|Robert Norman William Blake, historian: born Brundall, Norfolk 23 December 1916; Student and Tutor in Politics, Christ Church, Oxford 1947-68, Censor 1950-55; Senior Proctor, Oxford University 1959-60, Pro-Vice-Chancellor 1971-87; FBA 1967; Provost, Queen's College, Oxford 1968- 87; created 1971 Baron Blake; Joint Editor, Dictionary of National Biography 1980-90; Chairman, Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts 1982-89; Chairman, Rhodes Trust 1983-87; President, Electoral Reform Society 1986-93; High Bailiff of Westminster Abbey and Searcher of the Sanctuary 1988-89, High Steward 1989-99; married 1953 Patricia Waters (died 1995; three daughters); died Brundall 20 September 2003.|
Robert Blake was chronicler and custodian of British Conservatism, and an ornament to our public life. At a time when most modern historians were on the left, almost single-handedly he rewrote and redefi
Robert Norman William Blake, historian: born Brundall, Norfolk 23 December 1916; Student and Tutor in Politics, Christ Church, Oxford 1947-68, Censor 1950-55; Senior Proctor, Oxford University 1959-60, Pro-Vice-Chancellor 1971-87; FBA 1967; Provost, Queen's College, Oxford 1968- 87; created 1971 Baron Blake; Joint Editor, Dictionary of National Biography 1980-90; Chairman, Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts 1982-89; Chairman, Rhodes Trust 1983-87; President, Electoral Reform Society 1986-93; High Bailiff of Westminster Abbey and Searcher of the Sanctuary 1988-89, High Steward 1989-99; married 1953 Patricia Waters (died 1995; three daughters); died Brundall 20 September 2003.
Robert Blake was chronicler and custodian of British Conservatism, and an ornament to our public life. At a time when most modern historians were on the left, almost single-handedly he rewrote and redefined the history of the Conservative Party, both in synoptic surveys, and in scholarly but immensely readable works on prime ministers as diverse as Benjamin Disraeli, Andrew Bonar Law and Winston Churchill.
In style seemingly the rubicund embodiment of the old Toryism of the shires, in reality he was a pragmatic, undogmatic Conservative, who made friends right across the political spectrum. His philosophy was basically Peelite - save that Robert Peel's principles broke his party. As a scholar, he was highly productive and greatly respected. His Disraeli (1966) is an imperishable contribution to historical literature. Of the biographies of 19th-century prime ministers, perhaps only Norman Gash's Sir Robert Peel (1972) can be mentioned in the same breath.
Blake was born in December 1916, a fortnight after David Lloyd George and Bonar Law had ejected H.H. Asquith from Downing Street - an episode on which he was later to write in much detail. He was a Norfolk man, indirectly descended from Oliver Cromwell's admiral, his namesake, and the son of a history schoolmaster, W.J. Blake, who taught him at King Edward VI School, Norwich. He was devoted to East Anglia all his life. His wife, Patricia Waters, whom he married in 1955, also came from Norfolk; the one post which almost enticed Blake from Oxford was the Vice-Chancellorship of the new University of East Anglia; he retired happily to a family home at Brundall near Norwich, surrounded by his books in a converted coach-house with a fine river view.
He went to Magdalen College, Oxford, on an Eldon law scholarship, but decided to read Modern Greats (PPE), and gained a first class honours degree, despite diversions including a hockey blue and playing cricket (as a pacy opening bowler) for the Oxford Authentics. He contemplated becoming a lawyer, but the Second World War intervened, and saw Blake engaged in active service in the Western Desert in the 124th Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery. He was captured when Tobruk fell in June 1942 and was sent to Italy as a prisoner of war. Here he and two British colleagues managed a daring escape and were given refuge by a peasant family. Eventually they got away, evading the enemy and the wolves during the harsh winter of 1943-44, back to the Eighth Army.
Blake's unfinished memoirs retail these exciting military experiences, which led to his being mentioned in despatches. In the last months of the war, he worked for MI6, one colleague being Kim Philby, a seemingly harmless figure at the time.
His academic career began in 1947 when he succeeded Lord Pakenham (the future Earl of Longford), now a member of Clement Attlee's Labour government, as Student and politics tutor at Christ Church. Here he rapidly built up a distinctive personal role, bonding closely with colleagues such as Hugh Trevor-Roper and Roy Harrod, serving as Senior Censor of the college, and defending its interests against the threat of a highway being bulldozed through Christ Church Meadow. Blake readily acknowledged that this was a Conservative-inspired scheme, eventually thwarted by Richard Crossman in Harold Wilson's government.
In the university more generally, he became a proctor and served on the Hebdomadal Council, while in the city of Oxford he was a Conservative councillor (1957-64) and also a magistrate.
