Video interviews with historians

In the mid 1980s Pat Thane, Alastair Reid and F.M.L. Thompson, the then director of the IHR, began a project to conduct interviews with leading British historians. In her article about the project, ‘Interviews with Historians’, The Historian, 36 (1992), pp. 18–20, Thane notes that ‘We decided upon videotaped rather than audio-taped or printed interviews … because aspects of personality are evident in expression and gesture as they are not in the written or spoken word’. In today’s multi-media world, this seems remarkably prescient, and the resulting interviews are an opportunity to see as well as hear the men and women who have shaped the discipline in the 20th century, many sadly now dead.

Not all, however, were naturals in front of the camera, something which was compounded by the limitations of funding and technology at the time (for example, only static cameras were used). Roger Adelson and Russell Smith reviewed the series for Albion in 1999, and concluded that ‘About half of the interviewees appear uncomfortable in front of the camera, which is understandable because historians are known more for what they write rather than for the personality they project’. However, ‘The very best interviews reveal the humanity of historical study by demonstrating how the lives of historians have affected their perspective on the past’ (R. Adelson and R. Smith, ‘Videotaped interviews with British historians, 1985–8’, Albion: a Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies , 31 (1999), 257–68).

Joan Thirsk

This reflection on formative influences is central to the interviews, during which subjects were encouraged to talk about their lives and careers, the interaction of the personal and the professional, and their thoughts about both their own research and the development of the discipline more generally (a very similar approach to the one taken by the IHR’s Making History project in the early 21st century).

A total of 28 interviews were recorded before funding for the project came to an end (it was supported over the years by the Nuffield Foundation, the Twenty-Seven Foundation and the Royal Historical Society). The list of historians included shows a balance of periods, and geographical and theoretical focus. And unlike many such groupings, women are relatively well represented. Thane remarked that ‘I have an especial interest in selecting female historians, to try to assess what differences there may have been between male and female experiences in the profession’.

Asa Briggs with Jose Harris
Alec Cairncross with Kathleen Burk
Hugh Clegg with Gordon Phillips
Donald Coleman with Negley Harte
Maurice Cowling with Michael Bentley
Phyllis Deane with Nick Crafts
Geoffrey Dickens with Bob Scribner
Geoffrey Elton with Bob Scribner
Moses Finley with Keith Hopkins
Margaret Gowing with Charles Webster
Christopher Hill with Penelope Corfield
Rodney Hilton with John Hatcher
Eric Hobsbawm with Pat Thane
Michael Howard with Brian Bond
Peter Laslett with Keith Wrightson
Oliver Macdonagh with Roy Foster
Rosalind Mitchison with Christopher Smout
Joseph Needham with Gregory Blue
Henry Pelling with Ross McKibbin
Harold Perkin with Pat Thane
Steven Runciman with Jonathan Riley-Smith
Christopher Smout with Christopher Whatley
Lawrence Stone with Keith Wrightson
Joan Thirsk with Ann Kussmaul
Dorothy Thompson with James Epstein
E.P. Thompson with Penelope Corfield
Michael Thompson with Avner Offer
Hugh Trevor-Roper with Blair Worden

All of the interviews are available on DVD from the University of London online store.

Momigliano and Gibbon

Jonathan Blaney, Institute of Historical Research

When I was an undergraduate I lived in a house formerly owned by the great classicist Eduard Fraenkel. Fraenkel left Germany to escape the persecution of Jews and others and became one of ‘that remarkable group of refugee classical scholars who congregated in the library of the Ashmolean Museum’. Another of this group, from whose ODNB entry the above quotation is taken, was Arnaldo Momigliano, who left in Italy in 1939 and spent the rest of his life as an expatriate, teaching primarily at UCL and Chicago. Momigliano had a lifelong interest in biography and a clear intellectual commitment to it as a way of understanding the past, as the editors’ introduction to one collection of his essays emphasises:

It was the complex interplay of intellect and personality that particularly attracted Momigliano. His essays are major contributions to intellectual history, and yet personality and character are never far away. The more one reads Momigliano’s essays on modern scholarship, the more one sees that their exceptionally profound insights into the humanity and thought of their subjects reflect an unceasing struggle on the part of their author to comprehend the counterpoint of thought and action in his own career.[1]

Religion was a preoccupation of Momigliano’s work, and it is tempting to wonder what effect his own life’s events – fleeing religious persecution in a Christian country, and finding refuge in another – had on his writing about Christianity and Judaism in the ancient world.

