Thomas Lawton, the internationally esteemed scholar and connoisseur of Chinese art who for 10 years has directed the Freer Gallery and more recently the new Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian, today is liberated, sprung, unburdened, from all those administrative and bureaucratic responsibilities he bore with fortitude and distinction, and which he, in a word, hated.

Yesterday he told the museum staff he was resigning as director of the two great museums of Asian art to become senior researcher for both. He began a year's sabbatical yesterday after meeting with his staff. At 56, he is still young, as Chinese scholars go, and has endless projects ahead. His formal sabbatical year begins Oct. 11, and he has not announced plans beyond that year.

Milo C. Beach, 48, has been named acting director of the museums. Lawton urged his hiring as assistant director of the Sackler in 1984. The two have been colleagues and friends for years, first in graduate school at Harvard. Beach is a specialist in Indian and Islamic art, and formerly headed the art department of Williams College.

"Tom Lawton has set such enviable standards for the Freer and Sackler galleries that I'm honored to be asked to preside over this transitional period at the two museums," he said yesterday. He said a search committee would be named to suggest a permanent director.

Lawton is tall, thin, with bright yellow hair and blue eyes, a bit cool and reserved and somewhat shy for a Smithsonian museum director. Clearly a man of discipline, he eats salads, cottage cheese and high-minded things in general and can well afford the desserts he likes -- strawberry-cream goo, for example, at the Smithsonian commons this week, and at home he bakes pies said to be superb.

For years it was possible to enter the Freer, which has some of the world's most beautiful art, starting with the Tang bodhisattva, and have the entire room to oneself. Anyone could enter the gallery, but it is probably true that the Freer offered fewer free hot dogs (and no blockbuster shows) to lure people in. But with Lawton the attendance increased by 25 percent and a new program of trained docents was begun, with the result that now a visitor may have to endure the presence of three or even four other people in the great Peacock Room.

And for years S. Dillon Ripley, secretary emeritus, has wanted more emphasis on non-Western culture at the Smithsonian. The Sackler, the Asian half of the new $73 million underground museum complex, contains from the initial gift of Arthur M. Sackler about $50 million in 900-odd treasures: 153 bronzes dating from about 1523 B.C. to A.D. 220; nearly 500 objects of jade, some of them 5,000 years old; some masterpieces of Chinese painting; and a collection of superb lacquerware. More than 100 antiquities in metal and 41 antique ivories, glass and other materials come from the Middle East, along with certain bronze and stone sculptures from India and southeastern Asia.

Lawton gave an account of the beginnings of the gallery before the museum opened:

"Sackler and Ripley got along like a house afire from the outset. Ripley asked me, 'Tom, you know I'm having discussions with Dr. Sackler -- you know his collections. Can you give me an assessment of them?' I wrote him a long memorandum, discussing the strong points of the collection. It's enormous, in excess of 5,000 objects. Dillon asked if it was a collection he should explore and I said by all means . . .

"Then when the agreement was made with Dr. Sackler, we were allowed to make the selection. The agreement was that he would give $4 million in cash to help with constructing the museum and the Smithsonian would be able to choose objects with no restrictions, the only requirement being that they would have an appraised market value of not less than $50 million.

"Once, in selecting objects for the gallery, I told Dr. Sackler, 'I'm terribly uneasy because we're getting close to the $50 million, and there are still things we'd like to have, and without hesitation he said, 'Tom, don't worry about the $50 million; take what you want.'

"And that has been characteristic of our relationship with Sackler from the very beginning. Everything he agreed to do he has done, and then some. He never stinted at all. He was an ideal donor."

For the gallery, Lawton wanted a particular 4th-century silver Persian drinking horn, but it turned out Sackler had promised it to his daughter. Lawton said that was perfectly natural and prepared to choose something else. But within an hour, Sackler phoned to say, essentially, never mind, it's yours. So even a family gift, worth some millions, was given to the gallery.

There are large collections of Asian art in America, including the 90,000-object holding of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Metropolitan Museum's 42,000-piece collection in New York. But Lawton says of the Smithsonian Asian collections, "Here you have the center in the West for the study of Asian art. Nobody has quite so much -- nobody can provide in terms of breadth and quality what will be available within the Smithsonian, which has also made the commitment to match that quality with curatorial expertise. We are going to have people here who can provide in any degree of depth a knowledge about Asian works. We are not going to give degrees or have baccalaureates, but we will become a center for someone who wants to know about, say, something as obscure as late neolithic jades.

