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Profile: Jon Whiteley - curator and Oscar winner
How many people, at this time of year, see Hollywood’s brightest stars swanning down a red carpet for the latest festival of self-congratulatory chintz and wish, secretly, that they were the focus of such attention?
The lure of the spotlight is only too much for too many people who aim to reach for the stars but fall flat on their faces.
But yet the hidden desire to become a Hollywood star remains, with its dreams of fame, wealth and a life in the sun.
And the Oscar — that most prized of trophies — remains the ultimate triumph for so many of the world’s actors.
So how, many must wonder, could one man turn his back on all this and instead choose a life of quietly dedicating himself to the upkeep of one of the country’s best collections of Western European art? Let alone go so far as to win an Academy Award and then lose it.
This is a decision which, five decades ago, Jon Whiteley took when faced with a choice between his schooling and his career as a child actor.
The 68-year-old chose his education and has spent the last three decades working as a curator at the Ashmolean Museum.
What the thousands of people who stream through the museum's Western European art galleries don’t know is that they are curated by an Oscar-winning actor.
That's because his appearance in the 1953 film The Little Kidnappers won him a short-lived Academy Juvenile Award — if only he knew where it was.
“It is at home somewhere but I don’t think it is a particularly attractive object. It has no great charm,” he said.
“The Oscar itself came through the post because my parents weren’t keen on breaking the school term.
“They weren’t that excited about going to the States for a jamboree.”
In total Dr Whiteley appeared in five films over the course of four years.
But it was only the tale of two young brothers sent to Canada to live with their grandparents and who end up looking after an abandoned baby which won him the approval of the Academy.
He began appearing in films after a talent scout heard him in a school broadcast and convinced his parents to let him become a child actor.
Reluctantly they agreed on the condition that he would eventually give it up in favour of his schooling.
But this was not before he appeared alongside Dirk Bogarde twice in Hunted and The Spanish Gardener.
Dr Whiteley, who now lives in Southmoor Road, North Oxford, said: “It was all very serendipitous.
“When I was 11 my parents said ‘no more’ and that was the agreement but I was sorry when it ended.
“I missed the habit of having a chauffeur and being served on hand and foot. Going back to the grey life of a schoolboy was not something I relished.
“But I would have fallen flat on my face like a great number of child actors.
“At that age everything is a novelty. It was a different existence and it is not relevant to my life now and I am glad it isn’t. It is well left behind.
“It never does come up in conversation.”
So detached from this episode of his life is Dr Whiteley that he admits to not having the time to go to the cinema anymore.
Instead he has dedicated his life to the study of painting.
Born and raised in Aberdeenshire, he was the middle child of a headteacher who stressed the importance of his education from an early age — going to university, he said, was always expected of him.
His two sisters were never jealous of his brief moment of fame, he added.
And while he might have been reluctant to return to school, he certainly did not waste the opportunity and won a place at Pembroke College, Oxford.
It was in an Oxford University library that he met his future wife, Linda, as both reached up to grab the same book — a detail which wouldn’t be out of place in a romantic comedy.
After finishing his undergraduate degree he completed a doctorate and began his life as a curator at the Christ Church Picture Gallery.
Not long afterwards Dr Whiteley moved to the Ashmolean, where he has stayed for 35 years.
“I wanted to be a painter and the reason I ended up looking after them was because I realised I couldn’t paint,” he said. “I spend my holidays going to churches and museums. When I travel it is the thing I enjoy doing most.
“But the amount of time I have to look at paintings when I’m at work is minimal. I spent today with a PhD student I am supervising and in a meeting discussing upcoming exhibitions.”
When he is not discussing the Ashmolean’s forthcoming calendar of events, Dr Whiteley says he also likes to meet some of the thousands of visitors who pour through the museum’s grand Beaumont Street entrance every year.
“Meeting the visitors is part of my job and I do it with great relish,” he said. “It is a great delight sharing the things I admire with other people.
“I never find members of the public to be a distraction. The Ashmolean is not just a university institution; it is a municipal museum for the people of Oxfordshire.
“When I arrived here there was no educational service and I have been involved in it from the very start. I am most proud of that.”
In a few months’ time when the Ashmolean is once again full to bursting with tourists few of them are likely to know the Hollywood credentials of the man who looks after its European art collection.
This is a collection which has expanded twice already in 2013 — once courtesy of a donation of 500 gold and silver antiques from Michael Wellby and again when Sir Denis Mahon left a number of Italian Baroque paintings to the museum.
It has, as Dr Whiteley admitted, been a good year for acquisitions so far. And this is the thing that matters to him — more so than the art deco statuette lost somewhere in his house.