Fleur and Marsali at an early age; his father, Archie, was headmaster of the local village school, which was attended by his son and daughters.

When he was six, Whiteley delivered a rendition of Edward Lear’s poem, The Owl and the Pussy-Cat, for a BBC schools radio broadcast. Word was passed to the film director Charles Crichton, who was looking for a child actor for Hunted. Whiteley took, and passed, a screen-test.

His parents, reluctant to see him jeopardise his education, accepted that he could attend the screen-test so long as he gave up a film career in time to sit his Eleven-Plus exam.

“There was nothing I wanted more than to go on doing it forever”, he recalled in 2017. “I loved being around the studios and the other actors. But my parents knew only too well that it’s a jolly chancy business making the transition from being a child actor to being an adult actor. [Giving it up] wasn’t what I wanted.”

He went on to make a handful of other films: The Kidnappers (1953, which starred Duncan Macrae); Moonfleet (1955, directed by the great Fritz Lang and starring Stewart Grainger and George Sanders); The Weapon (1956); and The Spanish Gardener (1956), in which he was re-united with Bogarde.

The honorary Oscar for an “outstanding juvenile performance” was for his role in The Kidnappers; his fellow child co-star in that film, Vincent Winter, who was from Aberdeen, also received one.

His film career behind him, he studied modern history and history of art, at Pembroke College, Oxford, before joining the Christ Church Picture Gallery.

In 1978 he was appointed Assistant Keeper in the Department of Western Art at the Ashmolean, where he was mainly responsible for French drawings, parts of the collection of North European paintings, and musical instruments.

During his 36 years there, he catalogued the Ashmolean’s French drawings and wrote several books on the collections. He was made a chevalier of the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2009. His catalogue of the Ashmolean’s French paintings after 1800 will be published next year. The Ashmolean has described him as a dedicated teacher to generations of Oxford students and one of the country’s most distinguished art historians.

Dr Xa Sturgis, Director of the Ashmolean, said: “Over the centuries many individuals have helped shape the Ashmolean. Among them there are a few whose spirit still courses through the veins of the institution. Jon is one of those. The Ashmolean lived in Jon’s bones – to hear him speak about almost any aspect of the Museum’s history or its collections was always both inspiring and somewhat daunting in its demonstration of the depth and range of his knowledge, attention and thought.”

Dr Sturgis added that Jon Whiteley had continued to give talks and lectures, and to contribute to exhibition catalogues, in his years after his retirement.

Whiteley is survived by his wife Linda, who is also an art historian, by their children Flora, a painter, and William, an English teacher and editor, and two grandchildren.

“My work is my hobby,” Whiteley said in 2009. “If I had endless time, I would spend it visiting museums”.

As for the films had had once made, he was candid. “They’re just not my sort of thing. Fritz Lang was a sergeant-major. I don’t think he liked any of the actors. There were terrific rows about the dialogue, the storyline and how the film was going to end, and I think it shows in certain scenes”.