Obituary: Professor Colin Matthew

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The Independent Culture
THE EARLY and wholly unexpected death of Colin Matthew, whom many regarded as the outstanding modern British political historian of his generation, has caused anguish to his many friends and stunned his colleagues, especially in Oxford and in the historical profession. Quite apart from the private grief, which will be widespread, his death is a public calamity, for he was also the driving force and linchpin of the New Dictionary of National Biography, a colossal project to update and vastly expand the existing dictionary and to make it an indispensable tool of scholarly research.

Born Henry Colin Gray Matthew, in 1941, he attended the Edinburgh Academy (whose pedagogic methods he never ceased to condemn) and then Sedbergh School. At Christ Church, Oxford, he was instructed by C.H. Stuart in the high political manoeuvres of 19th-century courts and cabinets, a style of historical teaching which was already disappearing from fashion but for which Matthew remained always grateful.

There followed what was for him a very formative period of schoolteaching in rural Tanzania, where he met and married his American wife, Sue Curry; then back to Oxford to undertake a DPhil under the supervision of A.F. Thompson, a project which led to the publication of his book The Liberal Imperialists in 1973.

University jobs were becoming scarce and Matthew's lack of academic precocity, together with time "lost" in Africa, meant that he found it hard to obtain tenure, but at last in 1970 he became Lecturer in Gladstone Studies at Christ Church, and assistant to the editor, M.R.D. Foot, on a project inaugurated many years earlier to publish in full the voluminous diaries of W.E. Gladstone.

This appointment threw him a lifeline, but at the time it was widely regarded as being little more than that of a dog's-body. Some dog! Some body! By throwing himself heart and soul into the project, and by giving it such a fierce momentum, he created a situation in which for him not to have taken over as editor would have seemed contrary to nature. Thus was effected, within just a few years, a bloodless and perfectly amicable coup. The third and fourth volumes appeared under the names of Foot and Matthew in 1974, the next 10 under that of Matthew alone between 1978 and 1994. They are rightly and universally regarded as models of their genre, while the project as a whole is recognised as being among the very greatest scholarly achievements of the last quarter-century.

As an editor Matthew was always on hand to help the reader yet never obtrusive, and with a sure instinct regarding what to footnote and how much detail to include. Much of Gladstone's diary is jejune, but Matthew's unrivalled grasp of primary source material in the period enabled him to flesh the entries out with extracts from memoranda, correspondence, and cabinet minutes. He also contributed masterly introductions.

Meanwhile, after its slow start Colin Matthew's career had taken off dramatically. Christ Church promoted him from Lecturer to Student in 1976. Two years later he moved to St Hugh's as one of its first male Tutorial Fellows. Devoted as he was to Christ Church, his new college seemed particularly suited to his relaxed style (he was by preference an open-necked-shirt man, for example), and he threw himself into its affairs with characteristic vigour, becoming in time Senior Tutor. The university gave him a personal chair as Professor of Modern History in 1992.

Suddenly he was everywhere, serving as Literary Director of the Royal Historical Society, Trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, Chairman of the Friends of the Bodleian Library, and much else besides. In 1991 he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy, and soon became an active member of its council and vice-president. He seemed to be able to revivify any project he touched, for example the R.H.S. Camden Society publications and the Oxford Historical Monographs series.

His good-natured, humorous, but brisk and efficient manner as a chairman of committees invariably focused minds and demonstrated to more stately colleagues that it was possible to do things, not only superbly well, but straightaway. ("Slackness" was his favourite term of reproach.) Such were his executive talents that one wonders just what he might have achieved had he decided to enter public service rather than become an academic.

He was also a consummate historian. Interested alike in ideas and political structures, he ranged widely throughout 19th- and early-20th-century British history, taking in the Oxford Movement, fiscal systems, political rhetoric, voting behaviour, and much more - never forgetting its international context. Unlike many historians he rarely repeated himself but moved on to something else.

His towering achievement was Gladstone, first published in two separate volumes in 1986 and 1995. Compiled in part from his introductions to the diary volumes, he himself described it as "an extended biographical study" and it justly won him the coveted Wolfson Prize for History. Its particular distinction is to combine empathy and insight into Gladstone's personality with a coolly rational analysis of his subject's activities, and their place in the larger scheme of government and politics. It was never entirely clear whether he really liked Gladstone, but he admired and empathised with him to the hilt.

After his Gladstonian labours had been triumphantly completed, many of Matthew's friends hoped that he would devote himself full-time to his projected research on 19th-century political culture. Instead his unusual combination of academic judgement, personal tact and managerial drive made him an obvious choice to mastermind the New Dictionary of National Biography, under the sponsorship of the Clarendon Press in Oxford and the British Academy.

To this project he devoted the last eight years of his life, and he committed himself to the task with truly Gladstonian energy. It brought him into contact with people (not just scholars) all over the globe, but the centre of the web was 37A St Giles, and the epicentre was Matthew's desk: he read everything which came into the office. No one who visited the New DNB offices ould fail to be impressed by the high morale and loyalty of its staff or the extraordinary speed and efficiency of its operations, and yet all this was combined with an atmosphere of the utmost calm and even jollity.

This was the mark of an editor so in charge of operations that he had all the time in the world to relax with whoever entered the office, and he loved it when people did. Despite what today may seem like a knock-out blow, the project will survive, being already well over half-way, on time and within budget, and whoever takes it over it will, when completed, be a monument to Colin Matthew.

Latterly he had become a very public man, travelling the world to lobby for his DNB, but above everything he was a family man, taking great delight in his children David, Lucy, and Oliver, all now grown up and pursuing successful careers of their own. For almost 30 years Colin and Sue Matthew kept "open house" in Southmoor Road for students, colleagues, friends, people they had met on their travels round the world, their children's friends and the friends of friends - almost anyone really - to wander in for company. Helped by Sue's unique ability to create an atmosphere of joy and relaxation, Colin would make conversation, an occupation he could not get enough of, sometimes holding forth but more often than not listening, especially to the young.

To the undiscerning his manner might sometimes appear aloof, and he had an unconscious habit of looking down his nose - he was known to some of his friends as "The Laird" - but he was really the most natural and generous and unaffected of men, genuinely interested in other people, and entirely lacking any sense of hierarchy or self-regard. It is some consolation to reflect that he was very happy, and that when he died he was at the height of his powers, but he will be missed terribly.

Henry Colin Gray Matthew, historian: born Edinburgh 15 January 1941; Lecturer in Gladstone Studies, Christ Church, Oxford 1970-94, Student 1976-78; Editor, The Gladstone Diaries 1972-94; Fellow and Tutor in Modern History, St Hugh's College, Oxford 1978-99; Literary Director, Royal Historical Society 1985-89; FBA 1991; Professor of Modern History, Oxford University 1992-99; Editor, New Dictionary of National Biography 1992-99; married 1966 Sue Curry (two sons, one daughter); died Oxford 29 October 1999.