We can get a firm sense of Momigliano’s attitude to the historical study of religion in his writing about a historian he engaged with frequently, Edward Gibbon. Gibbon converted to Catholicism when an undergraduate and was sent by his father to Lausanne to be unconverted forthwith. Gibbon duly obliged and credited the invigorating intellectual atmosphere in Lausanne with turning him into a historian.

Certainly Gibbon’s time in Lausanne enabled him to become completely at ease in the French language. Momigliano connects Gibbon with the intellectual heritage of Montesquieu and Voltaire: ‘He was entirely at home in the new Paris of the encyclopedists and he shared many of their convictions’[2] and even ascribes Gibbon’s famous style, a blend of ‘malice and erudition’,[3] to the powerful influence of Pierre Bayle.

Yet an essential part of Gibbon’s greatness as a historian was his open-mindedness – to Islam, for example. Indeed elsewhere Momigliano carefully contrasted Gibbon’s approach with that of Voltaire:

Even here, where the thought is Voltairean, and where Voltaire himself would have wrapped everything up in an epigram, the writing loosens up and carefully defines its subject.[4]

Momigliano then goes on to quote a passage from chapter 47 of Decline and Fall where Gibbon is fulsomely generous about the historical Jesus:

The familiar companions of Jesus of Nazareth conversed with their friend and countryman, who, in all the actions of rational and animal life, appeared of the same species with themselves. His progress from infancy to youth and manhood was marked by a regular increase in stature and wisdom; and after a painful agony of mind and body, he expired on the cross. He lived and died for the service of mankind: but the life and death of Socrates had likewise been devoted to the cause of religion and justice; and although the stoic or the hero may disdain the humble virtues of Jesus, the tears which he shed over his friend and country may be esteemed the purest evidence of his humanity.

Naturally Momigliano wondered what effect Catholicism, rather than the manner of his leaving it, might have had on the historian: ‘An unresolved and, I think, irresolvable problem in his biography is what remained of his brief conversion to Catholicism’.[5] Despite Gibbon’s own claim that his Catholicism left no trace, Momigliano notes his general preference for Catholic over Anglican historians. Then, in a way which is clearly connected to Gibbon’s biography, Momigliano pays tribute to his predecessor’s general approach to religion, in words which have something of a credo about them:

In Gibbon’s irony there is much scepticism and much prudence; but there is also something more: a solid realism which refuses to condemn what being considered, even if it not believed.[6]

Momigliano died as Peter Brown’s celebrated The Body and Society, was going to press; Momigliano was the book’s dedicatee and Brown took the opportunity pay tribute – in words that remind me of Momigliano’s praise of Gibbon – to his late friend’s

sense of truth, as we all to the magnificently unconstricted range and human warmth of his concern for the role of Judaism and Christianity in the history of the ancient world.[7]


[1] AD Momigliano, Studies in Modern Scholarship, Bowersock and Cornell (eds), introduction, p. xi

[2] ‘Gibbon’s Contribution to Historical Method’, p. 42 in Studies in Historiography

[3] Ibid., p.43

[4] ‘Anche là, dove il pensiero è volteriano, e il maestro avrebbe risolto tutto nell’epigramma, il discorso si snoda lento e attento a delimitare l’oggetto’, ‘La Moderna storiografia sull’impero romano’, p.203 in Contributo alla storia degli studi classici.

[5] ‘Un problema non risolto e, credo, non risolvibile, della sua biografia e ciò che sia rimasto della sua breve conversion al Cattolicesimo’, ‘Edward Gibbon fuori e dentro la cultura italiana’, p.234, in Sesto contributo alla storia degli studi classici.

[6] ‘Nella ironia di Gibbon c’è molto scetticismo e molto prudenza; ma c’è anche qualcosa di più: un fermo realismo che si rifiuta di condannare ciò che serve, anche se non ci si crede.’ Ibid.

