Simon Schama

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Sir Simon Schama

Simon Schama FT.jpg
Schama in 2013
BornSimon Michael Schama
(1945-02-13) 13 February 1945 (age 74)
Marylebone, London, England
OccupationAcademic, Art historian
Residence Briarcliff Manor, New York, U.S.
Education Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School
Alma mater Christ's College, Cambridge
Notable awards Wolfson History Prize
Leo Gershoy Award
Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature
SpouseVirginia Papaioannou

Sir Simon Michael Schama, CBE, FRSL, FBA ( /ˈʃæmə/ ; born 13 February 1945) is an English historian specialising in art history, Dutch history, Jewish history and French history. He is a University Professor of History and Art History at Columbia University, New York. [1]

Order of the British Empire order of chivalry of British constitutional monarchy

The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire is a British order of chivalry, rewarding contributions to the arts and sciences, work with charitable and welfare organisations, and public service outside the civil service. It was established on 4 June 1917 by King George V and comprises five classes across both civil and military divisions, the most senior two of which make the recipient either a knight if male or dame if female. There is also the related British Empire Medal, whose recipients are affiliated with, but not members of, the order.

Fellow of the British Academy Award granted by the British Academy to leading academics for their distinction in the humanities and social sciences.

Fellowship of the British Academy (FBA) is an award granted by the British Academy to leading academics for their distinction in the humanities and social sciences. There are three kinds of fellowship

  1. Fellows, for scholars resident in the United Kingdom
  2. Corresponding Fellows, for scholars not resident in the UK
  3. Honorary Fellows, an honorary academic title
Art history the academic study of objects of art in their historical development

Art history is the study of objects of art in their historical development and stylistic contexts; that is genre, design, format, and style. The study includes painting, sculpture, architecture, ceramics, furniture, and other decorative objects.


He first came to public attention with his history of the French Revolution titled Citizens , published in 1989. [1] In the United Kingdom, he is perhaps best known for writing and hosting the 15-part BBC television documentary series A History of Britain broadcast between 2000 and 2002. [2] [3]

French Revolution social and political revolution in France and its colonies occurring from 1789 to 1798

The French Revolution was a period of far-reaching social and political upheaval in France and its colonies beginning in 1789. The Revolution overthrew the monarchy, established a republic, catalyzed violent periods of political turmoil, and finally culminated in a dictatorship under Napoleon who brought many of its principles to areas he conquered in Western Europe and beyond. Inspired by liberal and radical ideas, the Revolution profoundly altered the course of modern history, triggering the global decline of absolute monarchies while replacing them with republics and liberal democracies. Through the Revolutionary Wars, it unleashed a wave of global conflicts that extended from the Caribbean to the Middle East. Historians widely regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in human history.

<i>Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution</i> book by Simon Schama

Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution is a book by the historian Simon Schama, published in 1989, the bicentenary of the French Revolution.
"The terror," declared Schama in the book, "was merely 1789 with a higher body count; violence ... was not just an unfortunate side effect ... it was the Revolution's source of collective energy. It was what made the Revolution revolutionary." In short, “From the very beginning [...] violence was the motor of revolution.” Schama considers that the French Revolutionary Wars were the logical corollary of the universalistic language of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and of the universalistic principles of the Revolution which led to inevitable conflict with old-regime Europe.

Schama was knighted in the 2018 Queen's Birthday Honours List. [4]

Early life and education

Schama was born in Marylebone, London. [1] [5] His mother, Gertie (née Steinberg), was from an Ashkenazi Jewish family (from Kaunas, present-day Lithuania), and his father, Arthur Schama, was of Sephardi Jewish background (from Smyrna, present-day İzmir in Turkey), later moving through Moldova and Romania. [6] [7]

Marylebone inner-city area of central London

Marylebone is an area in the West End of London, England, which is part of the City of Westminster.

