Obituary: Eric Mackerness

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The Independent Culture
ERIC MACKERNESS was a long-serving and distinguished member of the teaching staff at Sheffield University.

In published and practical work he dedicated his wide interests in art, music and English literature to the Sheffield community over several decades, with an unusual blend of scholarliness, secretiveness, abruptness, humour and eloquence. University administration was not his forte, he himself happily conceded. Instead he brought to every topic that was raised a reminder, sometimes perhaps rather sharply expressed, that English and the literature of the British Isles had contributed something unique to culture, that elusive quality which tempts and easily escapes any searching mind.

Recruited into English studies as an undergraduate just after the Second World War, at the zenith of controversy-laden decades at Cambridge University, in later years Mackerness maintained the steady pursuit of clarity, informativeness, breadth and social awareness which characterised the best spirit of that great school. Hours spent under the Panizzi dome in the British Museum and in the basement of Sheffield University Library are reflected in his lucid sentences and informative annotations on innumerable topics: Hazlitt, Sturt, Elgar, Henry Fothergill Chorley, Sheffield literary tradition, the Arts and Crafts movement, and hosts of others.

His sympathy with Coleridge's idea of a "clerisy", to which he occasionally referred and which gave direction to his life, appears in his study of the rise and decline of the Anglican sermon of the 19th century, The Heeded Voice: studies in the literary status of the Anglican sermon 1830-1900 (1959), and the paper which he delivered in Birmingham in 1995, on R.W. Dale's conception of the preaching ministry.

In his essay on the musical ideas of Edmund Gurney in Music and Letters (1956), he observed: "Mrs Leavis has said that Henry Sidgwick could never bring himself to popularise the subjects he taught. It was exactly the same with Edmund Gurney." The same was true of Eric Mackerness.

In other hands, his sections on the agricultural crisis of the 1890s, the coal crisis of 1912, and the rise of popular fiction in the age of Arnold Bennett, in his introduction to The Journals of George Sturt (1967), that classic in a vanishing genre, would have become as many books. He held back, possibly in deference to others at work in those fields, and equally out of the feeling that something would be lost if he set himself up as an authority on anything narrower than the whole field of cultural experience.

The foundations of an astonishing breadth of interests can be traced back to Mackerness's school years, when he won prizes for violin playing at the Bedford Eisteddfod. After schooling at Wolverton, on the outbreak of the Second World War, as a member of the Society of Friends, he undertook service in forestry. He went on to read English at Pembroke College, Cambridge, graduating Class I in 1947. In deference to his achievements at the Eisteddfod, the labels on at least one of the bags which he carried to the United States when he became Jane Eliza Proctor Visiting Fellow at Princeton University in 1948 bore the singular legend "Eric Mackerness. Violinist". There he broadened and deepened his knowledge of Emerson and the New England literary tradition. After a brief stint as University Research Fellow at Nottingham University from 1952 until 1954, he joined the staff at Sheffield University.

A showpiece in his keeping there for a while was a violin of no particular distinction, inscribed HH on the fingerboard and found in the porter's lodge. The instrument, it appeared, had once been the property of Sir Henry Hadow, late Vice-Chancellor of the university. Another fugitive treasure was the tract Towards a Socialist Agriculture, by F. W. Bateson. Perhaps the summit of Mackerness's scholarly ambition remained out of reach; certainly his work on music in relation to popular culture and the arts, in his book A Social History of English Music (1976), represented the peak of an achievement in which the Hadow tradition remains discernible.

The university orchestra and the occasional musical numbers staged by the University Staff Dramatic Society gained from Mackerness's violin playing, which was always relentlessly in tune. With characteristic finality, he gave as his reason for discontinuing that activity the fact that rehearsals had become irksome, as he "didn't want to be stopped". Pausing on the way to a rehearsal, he would observe to a bemused colleague that, if there was one thing he could never bring himself to attempt, it was robbery with violins.

"Culture," Mackerness observed in his introduction to The Journals of George Sturt, "as he sees it, is something superimposed on life rather than - as it ought to be - a quality brought into being as a natural consequence of existence fulfilling itself." Eric Mackerness glimpsed that fulfilment during the all too few years of his marriage, until her death in 1983, to Margaret Shaw, a Sheffield painter. His creation of three-piece suits from pieces fastidiously selected at the Oxfam shop nearby belongs to that happy epoch.

Beyond these lighter activities lay his dedicated involvement in the work of the Sheffield Museum Society, the Sheffield Society for the Encouragement of Art, the Sheffield Art Journal, the Victorian Society, the Victorian Studies Seminar, and other collaborative ventures with the Department of History at Sheffield. Mackerness maintained and harked back to the golden age of literature and ideas which led to the formation of the great English universities and cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Sheffield will not be the same without him.

Christopher Heywood

Eric David Mackerness, English scholar: born Old Stratford, Bedfordshire 21 June 1920; Jane Eliza Proctor Visiting Fellow, Princeton University 1948-49; University Research Fellow, Nottingham University 1952-54; Lecturer, Senior Lecturer and Reader, Department of English, Sheffield University 1954-82; married Margaret Shaw (died 1983); died Sheffield 30 October 1999.