[7] Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, p. xx

A short biography of Rudolph Ackermann

A guest post by Dr James Baker

As he strolled the exquisite rooms of his Repository of Arts in 1810 Rudolph Ackermann (1764–1834) might well have afforded himself a wry smile. Nearly three decades earlier he had arrived in London unknown, today his business was turning over around £30,000 annually. Posthumously Ackermann would perhaps be best known as a publisher of satirical prints, in particular Thomas Rowlandson (1757–1827) and William Combe’s (1742–1823) Doctor Syntax series (1812–1821), but to restrict our understanding of him to satire alone would be to misrepresent a Georgian business phenomenon.

Rudolph Ackermann was born in Leipzig and trained as a coachmaker in Basle, Switzerland, coming to London from Paris around 1786. From his so-called ‘Repository of Arts’ at first 96 Strand and later 101 Strand Ackermann’s entrepreneurial adventures extended to drawing classes, books, fine paper, inks, decorated screens, transparencies, fine art, and prints after master paintings. He produced and sold ‘Superfine’ water colours sold either as single cakes or in presentation sets, with each cake stamped with the name of the colour. In November 1805 he was commissioned to design and build the funeral carriage for Admiral Nelson’s state funeral. Around this time he installed gas lighting at number 101, and a year later he closed his drawing room to create a lavish library offering refreshments to his increasingly female clientèle. In 1807, at the height of the Napoleonic wars, he proposed to the government of his adopted home a scheme for using a balloon equipped with an automated paper distributor to spread British propaganda in France. Thus Ackermann was much more than a seller of satirical prints. In fact this colourman, stationer, art dealer, and innovator was perhaps as much a metropolitan celebrity as the satirists he employed.

When Ackermann sold satirical prints, he favoured the designs from the likes of Isaac Cruikshank, George Sauley, and George Woodward. But it was Thomas Rowlandson’s particular brand of warm social satire that most strongly appealed to Ackermann’s sense of his business as a place of decorum, politeness, and civility. In addition to Doctor Syntax, Ackermann’s hand in publishing the hugely influential Miseries of London Life (1809), English Dance of Death (1815), and Dance of Life (1817) series, all including designs from Rowlandson, demonstrate his preference for making and selling serial work dealing with generic social comedy as opposed to ephemera and politics.

Located in the heart of the Strand, Ackermann’s business was almost equidistant from West End satirical print sellers such as Hannah Humphrey (c.1745–1818) and their burgeoning City rivals on Cheapside. Ackermann’s remarkable business reminds us that although over twenty businesses made and sold satirical prints in late-Georgian London, putting them all under the umbrella of ‘printseller’ fails to explain the diversity of businesses these metropolitan entrepreneurs made their life’s work.

Biography and its importance to history

Jonathan Haslam

Biography at its best is a good read, and the older one gets, the more attractive and entertaining biography becomes. This is not hard to explain. Not only does it appeal to a natural human instinct for gossip, but it answers a real need within us to understand each other better. Youth may reach adulthood believing that people are easily understood. Yet experience sooner or later corrects such a pleasing, but deceptive, assumption. Trust can prove expensive, and not just to the pocket. And it is a noticeable achievement of biography in modern times to begin from the premise that human nature is complex.[1]

Winston ChurchillMany also take heart from pursuing in print the life of another for the inspiration and encouragement it offers in times of adversity. That applies to certain biographers, of course, as much as to readers. Winston Churchill wrote the life and times of his ancestor Marlborough at the nadir of his political career. One does not have to look far to see that certain parallels were in mind.[2]

Apart from curiosity common to all and encouragement open to all, two good reasons also exist for historians – certainly those in politics and international relations, if not in economic or demographic history – to take biography seriously.