Kaunas City in Lithuania

Kaunas is the second-largest city in Lithuania and the historical centre of Lithuanian economic, academic, and cultural life. Kaunas was the biggest city and the centre of a county in Trakai Municipality of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania since 1413. In the Russian Empire, it was the capital of the Kaunas Governorate from 1843 to 1915.

Lithuania republic in Northeastern Europe

Lithuania, officially the Republic of Lithuania, is a country in the Baltic region of Europe. Since its independence, Lithuania is considered to be one of the Baltic states. It is situated along the southeastern shore of the Baltic Sea, to the east of Sweden and Denmark. It is bordered by Latvia to the north, Belarus to the east and south, Poland to the south, and Kaliningrad Oblast to the southwest. Lithuania has an estimated population of 2.8 million people as of 2019, and its capital and largest city is Vilnius. Other major cities are Kaunas and Klaipėda. Lithuanians are Baltic people. The official language, Lithuanian, along with Latvian, is one of only two living languages in the Baltic branch of the Indo-European language family.

In the mid-1940s, the family moved to Southend-on-Sea in Essex before moving back to London. Schama writes of this period in the introduction to his 1996 book Landscape & Memory (pp. 3–4):

Southend-on-Sea Place in England

Southend-on-Sea, commonly referred to simply as Southend, is a town and wider unitary authority area with borough status in southeastern Essex, England. It lies on the north side of the Thames Estuary, 40 miles (64 km) east of central London. It is bordered to the north by Rochford and to the west by Castle Point. It is home to the longest leisure pier in the world, Southend Pier. London Southend Airport is located 1.5 NM north of the town centre.

I had no hill [previously alluding to that in Puck of Pook's Hill ], but I did have the Thames. It was not the upstream river that the poets in my Palgrave claimed burbled betwixt mossy banks. [...] It was the low, gull-swept estuary, the marriage bed of salt and fresh water, stretching as far as I could see from my northern Essex bank, toward a thin black horizon on the other side. That would be Kent, the sinister enemy who always seemed to beat us in the County Cricket Championship. [...]

<i>Puck of Pooks Hill</i> book by Rudyard Kipling

Puck of Pook's Hill is a fantasy book by Rudyard Kipling, published in 1906, containing a series of short stories set in different periods of English history. It can count both as historical fantasy – since some of the stories told of the past have clear magical elements, and as contemporary fantasy – since it depicts a magical being active and practising his magic in the England of the early 1900s when the book was written.

<i>Palgraves Golden Treasury</i>

The Golden Treasury of English Songs and Lyrics is a popular anthology of English poetry, originally selected for publication by Francis Turner Palgrave in 1861. It was considerably revised, with input from Tennyson, about three decades later. Palgrave excluded all poems by poets then still alive.

Kent County of England

Kent is a county in South East England and one of the home counties. It borders Greater London to the north west, Surrey to the west and East Sussex to the south west. The county also shares borders with Essex along the estuary of the River Thames, and with the French department of Pas-de-Calais through the Channel Tunnel. The county town is Maidstone.

In 1956, Schama won a scholarship to the private Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School in Cricklewood, (from 1961 Elstree, Hertfordshire). He then studied history at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he was taught by John H. Plumb. He graduated from the University of Cambridge with a Starred First in 1966. [1]


Schama worked for short periods as a lecturer in history at Cambridge, where he was a Fellow and Director of Studies in History at Christ's College. He then taught for some time at Oxford, where he was made a Fellow of Brasenose College in 1976, specialising in the French Revolution. [1]

At this time, Schama wrote his first book, Patriots and Liberators, which won the Wolfson History Prize. The book was originally intended as a study of the French Revolution, but as published in 1977, it focused on the effect of the Patriottentijd revolution of the 1780s in the Netherlands, and its aftermath. [8] [9]

His second book, Two Rothschilds and the Land of Israel (1978), is a study of the Zionist aims of Edmond and James Rothschild.

