Obituaries: Professor Sir John Hale
Thursday 19 August 1999
The lives of many of his friends, colleagues and ex-students will be emptier for his death, even though for the last seven years of an exceptionally busy life he had been partly removed from them by the effects of a severe stroke in 1992. During those seven years his irrepressible spirit remained undimmed despite loss of speech and of the use of his writing hand. But even more revealing was the determination of family and friends, marshalled and led by Sheila, his wife, to keep him with them and help him, if possible, through his dysphasia.
John Rigby Hale was born in 1923 in Ashford in Kent. From Eastbourne College he won a scholarship to Jesus College, Oxford, in 1942 but deferred going up to university until after the Second World War, in which he served as a wireless operator in the Merchant Navy. Released from the war he went up to Oxford in 1945 and quickly became heavily involved in what was always one of his great loves, the theatre. He was secretary of Ouds (the Oxford University Dramatic Society) in his second year and played Ferdinand in the 1947 production of Love's Labour's Lost. In 1948 he graduated with the top First in Modern History and was awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship to spend a year in the United States, a country to which he was to return many times. After an exciting year of travel he was elected to a Fellowship at Jesus where he was to remain for the next 15 years.
The young don, who quickly gained a reputation as an inspirational lecturer, continued his association with Ouds, directing Cymbeline in 1951, and also took on the editorship of the Oxford Magazine. At the same time he developed a growing interest in Italy and the Renaissance which had started with a visit to Italy with his much loved motorbike in 1947, and the study of the Italian Renaissance special subject with Cecilia Ady in his final undergraduate year. Like many young Oxford teachers of that period Hale had not been expected to go through the apprenticeship of archival research and the preparation of a doctoral thesis. His initial approach to the Renaissance was therefore essentially one unhindered by specialisation, although his deep enthusiasm for the culture of the period led him towards the society and the politics.
His first major book, England and the Italian Renaissance: the growth of interest in its history and art (1954), revealed an interest in cultural influences and the impact of ideas which was always to be a hallmark of his scholarship. Machiavelli became one of his predominant interests in this period and in 1961 he published Machiavelli and Renaissance Italy, still one of the best short accounts of the development of the enigmatic Florentine's ideas, and an edition of his main literary works, including Mandragola.
However, even more influential in the long run was to be Hale's growing involvement in the history of war, and particularly of fortifications. In Renaissance fortifications, and notably the spreading impact of gunpowder on fortification techniques, he found a natural niche in which to develop expertise, expertise based as much on the gathering of visual and technical evidence as on that of written evidence. A series of seminal essays in the 1960s laid the foundations of an international reputation in this field.
In 1952 Hale had married Rosalind Williams, whom he had met through Ouds, and they soon had three children. He had a marvellous affinity with children and, when the marriage began to break up in the early Sixties, reduced contact with his children affected him deeply. His decision to leave Oxford in 1964 and accept the offer of the founding professorship of history at the University of Warwick was to some extent the result of this family crisis. He moved to London while the new university was being planned and prepared, and, apart from a brief interlude in a restored Northamptonshire vicarage, London was to be his base for the rest of his life. It was here that he met and married his second wife, Sheila MacIvor, in 1965, and here that his wide cultural interests could be satisfied.
At Warwick he was determined to build a new type of history department, a department the main interests of which were European and American, where British history was seen as a part of European history, and where the students travelled and studied abroad as much as possible.
Initially the early students spent a term at an American university and a further term attending a Warwick programme in Venice, studying the Italian Renaissance. For Hale the experience of studying history had to be physical and visual as well as purely intellectual. He had himself taken a course in surveying in order to understand Renaissance fortifications, and, as soon as he arrived in Venice in the autumn of 1967 with the first Warwick students, he set about learning the art of the gondolier.
Similarly he expected the students to absorb and learn from the atmosphere of Venice to go out and look as well as read in the libraries. Art history was brought firmly into the syllabus of the Venice history course which to this day still bears the firm stamp of John Hale's ideas and personality. It was a formative moment also for him as from 1967 his attention focused increasingly on Venice, its artistic glories, and its problems.
Hale did not remain long at Warwick; he launched an MA in Renaissance Studies, and laid the foundations of a history department which was to become one of the strongest and most popular in the country. But in those early days it was too small a community and too far from London to satisfy him. In 1970 he accepted the Chair of Italian at University College London, left vacant by the recent death of Roberto Weiss. His idea, and that of Noel Annan, the Vice- Chancellor, was that the study of Italian should be broadened towards Italian Studies, incorporating history and history of art, as well as literature and language.
But the possibilities for the sort of expansion that such a development required seemed to diminish in the 1970s, and he had to be content with introducing an obligatory period of tutored study in Venice at the beginning of the normal year abroad for his language students, and a joint degree of Italian and History of Art to which he gave particular attention. In the reorganisation of London's Italian departments in 1985 Hale stepped aside to take up a personal chair in UCL's history department for the last years of his service to the college, before his retirement in 1988.
His years in London were, however, increasingly filled with commitments to the broader cultural world. He joined the Trustees of the National Gallery in 1973 and for six years was their chairman; for many years he was a member of the Museums and Galleries Commission and of the Royal Mint Advisory Committee; in 1983 he masterminded the great "Genius of Venice" exhibition at the Royal Academy; and throughout he was a prominent and active member of the Venice in Peril Committee. Another interest was his radio and television work which fulfilled one of his lifelong aims, to open up serious discussion of history and the arts to a wider audience.
In 1977 he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy, and he was awarded the academy's Serena Medal in 1986. In 1984 he was knighted and shortly before this his services to Italian culture had been recognised in Italy with conferral of the title of Commendatore dell' Ordine di Merito of the Italian Republic.
His whole oeuvre, in fact, represented an intensely successful blend of the scholarly and professional on the one hand, and on the other a determination to communicate his own enthusiasms and convictions to all who would read and listen. His best-known books included the Fontana textbook Renaissance Europe (1971), one of the most stimulating of the series, and the much- acclaimed Civilisation of Europe in the Renaissance (1993), just finished in draft at the time of his stroke and a superb tour de force which conceived the Renaissance as a European rather than an Italian phenomenon.
On the other side were his Renaissance War Studies (1982), The Military Organisation of a Renaissance State: Venice c 1400-1617 (1984, with Michael Mallett) and War and Society in Renaissance Europe (1985). These latter works contributed notably to the reshaping of the study of military history which has been going on over the last 30 years.
John Hale was a witty and brilliant conversationalist but also a sage and concerned adviser to friends and students in difficulties. A gregarious man who nevertheless could be surprised in moments of deep personal contemplation of works of art and of nature. A charismatic personality, a polymath, a sensitive connoisseur of all kinds of art, a scholar and teacher who throughout his life was also deeply involved in the vita activa of cultural organisation and administration, he came to represent to many of us a Renaissance man of our time. He has left us an unforgettable legacy, but it is he himself who will not easily be forgotten.
John Rigby Hale, historian and cultural administrator: born Ashford, Kent 17 September 1923; Fellow and Tutor in Modern History, Jesus College, Oxford 1949-64; Professor of History, Warwick University 1964-69; Professor of Italian, University College London 1970-85, Professor of Italian History 1985-88 (Emeritus); Trustee, National Gallery 1973- 80, Chairman of Trustees 1974-80; FRSA 1974; FBA 1977; Public Orator, London University 1981-83; Kt 1984; married 1951 Rosalind Williams (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved), 1965 Sheila MacIvor (one son); died Twickenham, Middlesex 12 August 1999.
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