First, history explains the interaction between man and environment over time. The state of mind, as well as the state of affairs, may be critical to explaining events. To that extent alone, it is a necessary focus for research. ‘Human error is a constant, and not an incidental, factor in history,’ Harold Nicolson wrote, somewhat tongue in cheek, having had an unparalleled experience in and grasp of modern diplomacy. ‘Everybody is an ass sometimes, and most people are asses all the time. Human will power is an intermittent factor, and history has been made more frequently at moments when people had no idea what they wanted than at those rarer moments when some individual wanted something definite.’[3]

Here, the biographer has an estimable advantage in focusing attention on recorded motivation, if not exclusively, then predominantly. Moreover, for those who work on state papers classified as top secret, the unwritten assumptions shared by those taking the decisions are critically absent. These may be uncovered only through interviewing individuals subsequent to events or through diaries and letters; Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain wrote only to his sisters to spell out his anti-Communist outlook. Here, the skills of the biographer and of the imagination are in greater demand than in working purely through public records.

Motivation is only one consideration, however. Knowledge of illness in a statesman at times of crisis is surely also of significant concern. What of Anthony Eden’s state of mind on narcotics during the disastrous Suez campaign?[4] President John Kennedy was heavily dependent upon the drugs prescribed to him by his doctor to alleviate excruciating back pain. That knowledge magnifies our image of his strength of character, particularly during the great international crises of 196162 .[5] It matters that Stalin’s brain was atrophying at an accelerated pace in his last years, which made him ever more paranoid; that the quick-witted Nikita Khrushchev was functionally illiterate and could not even write his own name on the documents he had to sign, yet, like Cassius Clay, had a phenomenal memory to compensate.[6]

Nicolson’s reflection that history is made more frequently by people who had no idea what they wanted underscores the importance of prevailing circumstances: the fact that human beings were ‘straws in the stream’ of history. The best biographer is thus also likely to be the better historian. This is epitomised in Nicolson’s own tender, but acute, portrayal of Lord Curzon.[7] A well tempered ability to appraise the role of the individual in history – history in microcosm – will require a powerful capacity to strike the right balance between agency and circumstances, not least, but not only, the material conditions prompting behaviour.

The second reason to take biography seriously follows from the admonition of E.H. Carr, another former diplomat who was also an accomplished biographer and historian: study the historian to evaluate the history. After all, ‘The historian, before he begins to write history, is the product of history.’[8] But why should this matter?

History, as written, results from judgements as to the significance of events. In this sense – here Carr reaches back to Benedetto Croce via R.G. Collingwood – the historian chooses, and ultimately determines, from a multitude of frequently conflicting sources what constitute the facts of history. This element is most striking in attributing cause and effect, the critical conclusion in history writing. And what surely makes the work cohere, what gives it an underlying framework – the anatomy of history, if you like – is imaginative reconstruction.

On this side of history lies an entirely subjective realm. Thomas Macaulay believed that history lay between two worlds: the world of science (in the larger, Victorian or continental sense of the word)[9] and the world of the imagination (‘the map’ and ‘the painted landscape’).[10] He thought it vital not to surrender to the then fashionable historical novelist the capacity ‘To make the past present, to bring the distant near, to place us in the society of a great man or on the eminence which overlooks the field of a mighty battle, to invest with the reality of human flesh and blood beings whom we are too much inclined to consider as personified qualities in an allegory…’[11]

To some, this may diminish the stature of the subject. The historian should not, however, be dismayed at this loss of status, even when confronted by the physicist as critic. He should never forget that eminent natural scientists also took leaps of the imagination – John Dalton guessed the constitution of the atom – when the evidence has yet to come in (in this case a century later).[12]

We should not seek to fight the problem. Instead, we should estimate as accurately as we can how wise is this or that historian’s judgement. How accurate are the insights? Are they not ultimately a product of the educated imagination? These we need to know. And what better way of finding out than through putting the historian under the lens.

Knowledge of the historian, and thus biography of historians, allows us a healthy corrective to pure subjectivism. It is often our only tool for scraping away the French polish to get to the unvarnished truth beneath.