In the United States

Schama at New York City's Strand Bookstore in 2006. Simon Schama at The Strand by David Shankbone.jpg
Schama at New York City's Strand Bookstore in 2006.

In 1980, Schama took up a chair at Harvard University. His next book, The Embarrassment of Riches (1987), again focused on Dutch history. [10] Schama interpreted the ambivalences that informed the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century, held in balance between the conflicting imperatives, to live richly and with power, or to live a godly life. The iconographic evidence that Schama draws upon, in 317 illustrations, of emblems and propaganda that defined Dutch character, prefigured his expansion in the 1990s as a commentator on art and visual culture. [11]

Citizens (1989), written at speed to a publisher's commission, finally saw the publication of his long-awaited study of the French Revolution, and won the 1990 NCR Book Award. Its view that the violence of the Terror was inherent from the start of the Revolution, however, has received serious negative criticism. [1] [12]

He appeared as an on-screen expert in Michael Wood's 1989 PBS series, "Art of the Western World" as a presenting art historian, commenting on paintings by Diego Velázquez, Rembrandt, and Johannes Vermeer. [13]

In 1991, he published Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations), [14] a relatively slender work of unusual structure and point-of-view in that it looked at two widely reported deaths a hundred years apart, that of British Army General James Wolfe in 1759 – and the famous 1770 painting depicting the event by Benjamin West – and that of George Parkman, murdered uncle of the better known 19th-century American historian Francis Parkman. [15] [16]

Schama mooted some possible (invented) connections between the two cases, exploring the historian's inability "ever to reconstruct a dead world in its completeness however thorough or revealing the documentation", and speculatively bridging "the teasing gap separating a lived event and its subsequent narration." Not all readers absorbed the nuance of the title: it received a very mixed critical and academic reception. Traditional historians in particular denounced Schama's integration of fact and conjecture to produce a seamless narrative, [17] but later assessments took a more relaxed view of the experiment. [18]

It was an approach soon taken up by such historical writers as Peter Ackroyd, David Taylor, and Richard Holmes. [19]

Sales in hardback exceeded those of Schama's earlier works, as shown by relative rankings by [20] [ original research? ]

Schama's next book, Landscape and Memory (1995), focused on the relationship between physical environment and folk memory, separating the components of landscape as wood, water and rock, enmeshed in the cultural consciousness of collective "memory" embodied in myths, which Schama finds to be expressed outwardly in ceremony and text. More personal and idiosyncratic than Dead Certainties, this book was more traditionally structured and better-defined in its approach. Despite mixed reviews, the book was a commercial success and won numerous prizes. [21] [22]

Plaudits came from the art world rather than from traditional academia. Schama became art critic for The New Yorker in 1995. He held the position for three years, dovetailing his regular column with professorial duties at Columbia University; a selection of his essays on art for the magazine, chosen by Schama himself, was published in 2005 under the title Hang Ups. [23] During this time, Schama also produced a lavishly illustrated Rembrandt's Eyes, another critical and commercial success. Despite the book's title, it contrasts the biographies of Rembrandt van Rijn and Peter Paul Rubens. [24]


In 1995, Schama wrote and presented a series called Landscape and Memory to accompany his book of the same name. Schama returned to the UK in 2000, having been commissioned by the BBC to produce a series of television documentary programmes on British history as part of their Millennium celebrations, under the title A History of Britain.

Schama wrote and presented the episodes himself, in a friendly and often jocular style with his highly characteristic delivery, and was rewarded with excellent reviews and unexpectedly high ratings. There has been, however, some irritation and criticism expressed by a group of historians about Schama's condensed recounting of the British Isles' history on this occasion, particularly by those specialising in the pre-Anglo-Saxon history of Insular Celtic civilisation. [25] Three series were made, totalling 15 episodes, [26] [27] covering the complete span of British history up until 1965; [27] it went on to become one of the BBC's best-selling documentary series on DVD. Schama also wrote a trilogy of tie-in books for the show, which took the story up to the year 2000; there is some debate as to whether the books are the tie-in product for the TV series, or the other way around. The series also had some popularity in the United States when it was first shown on the History Channel. [27]

