John Brewer: Daniel Snowman Meets the Historian of 18th-Century British Art, Culture, Commerce, Consumption-And a Sensational Murder

By Snowman, Daniel | History Today, April 2004 | Go to article overview

John Brewer: Daniel Snowman Meets the Historian of 18th-Century British Art, Culture, Commerce, Consumption-And a Sensational Murder


Snowman, Daniel, History Today


'IN THE EARLY 1960s I left my father for my uncle.' Not literally, of course. What John Brewer means is that when he was a teenager, he deserted what he regarded as the ultra-bourgeois conservatism of his surgeon father for the more free-flowing Marxism of Uncle Leslie, a radical journalist and bon viveur with long hair, a fine taste in wines and a succession of debts, wives and mistresses. Any lad growing up in the Liverpool of the Beatles might have been tempted to make a similar transition. Not that John 'deserted' his father completely. On the contrary. It was Dr Brewer who first took the boy to art galleries and museums. A keen collector of antiques, Brewer pere once wrote what became a standard guides to old clocks, evidently bringing to the study of their intricate interiors something analogous to his skills as a surgeon. His view of the past may have been tinged with what his son regarded as old-fashioned, post-imperial nostalgia. But it was he who first stimulated John's interest in the material survivals of earlier times--thereby inadvertently helping kickstart the career of one of our most innovative cultural historians.

There were schoolteachers and educationalists in the family, too, while John's mother, a nurse (who had met his father in a Second World War field hospital), was a passionate reader. John became an avid reader, too, immersing himself not in Pamela or Tom Jones (those would come later) but in what were the standard texts for clever, questing teenagers aspiring to intellectual cosmopolitanism: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Camus, Sartre, Dostoyevsky and that cult classic of the time, Colin Wilson's The Outsider. An interest in Russian history led him, under the watchful eye of a benign A-Level history teacher, to do some work on minorities and pogroms in late Tsarist times. So when Brewer sailed into Cambridge at the age of eighteen, his ambition was to become one of those accomplished, cross-disciplinary, multilingual European intellectuals he so admired, an aspiration he honed further by spending six months in Paris improving his French.

At Sidney Sussex (where the Master was David Thomson, author of Europe Since Napoleon), Brewer had tutorials with Derek Beales, an expert on Italian and Austrian history, and the medievalist Otto Smail, while the strongest influence during Brewer's undergraduate years probably came from the intellectual historian Quentin Skinner. 'If anything looked interesting,' says Brewer, recalling the intoxicating intellectual promiscuity he enjoyed at Cambridge, 'I'd pursue it.' It was a habit that has never left him.

In his final year, Brewer encountered Herbert Butterfield. It was Butterfield's last year, too, but he evidently still taught his Special Subject on the historiography of George III with considerable elan and provided inspiration to the young man that was to help shape to the rest of his career. Brewer immersed himself in the politics of mid-eighteenth-century Britain, talking his way into the British Museum to check the footnotes in the great study by Sir Lewis Namier. Like all who followed in Namier's footsteps, Brewer was awed by his thoroughness. Yet he also found himself fundamentally at odds with Namier's emphasis on political elites and his denial of the importance of ideas and ideologies in politics. This was to provide the thrust behind what became Brewer's PhD and first book.

First, Brewer spent a year at Harvard. Here, he attended lectures by such illuminati as Stanley Cavell (on Wittgenstein) and John Rawls (the theory justice). Under the tutelage of that outstanding scholar of Puritan New England Bernard Bailyn, he wrote a paper about the early history of publishing and patronage. He remembers being disconcerted at first to discover that his American counterparts did not necessarily share his particular interests and preoccupations. History, as understood in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was different from--and in some ways more radical than--what Brewer had been taught in that other Cambridge back home. …

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