Simon Schama

Simon Schama

Simon Michael Schama, CBE (born 13 February 1945) is a British professor of history and art history at Columbia University. His many works on history and art include "Landscape and Memory", "Dead Certainties", "Rembrandt's Eyes", and his history of the French Revolution, "Citizens". He is best known for writing and hosting the 15-part BBC documentary series "A History of Britain". He was an art and cultural critic for "The New Yorker".


The son of second-generation immigrant Jewish parents with roots in Lithuania and Turkey, Schama was born in London. In the late 1940s, the family moved to Southend-on-Sea in Essex before moving back to London. Schama writes of this period in the Introduction to "Landscape & Memory" (pp.3-4):

I had no hill [the previous paragraph had talked of his enthusiasm for "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. ...
Schama won a scholarship to Haberdashers' Aske's and went on to Christ's College, Cambridge, reading history under J. H. Plumb and graduating with a Starred First [The American equivalent would be Summa Cum Laude.] in 1966.

He worked for short periods as a lecturer in history at Cambridge, where he became a Fellow and Director of Studies in History, and at Oxford where he was made a Fellow of Brasenose College in 1976, specialising in the French Revolution. 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 Patriot revolution in The Netherlands, and its aftermath.

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

In America

In 1980 Schama accepted a chair at Harvard. His next book, "The Embarrassment of Riches" (1987), again focussed on Dutch history. In it, Schama interpreted the ambivalences that informed the Dutch Golden Age of the seventeenth 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. ["He provides a reading of cultural tints and social textures," the reviewers in "Contemporary Sociology" (vol. 17.6 (November 1988:760-762) found, "at a level of visual detail that is usually reserved for art history."]

"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. "Citizens" was very well-received and sold admirably. Its view that the violence of the Terror was inherent from the start of the Revolution, however, has received serious criticism. [Notably in Timothy Tackett, "Interpreting the Terror" "French Historical Studies" 24.4 (Autumn 2001:569-578); Tackett's view of swiftly evolving revolution in his prosopography of the deputies, "Becoming a Revolutionary: The Deputies of the French National Assembly and the Emergence of a Revolutionary Culture, 1789-1790" (Princeton University Press) 1996, was not fundamentally at variance with Schama.]

In 1991, he published "Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations)", a relatively slender work which was nevertheless of great importance. It looked at two widely reported deaths a hundred years apart, that of General James Wolfe -- and the famous painting by Benjamin West -- and that of (by murder) George Parkman, brother of the better known Francis Parkman. 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 greatly mixed critical and academic reception. (Australia's Keith Windschuttle, in his "The Killing of History", took particular exception to the book's overt fictionalizing). It, apparently, sold poorly, but it is highly valued by some.

Schama's "Landscape and Memory" (1995) focussed 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" that are embodied in myths, which Schama finds to be expressed outwardly in ceremony and text. While in many ways even more personal and idiosyncratic than "Dead Certainties", roaming through widening circles of digressions, this book was also more traditionally structured and better-defined in its approach. While many reviews remained decidedly mixed, the book was a definite commercial success and won numerous prizes.

Appropriately, many of the plaudits came from the art world rather than from traditional academia. This was borne out when 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 best essays on art for the magazine, chosen by Schama himself, was published in 2005 under the title "Hang Ups". During this time, Schama also produced a lavishly illustrated "Rembrandt's Eyes", another critical and commercial success. Despite the focus of the book's title, it contrasts the biographies of Rembrandt van Rijn and Peter Paul Rubens.


The year 2000 saw Schama finally return to the UK, 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 was insistent on the title beginning with "A" rather than "The", so as to underline that his was a personal subjective view rather than an academic, didactic standard). 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 small group of historians about Schama's necessarily condensed recounting of British Isles' history on this occasion, particularly those specializing in the pre-Anglo-Saxon history, of insular Celtic civilization. [ [ "Simon Schama Antidote] ". History News Network. Retrieved on 28 March 2007.] The series was eventually expanded to three, with 15 episodes [" [ A History of Britain] ". IMDb. Retrieved on 28 March 2007.] produced in total covering the complete span of British history up until 1965; 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.

In 2001 Schama received the CBE. In 2003 he signed a lucrative new contract with the BBC and HarperCollins to produce three new books and two accompanying TV series. Worth £3 million (around $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", 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.

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 Arts. Retrieved on 28 March 2007.] It was also shown on PBS in the United States.



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 lawyer Anthony Julius, Schama compared Berger’s academic boycott to policies adopted by Nazi Germany, noting “This is not the first boycott call directed at Jews. On April 1, 1933, a week after he came to power, Hitler ordered a boycott of Jewish shops, banks, offices and department stores.” [ [ John Berger is wrong] , Simon Schama and Anthony Julius, The Guardian, 22 December 2006]

In 2006 on the BBC, Schama debated with Vivienne Westwood the morality of Israel's actions in the Israel-Lebanon war. [ [ Simon Schama & Vivienne Westwood] , This Week, BBC, 24 July 2006] He was however critical of Israel's bombing of Lebanese city centres on the grounds that the "is ultimately not going to help its own attempt to get rid of a mini-army like Hezbollah that's devoted to its own destruction." [ [ Simon Schama & Vivienne Westwood] , This Week, BBC, 24 July 2006]


He has made donations to the Democratic National Committee as well as John Kerry's and Barack Obama's campaigns. []


Winner, 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, for "Rough Crossings".



* "Patriots and Liberators: Revolution in the Netherlands 1780–1813" (1977)
* "Two Rothschilds and the Land of Israel" (1978)
* "The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age" (1987)
* "Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution"
* "Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations" (1991)
* "Landscape and Memory" (1995)
* "Rembrandt's Eyes" (1999)
* "A History of Britain" Vol. I (2000, ISBN 0-563-48714-3)
* "A History of Britain" Vol. II (2001, ISBN 0-563-48718-6)
* "A History of Britain" Vol. III (2002, ISBN 0-563-48719-4)
* "Hang Ups: Essays on Art" (2005)
* "Rough Crossings" (2005, ISBN 0-06-053916-X)
* "The Power of Art" (2006, ISBN 0-06-117610-9)

Video Documentaries

* "Simon Schama's A History of Britain" - BBC (2000)
* "" - BBC (2005)
* "Simon Schama's Power of Art" - BBC (2006)


External links

* [ Columbia History faculty page]
* [ Columbia Art History faculty page]
* [ "Free Fight"] , with Schama, offers "a new look at Britain, America, slavery and freedom during the Revolutionary War". "The Brian Lehrer Show", May 8, 2006.

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