In 2001, Schama received a CBE. In 2003, he signed a new contract with the BBC and HarperCollins to produce three new books and two accompanying TV series. Worth £3 million (around US$5.3m), it represents the biggest advance deal ever for a TV historian. The first result of the deal was a book and TV show entitled Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution, [28] dealing in particular with the proclamation issued during the Revolutionary War by Lord Dunmore offering slaves from rebel plantations freedom in return for service to the crown. [29]

In 2006 the BBC broadcast a new TV series, Simon Schama's Power of Art which, with an accompanying book, was presented and written by Schama. It marks a return to art history for him, treating eight artists through eight key works: Caravaggio's David with the Head of Goliath, Bernini's Ecstasy of St Theresa , Rembrandt's Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis, Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Marat, J. M. W. Turner's The Slave Ship , Vincent van Gogh's Wheat Field with Crows , Picasso's Guernica and Mark Rothko's Seagram Murals. [30] It was also shown on PBS in the United States. [31]

In October 2008, on the eve of the presidential election won by Barack Obama, the BBC broadcast a four-part television series called The American Future: A History presented and written by Schama. In March 2009, Schama presented a BBC Radio 4 show entitled Baseball and Me, both exploring the history of the game and describing his own personal support of the Boston Red Sox. [32]

In 2010, Schama presented a series of ten talks for the BBC Radio 4 series A Point of View:

In 2011 the BBC commissioned Simon Schama to write and present a five-part series called A History of the Jews for BBC Two for transmission in 2012, [34] The title became The Story of the Jews and broadcast was delayed until September 2013. [35] Writing in The Observer , Andrew Anthony called it "an astonishing achievement, a TV landmark." [36]

In 2018, Simon Schama wrote and presented five of the nine episodes of Civilisations , a reboot of the 1969 series by Kenneth Clark. [37]

Personal life

Schama is married to Virginia Papaioannou, a geneticist from California; they have two children, Chloe and Gabriel. [38] As of 2014, he resides in Briarcliff Manor, New York. [39]


Schama is a supporter of the Labour Party, [40] as well as the cross-party political movement More United. [41]

In August 2014, Schama was one of 200 public figures who were signatories to a letter to The Guardian expressing their hope that Scotland would vote to remain part of the United Kingdom in September's referendum on that issue. [42]

In November 2017, Schama joined Simon Sebag Montefiore and Howard Jacobson in writing a letter about their concern over antisemitism in the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, with particular reference to a growth in Anti-Zionism and its "antisemitic characteristics". [43]


Schama was critical of a call by British novelist John Berger for an academic boycott of Israel over its policies towards the Palestinians. Writing in The Guardian in an article co-authored with Anthony Julius, Schama compared Berger's academic boycott to policies adopted by Nazi Germany, saying: "This is not the first boycott call directed at Jews. On 1 April 1933, only weeks after he came to power, Hitler ordered a boycott of Jewish shops, banks, offices and department stores." [44]

In 2006 on the BBC, Schama debated with Vivienne Westwood the morality of Israel's actions in the Israel-Lebanon War. [45] He described Israel's bombing of Lebanese city centres as unhelpful to Israel's attempt to "get rid of" Hezbollah. [45] He said: "Of course the spectacle and suffering makes us grieve. Who wouldn't grieve? But it's not enough to do that. We've got to understand. You've even got to understand Israel's point of view." [45]

United States

Schama was a supporter of President Barack Obama [46] and a critic of George W. Bush. [47] He appeared on the BBC's coverage of the 2008 US presidential election, clashing with John Bolton. [48]

Prizes and other honours


Television documentaries

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  18. Toplin, Robert Brent (1996). History by Hollywood: the use and abuse of the American past. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. p. 7quote=a fascinating experiment in historical writing. ISBN   0-252-06536-0.
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