The old school polymath

All-rounders like Walter Oakeshott aren't allowed in today's world.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Walter Oakeshott by John Dancy Michael Russell, pounds 24

If you go into the British Museum and turn right, you will find the room in which the museum keeps its most precious manuscript treasures. Two of the oldest of these were discovered by one man, and he was not a professional scholar, but a schoolmaster.

One is the original manuscript of Malory's Morte d'Arthur, which Walter Oakeshott recognised in the library at Winchester College when he was teaching there. The other is a notebook which he himself bought before he realized it contained the notes Sir Walter Raleigh made for his History of the World while awaiting execution in the Tower of London.

Those two great discoveries, though, were only incidental to Oakeshott's life. He was an all-rounder of a kind that is simply not allowed in today's world; in a career of dazzling versatility, he led a more than double life. Starting with a double First in Classics from Balliol College, Oxford, he earned his living teaching in public schools and universities, ending his career as Vice-Chancellor of Oxford. But at one time or another he also tried his hand at journalism, economics, sociology, and art history.

Oakeshott's first book was an economic history of trade. Renaissance maps were a hobby, and he discovered the one used by the Elizabethan explorer Anthony Jenkinson when he tried to travel from Russia to China. He edited Raleigh's love poems to Queen Elizabeth. His interests extended to modern architecture, and as Vice-Chancellor at Oxford he supported the new school of engineering as well as helping to set up the reforming Franks committee.

His greatest scholarly work, though, was the study and editing of the two great 12th-century illuminated bibles in the library of Winchester cathedral. By analysing the way they drew details such as hair, leaves or drapery, he identified individual artists like "the Master of the Leaping Figures" and the "Master of the Gothic Majesty".

He was no cloistered aesthete, however. In the late Thirties he wrote a ground-breaking report, Men Without Work, on long-term unemployment, a subject which is still sadly relevant today. It contributed to the Beveridge Report, and so to the intellectual foundations of the Welfare State.

Painfully shy, with indifferent health and afflicted by recurrent depression reminiscent of Winston Churchill's "black dog", Oakeshott was not robust. In 1953, while headmaster of Winchester, his career, and his emotional life, suffered two terrible blows which almost broke him. The son of a master hanged himself in the chapel and Oakeshott was with the father when he found the boy's body. Shortly afterwards, he seriously mishandled a minor scandal when he tried to persuade a tough, military housemaster who had exceeded his authority to resign.

Yet this gentle, owlish man with his wide-brimmed hats and self-effacing drawl, who could seem almost too good for this world, continued to work furiously into his eighties, and as Vice-Chancellor at Oxford showed a surprising toughness and realism in his efforts to propel that stubborn institution into the modern world. "It must have been very like this", he said one night at Lincoln's high table after a dinner for which both butler and chef had excelled themselves, "at Fountains just before the dissolution of the monasteries".

John Dancy calls Oakeshott a late product of "Balliolismus". The Balliol ethos, nourished by Victorian worthies such as T.H.Green and Benjamin Jowett, was perhaps the product of nonconformist morality shifted into a cult of work and service. A generation which had lost its religious faith kept a quasi-religious belief in the lay trinity of Beauty, Truth and Goodness. That cult bred an ethos of service, but also high spiritual ambition. The idea was that men should go from Balliol to serve Church and State, but in that service should continue to pursue their own personal cultivation - and their salvation.

It is less than 10 years since Walter Oakeshott died. Yet in the world of Newt Gingrich and Rupert Murdoch the Balliolism of his generation seems as extinct as that of Fountains Abbey before Henry VIII started hanging abbots at their own gates. His scholarship can be patronized as amateur, his dedication to excellence can be attacked as elitism. Yet there remains something admirable and precious about a man who could set himself such high standards.