Obituary: Professor John Varey

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The Independent Culture
SPANISH HAD been taught at Westfield College, London, before 1952, but the Department of Spanish was John Varey's creation. Joined by a single colleague in 1955, promoted to Reader in 1957, a personal chair in 1963, and Professor of Spanish in 1967, when a full chair was established, he attracted and appointed outstanding Hispanists, turning his department into one of the best - some would say the best - in Britain.

Years later, when university policy demanded the merger of Westfield and Queen Mary Colleges, Varey was able to preside, with patience and equanimity, as the last Principal of Westfield, over the amalgamation of his college, and of the department he had created, with the college and department of Queen Mary. If anything tried his patience during this time, it was the destructive nature of government policies in higher education.

John Varey was born in 1922 in Blackburn, and never lost his Lancashire accent, his dry Lancashire sense of humour, or his devotion to Blackburn Rovers, despite spending virtually all of his academic life in the south of England. He belonged to that generation which saw careers interrupted by war service: after winning an Open Exhibition to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1941, he joined the RAF the following year, and from then until the end of the Second World War served as a navigator with Bomber Command and Transport Command.

Back in Cambridge, a First in Part II of the Tripos, followed by a PhD completed in the minimum required time of three years, saw him appointed to the Faculty of Modern a nd Medieval Languages, a post he held for a year before moving to Westfield College.

Hispanists, aware of Varey's impressive publishing record (over 20 books, 100 articles, hundreds of reviews), could be forgiven for thinking that he must have neglected other aspects of academic life, particularly administration. It is true that most of the honours conferred on him acknowledged his eminence in Hispanic studies: Corresponding Fellow of the Royal Spanish Academy (1981), Doctor of Letters (1981, Cambridge), Fellow of the British Academy (1985), Honorary Member of the Instituto de Estudios Madrilenos (1988, the first foreigner ever to achieve this distinction), Doctor honoris causa (1989, University of Valencia), etc, but the title Honorary Life Member of the University of London (1980) acknowledged another existence in a parallel universe, where non- Hispanist colleagues could be forgiven for thinking that he neglected research and publication in favour of committees and boards.

In Westfield, he became the first Dean of the Faculty of Arts (1966-68) and Vice-Principal (1968-70), before his term as Principal (1984-89); in the university, he was elected to the Senate and Academic Council (of which he was chairman from 1980 to 1983), and became chairman of the committee of management of the Warburg Institute, and member or chairman of numerous other committees. Inevitably, some colleagues regretted the fact that he did not concentrate more of his prodigious energies on research; but his willingness, as a Hispanist, to undertake important administrative tasks undoubtedly raised the profile of what had been a minority subject.

Most academics would be content with two such careers, or even with being a recognised expert in the two fields of classical Spanish theatre and the novels of Galds (one of the most prolific Spanish novelists), but every scholar of Spanish literature knows the name of John Varey through Tamesis Books, which he founded in 1963, or the two Grant & Cutler series, "Critical Guides to Spanish Texts" and "Research Bibliographies and Checklists", of which he was Joint General Editor.

Characteristically, he was personally involved with all the minutiae of book production, and until recently made a point of reading the proofs of every volume in the Tamesis series (now over 200, including monographs, editions of texts, facsimiles). Other foundations for which he was responsible include the History of the Theatre Research Project and Fuentes para la Historia del Teatro en Espana, of which volume xxxv has just appeared. His sense of mission led him to give lectures, or read papers, at over a hundred venues, in three continents. All this, with a legendary reputation for hospitality (for which his wife, Micky, must share much of the credit) to undergraduates, postgraduates, friends and visiting colleagues.

A young postgraduate, awaiting a doctoral viva in which John Verey was extern, and who took the trouble, by way of preparation, to read the extern's own doctoral dissertation (on the history of puppets in Spain, an ostensibly esoteric subject) would still have been completely unprepared for the humorous, unpretentious, feet-on-the-ground scholar who sat on the other side of the table.

Unpretentious, yes, but very definitely a scholar. For one thing, like all members of what began as small departments, he had had to teach a wide range of literature and language classes. Again, like many of the older generation of academics, he was widely read in other areas, notably English literature. As for the puppets, they were symbols of a fascination with plays in performance, as opposed to printed on the page. No researcher knew better than he did the documentary and archival sources of information on the early modern Spanish theatre, but no one has done more than he to investigate the practicalities of live performance.

It is a mark of the affection and esteem in which he was held by friends and other Hispanists that when he retired in 1989 he received two Festschrifts: one produced by colleagues and pupils at Westfield, the other with contributions from Spain, Britain, the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Ireland.

John Earl Varey, Hispanist: born Blackburn, Lancashire 26 August 1922; Lecturer in Spanish, Westfield College, London University 1952-57, Reader 1957-63, Professor of Spanish 1963-89 (Emeritus), Acting Principal 1983, Principal 1984-89; General Editor, Coleccin Tmesis 1963-99, chairman 1992-95; President, Association of Hispanists of Great Britain and Ireland 1979-81; FBA 1985; married 1948 Micky Virgo (two sons, one daughter, and one son deceased); died London 28 March 1999.