"Both museums will continue to acquire; that's very much part of the program."

Milo Beach, asked about the value of the two museums as a center for the art of Asia, said yesterday:

"Neither the Freer nor the Sackler has collected in quantity, but from Mogul paintings to Chinese jades or some other fields, the Smithsonian holdings simply do not have rivals in the world." He amended that to say, "Outside China -- we do not know everything that remains in China, but I am speaking of individual museums."

He said that "if you have masterpieces, then you have something of ultimate worth, whether you have three or 10 specimens representing that particular field."

Lawton never set out to become a scholar. He meant to be a painter, enrolling at the Rhode Island School of Design.

"By chance I took courses in art history, and again quite by chance some courses in Far Eastern art history, but I realized that if I were going to continue and do something serious with this, I'd have to study Chinese and Japanese. So I went to Harvard graduate school and did all these things, always assuming the direction would be curatorial.

"Indeed, when I came to the Freer in 1967 it was as curator of Chinese art. With John Pope's retirement Phil Stern became director, and then suddenly Phil died. We were about the same age, and no one anticipated this would happen. We assumed we'd go tottering on toward retirement in tandem.

"And then the full weight of the bureaucratic system fell on my shoulders. I've survived, but badly scarred, mind you, and probably hovering on the brink of paranoia." Laughter.

The Smithsonian went through the usual search committee ritual and narrowed the choice to Lawton and a friend of his from Harvard. As Lawton tells it, he did his damndest to get the other man chosen director, but when he came to Washington, and saw the volume of donkey work, he caught the next train back to Boston, so to speak.

"The administrative aspect of being a museum director is not something I enjoy, nor indeed do I do it well, because I do not enjoy it," Lawton says. "I tried to get {assistant director of the Freer} Richard Louie to do it. What I really wanted was to be in daily intimate touch with these beautiful things, but then administrative detail means you don't have the time with them that was your main purpose."

Although Lawton has made some progress opening up the Freer to new visitors, he thinks you can go too far beating the drums for high art.

"An aspect of contemporary museum life I abhor is the commercialization of museums. The blockbuster show, where everything becomes popularized. That does poor service to what a collection of great work is. There's a solemnity, I can't think of the right word to give it, but you have that task when you are put in charge of objects of this quality. It's not as if you were selling Hahn shoes. There's an obligation and you have to be aware of it all the time."

There is something absurd, Lawton would think, in finding the Metropolitan Museum jammed solid with people trying to see the King Tut show (notable for articles of great luxury and much gold) while nearby galleries in the truly superb Egyptian collection (with objects of the utmost beauty but not luxury) were devoid of visitors. People like to see gold, fine. But a curator of magnificent basalt sculpture should not demean himself or betray the glory he is briefly entrusted with by barking about the streets to lure in those who care nothing for supreme human efforts in sculpture.

He wants visitors to feel in great depth the loveliness of the things in the museums, not to come as if to view a three-headed calf at a circus. He has been observed many times with visitors who do not know a Tang from a tangerine, sometimes perhaps giving them more time discussing some museum treasure than they bargained for.

"Oh, I saw him not long ago," said a woman knowledgeable in museum matters, "shepherding a handful of people through the Sackler. I went through the museum, ate lunch, and on the way back there he still was with the same people -- I'd say he had got them through maybe four or five objects."

Lawton can go into a state of frozen awe before a stone (jade) ax. Except for lunch, one might still be standing in front of it, hearing more than would seem conceivable to be said about the edge, the sinuous curve of the side, etc.

"Which of these wine cups do you think is the most beautiful?" he may ask you without warning.

"Why that one, of course," you might say, since there is no question, wondering if his question was a trick of some kind.

"Well, I think so, too," he will say, but he will not let you dismiss the obviously less magnificent cups. He is prepared to show very high merits indeed in the least of them.

Back to the real world for Lawton means holing up with a precious bronze. For example, he is on fire to get to work on an inscription put on the bottom of a ritual bronze by a collector who acquired it centuries after it was made.

