Obituary: Professor Chris Brooks
Cherry, Martin, The Independent (London, England)
CHRIS BROOKS straddled the worlds of academe and conservation politics and made an enormous contribution to them both. His books changed the terms of reference for the study of the Gothic Revival and popular Victorian culture and his tenure as Chairman of the Victorian Society, for eight years until last year, transformed that group and increased its influence in the corridors of power.
The son of a master printer who encouraged his native curiosity, he displayed a precocious fascination with books, architecture and how things were made which determined the course of his career. Excluding his early childhood and his student years at Manchester University and Lincoln College, Oxford, he lived his life in Devon which he loved.
His first academic post was at Exeter University, where he remained until his death, receiving a Chair in 2001. He lived in Crediton in a house which looked like a bookshop and was frequently taken as such, his social life focusing on his local pub, where he was captain of the cricket team. His prodigious memory seemed to falter only after the 10th pint.
From studying and researching English literature he moved across conventional academic divides to combine a fastidious command of detail with an impressively wide grasp of cultural issues that extended well beyond the 19th century which he was to make his own.
Victorian literature remained an abiding passion - he had an enormous and important library of popular fiction and poetry of the period and had read it all (and it sometimes appeared committed most to memory) - and it was what he was taken on first by Exeter University in 1974 to teach. But his scholarship and enthusiasm encompassed all the arts and helped to change the emphasis of the curriculum there towards cultural studies in the broadest sense: his brainchild, the Centre for Victorian Culture, opened at the university last year. He was also centrally involved in the establishment there of the Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture.
His first major book, Signs for the Times (1984), was a semiological study of Dickens, the Pre-Raphaelite painters and the Gothic Revival that attempted to get to grips with how the Victorians saw the world and how they attempted to understand and come to terms with rapid change. Essentially the approach adopted there informed all his work which became increasingly accessible to a wider audience.
Mortal Remains (1988) was the first substantial study of the Victorian and Edwardian cemetery. The Victorian Church: architecture and society (1995), which he edited with Andrew Saint and part- authored, made a major contribution to the re-assessment of the church architecture of the period in the wider social and cultural context.
His skill in understanding great cultural currents by deciphering the detail of single complex buildings and events is reflected equally in the first modern study of the Albert Memorial, The Albert Memorial: the Prince Consort National Memorial, its history, contexts and conservation (2000; edited and part-authored by him), and his analysis of the funeral of the popular hero and prize boxer Tom Sayers, Burying Tom Sayers: heroism, class and the Victorian cemetery (1991). …