Among historians, it is surely important for us to know, for instance, that Hugh Trevor-Roper, for all his snobbery and association with the establishment, was not unsympathetic to Marxist approaches to historical explanation.[13] And does it not matter that Isaiah Berlin did, in fact, purposefully forestall Trotsky’s biographer, Isaac Deutscher, from obtaining a Chair at Sussex University, despite repeated denials that he had done this?[14]  This and his ardent support for the US war in Vietnam certainly call into question his iconic status as a moral authority. This is not to suggest that we should, as a result, go a step further and indulge in biography as a hanging judge, like Lytton Strachey – ‘with a definite point of view’ on the Victorians – or, more recently, the journalist Christopher Hitchens, who put on the black cap for various miscreants, including Henry Kissinger and Mother Theresa. Such self-indulgence, however witty, is unlikely to lead to anything productive. The artist’s task, wrote Chekhov, is only to outline the problem, not resolve it. Likewise, the biographer is perhaps better employed ‘exposing’ rather than ‘imposing’ moral judgement.[15]

A key problem with full-scale biography, however, is that it takes a great deal of time to be done properly; from germination to full growth usually requires years of incubation. It is more like wine than tea. And it requires living with the subject to such an extent that he or she shares a good deal of one’s waking life. The time required and the temperament needed are not easily adaptable to youth nor current research assessment requirements for early publication, which dictate speed of research and hurried writing.

In academia, at least, biography is therefore seen as somewhat eccentric: a whimsical detour from well-travelled direct routes if not prompted by a generous commission, which is most unlikely with respect to biographies of historians. This may well be the reason for the loss of popularity of the genre bewailed by literary biographer Michael Holroyd.[16] What it does mean is that those writing biography as history are less likely to be academic historians, but rather those who have become professional biographers, like Adam Sisman, in their own right.

If it is, indeed, the case that historical biography is dying, this is not immediately apparent beyond these shores. In the United States, where issues of tenure do arise for professional historians, research assessment, as such, does not exist; so, once established, a biographer can afford to take his time. Thank goodness Holroyd is wrong.

Jonathan Haslam FBA is professor of the history of international relations at the University of Cambridge, a fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and a biographer, being author of The Vices of Integrity: E.H. Carr, 1892-1982 (London and New York, 1999). This article was first published in Past and Future (autumn/winter 2012).


[1]   The prolific French biographer André Maurois points to the crucial contribution of Dostoevsky in confronting us with man’s multiple personality (A. Maurois, Aspects de la Biographie (Paris, 1930), p. 51).

[2]    ‘Every taunt, however bitter; every tale, however petty; every charge, however shameful, for which the incidents of a long career could afford a pretext, has been levelled against him.’ For all his achievements, ‘fame shines unwillingly upon the statesman and warrior whose exertions brought our island and all Europe safely through its perils…’ (W. Churchill, Marlborough: his Life and Times (London, 1933), p. 17).

[3]    ‘How I write biography’, Saturday Evening Review, 26 May 1934.

[4] For the latest, see D. Thorpe, Eden: the Life and Times of Sir Anthony Eden First Earl of Avon 1897–1977 (London, 2003).

[5] R. Dallek, John F. Kennedy: an Unfinished Life (New York, 2003).

[6] See the author’s Russia’s Cold War: from the October Revolution to the Fall of the Wall (New Haven and London, 2011).

[7] H. Nicolson, Curzon: the Last Phase 1919-1925. A Study in Post-War Diplomacy (London, 1934).

[8]  E.H. Carr, What is History? (London, 1964), p. 40.

[9] This usage upsets some in the English-speaking world in a way it would not in other cultures accustomed to more general usage (for example, J. Searle, Minds, Brains and Science (Cambridge, Mass., 1984), p. 11).

[10]   ‘Hallam’, September 1828 (Macaulay, Essays, Vol. 1 (London, 1903), p. 113).

[11]   Ibid.

[12] P. Suppes, replying to comments on ‘The structure of theories and the analysis of data’, F. Suppe, ed., The Structure of Scientific Theories, 2nd edition (Chicago, 1977), p. 300.

[13]  A. Sisman, Hugh Trevor-Roper: the Biography (London, 2010).

[14] M. Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: a Life (London, 1999), p. 235. Denials were repeated to Tamara Deutscher on several occasions after her husband’s death and later reiterated to the author.

[15] Maurois, Aspects, p. 98.

[16] Guardian, 18 August 2011.