Sir Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich, OM, CBE (30 March 1909 - 3 November 2001) was an Austrian-born art historian who spent most of his working life in the United Kingdom. He is the author of many works of art criticism and art history, including The Story of Art, that is regarded one of the most accessible introductions to the visual arts.
The son of Karl Gombrich and Leonie Hock, Gombrich was born in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, into an assimilated bourgeois family of Jewish origin who were part of a sophisticated social and musical milieu. His father was a lawyer and former classmate of Hugo von Hofmannsthal and his mother, a distinguished concert pianist, had been a pupil of Anton Bruckner. She also knew Schoenberg, Mahler and Brahms. Rudolf Serkin was a close family friend.
Gombrich was educated at Theresianum secondary school in Vienna and at Vienna University before coming to Britain in 1936 where he took up a post as a research assistant at the Warburg Institute, University of London. In, 1936, he married Ilse Heller, a pupil of Ernst's mother, and herself a pianist. Their only child, Richard, went on to become a noted Indologist and scholar of Buddhist Studies, acting as the Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University from 1976 to 2004.
During World War II, Gombrich worked for the BBC World Service, monitoring German radio broadcasts. When in 1945 an upcoming announcement was prefaced by a Bruckner symphony written for Wagner's death, Gombrich guessed correctly that Hitler was dead and promptly broke the news to Churchill. He returned to the Warburg Institute in November 1945 where he became Senior Research Fellow (1946), Lecturer (1948), Reader (1954) before eventually becoming Professor of the History of the Classical Tradition and its director (1959 - 72). He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1960, made CBE in 1966, knighted in 1972, and appointed a member of the Order of Merit in 1988. He was the recipient of numerous additional honours.
Gombrich was close to a number of Austrian émigrés who fled to the West prior to the Anschluss, among them Karl Popper (to whom he was especially close) and Friedrich Hayek. He was instrumental in bringing to publication Popper's magnum opus The Open Society and Its Enemies (2 volumes). Both had known the other only fleetingly in Vienna, as Gombrich's father (a lawyer) was apprenticed to Popper's father Simon Popper (also a lawyer). They became lifelong friends in exile, both eventually settling in Britain.
Gombrich's first book was Eine kurze Weltgeschichte für junge Leser (the only book he did not write in English), published in Germany in 1936. It was very popular and translated into several languages, but was not available in English until 2005 when a translation of a revised edition was published as A Little History of the World.
The Story of Art, first published in 1950 (currently in its 16th edition) is widely regarded as a seminal work of criticism and one of the most accessible introductions to the visual arts. Originally intended for adolescent readers, it has sold millions of copies and been translated into more than 30 languages.
Other major publications include Art and Illusion (1960), regarded by critics to be his most influential and far-reaching work, and the papers gathered in Meditations on a Hobby Horse (1963) and The Image and the Eye (1981). Other important books are Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography (1970), The Sense of Order (1979) and The Preference for the Primitive (posthumously in 2002). The complete list of his publications, E.H. Gombrich: A Bibliography, was published by JB Trapp in 2000.