"Just incredible," he said. "A collector may well put his inscription on a superb painting or on many other precious objects. But never on a ritual bronze, a bronze used in religious worship. Although there is no written prohibition against it."

But then even Western collectors do not usually write comments or put acquisition numbers on the face of a Novgorod icon or an ivory crucifix, you might remind him.

"There's something of that," he will say, but he will think about it very deeply, and no telling for how long, either. The difference between a scholar and someone who simply likes a beautiful bronze cup is that the scholar knows it in interminable intellectual detail, not only as a bronze that gives casual and immediate pleasure to the viewer. The scholar, therefore, finds pleasures and makes discoveries impossible to an ordinary viewer.

"A large part of our duty," Lawton said, "is to let more and more people know about Asian culture. Why shouldn't Asia be as much a part of our consciousness as Greece or Rome?" He is somewhat at a loss to know why so many westerners have trouble entering the delights of Chinese painting and sculpture. Possibly the best introduction, he suspects, is to go look at an acknowledged masterpiece for a time until its "strangeness" wears off. To Lawton the splendor of human creation runs through the art of ancient China in all kinds of work -- calligraphy, painting, sculpture, pottery, bronze, lacquer, almost as if the artisans did not know how to produce ugly things.

"We are dealing here mostly with ritual objects," he said, walking about in the collection. "We are not so far talking about painting or calligraphy, and there I think you get the profundity of Chinese art. You realize that the artists are making statements about nature and about themselves. I'm not sure any other society has ever attained the same degree of insights."

Ruskin somehow came into the conversation: "I think what Ruskin might have liked about Chinese art is that the Chinese seriously believe art can have a moral force. A work done under Confucian auspices was really believed to be able to change people. They believed a man of high character, when he paints or when he writes calligraphy, imbues the work with something of himself, and in looking at it and appreciating it you get something of that back."

You can travel all over China, he pointed out, visiting art museums and see nothing but Chinese art. When Chinese come here they are often surprised and almost always delighted to see how seriously Chinese art is taken and how highly it is treasured, Lawton went on.

The most important influence on Lawton's love of Chinese art was the period from 1963 to 1967, when he lived in Taiwan.

"I went there as a Fulbright scholar," he said, "never intending to stay so long. You had to take a train ride to the museum, out in the country. They were getting ready to move to Taipei, the capital, and they wanted to publish their handbook in English. They asked me to translate it and I did. Then they said how would you like to stay on and help us with anything that has to do with translation or meeting people, and I said sure.

"Best training I ever had. The job as director is a result of training I got with those people. Old scholars who knew all the traditional folklore and would tell me openly about anything. I could ask them any question -- and the objects themselves were right there. . .

"These men had been with the collection forever. When the Japanese incursion came in the 1930s, they moved south with it. They stayed with it all during the war. Then they came with it to Taiwan. It was their life, they did nothing else. Some of them for 50 years. Some of them have died since I was there.

"When I went to mainland China, in 1974, museum people would ask how I came to speak Chinese and I would tell them I'd worked at the Palace Museum. They would ask about their friends -- all this animosity and turmoil that comes with a country divided, and yet these friendships that had begun in the 1920s, they were still there. How is such and such a person? How is his family? And then I would go back and say such and such asked about you, and that was nice. People are people, after all."

Waxing even more philosophical than usual, Lawton spoke of his old mutt, Ming, acquired in Bowie, Md. (with Lawton, provenance is always of importance) and who speaks Chinese. Or listens in Chinese. Lawton said his landlady from Taiwan came to visit him here "when Ming was a younger dog and I was a younger museum director" and marveled that Ming understood everything she said to him in Chinese.

"After that, she spoke mainly to the dog," he said. (Ming, needless to say, will be with Lawton during his sabbatical.)

If pies, so to speak, are Lawton's great bronzes, his cakes are his neolithic jades; he is said to excel at the baking of both. It makes no difference how much or little he eats, whether it's snow peas or a 50-volt cake, he does not gain an ounce. Life is unfair.

And for Lawton, rapt in awe of a small jade bear or bronze turtle, or absorbed in devising the content of a label for some treasure, life is fair enough.

Much of this account is based on interviews conducted several months ago by Lon Tuck, a longtime Washington Post staff writer, who died early in the summer.