But what made his national reputation was a series of increasingly powerful studies on modern British history. The first was a skilful edition of the diaries of Field Marshal Haig (The Private Papers of Douglas Haig, 1914-1919, 1952) which began a partial rehabilitation of the reputation of that controversial commander. But Blake, like A.J.P. Taylor soon afterwards, moved on to a different plane of celebrity when he was introduced to Lord Beaverbook. One factor that particularly impressed the old press baron was Blake's ability to consume large quantities of champagne without apparent effect; it was a talent that endured.
The outcome was a fine, trenchant biography of Bonar Law, The Unknown Prime Minister (1955), which vividly brought to life the career of this apparently dull leader by locating him precisely within the Sturm und Drang of British politics between 1910 and 1922. Blake illuminated Law's relationship with Lloyd George as no other writer has done. However, his account of an alleged bridge game involving Asquith on Whit Monday 1916, at the height of the First World War, was savaged by Asquith's daughter Lady Violet Bonham Carter, and Beaverbrook had reluctantly to help out.
Blake's masterpiece, by general consent, was his majestic Disraeli. Himself a mild-mannered, seemingly conventional man, Blake wrote of this colourful Jewish arriviste in vivid fashion, sparing nothing in his account of the amours, money troubles and driving ambitions of "the most potent myth-maker in British history". Blake also wrote brillliantly on Disraeli's novels - Sybil and Coningsby with their insights into the social realities of industrial life, Tancred with its eccentric flights of Orientalism, Lothair with its "fascinating but faintly disturbing ambiguity".
It may be that Blake went too far in emphasising his subject's disregard for truth and principle; more might be made of Disraeli's awareness of workers' power and practical impact on the domestic legislation in his government of 1874-80. But it remains a dazzling book, strong on foreign and imperial matters as on domestic, and led to Blake's being elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1967, the anniversary of Disraeli's Reform Act.
He also wrote a best-selling general survey, based on his 1968 Ford lectures, The Conservative Party from Peel to Churchill (1970; later extended to include Margaret Thatcher, and in 1997 John Major). Written with admirable economy, it accounts for the success of the Conservative Party in terms of its adaptable, undoctrinaire nature.
Even though he switched his allegiance from Edward Heath (who gave him his peerage in 1971) to Margaret Thatcher, he delivered observations in the 1980s that read like a historian's warning against contemporary versions of stern unbending Toryism. His Romanes lecture of 1992, Gladstone, Disraeli, and Queen Victoria, was to prove highly sympathetic towards W.E. Gladstone and he also directed the magnificent edition of Gladstone's diaries by Colin Matthew.
He continued to be an active, hugely respected historian for the next 30 years, though perhaps he never again quite recaptured the élan of his Disraelian high noon. For all that, his A History of Rhodesia (1977) was an interestingly different kind of book, essentially a study of white rule, ending with sharp comments on the illegal breakaway regime of Ian Smith, where Blake's views were much influenced by his friendship with the liberal Garfield Todd and his daughter.
His later works included a fair-minded textbook, The Decline of Power 1915-1964 (1985); an excellent volume of essays, Churchill (1993), edited jointly with William Roger Louis; and a final study of the trading house of Jardine Matheson (Jardine Matheson: traders of the Far East, 1999), which had involved several congenial visits to Hong Kong.
In addition to his own flow of publications, Blake worked behind the scenes to facilitate publication by others, notably as long-term delegate to the Oxford University Press, and editor with Christine Nicholls of two large supplements to The Dictionary of National Biography, directed by Blake with his usual urbanity. Meanwhile he fulfilled other important roles in academia including chairing the Rhodes Trust and the Historical Manuscripts Commission, and trusteeship of the British Museum.
Blake was both a great Oxford historian and a great Oxford personality. In 1968 he was elected Provost of The Queen's College, where his genial and gregarious style helped massively in turning a somewhat cantankerous body of dons into a happy and thriving community. Blake presided admirably both over the governing body and high table. On multiple-guest Saturday-night dinners, he particularly enjoyed the company of Labour guests; one favourite was Michael Foot, with whom he shared a common interest in Disraeli (who provided a name for Foot's Tibetan terrier "Dizzy").
He often showed spontaneous kindness. When he learnt that I was getting married, he wrote privately to the London address of my wife-to-be, welcoming her to Queen's and then entertaining us royally in the Lodgings after we had got married. The hauteur of a head of house was always spiced with humour. Undergraduates demanding to know the costing of the dons' high-table food found Blake demurring on the grounds that they might get the wrong idea - "or the right idea, which would be even worse". When college tenants on a progress explained that they were being paid for non-cultivation of land, Blake suggested that Queen's might be paid for not teaching Classics. He also encouraged the occasional application of telescopes to blind eyes. On a sterner note, his experience of the bench came in useful if an indolent undergraduate needed chastisement.
He seldom took a controversial line in college matters, except when he spoke against Queen's' admitting women undergraduates. He accepted a heavy defeat with good-humour, much as Peel had done in 1832.
One of the many reasons why Blake's provostship from 1968 to 1987 was such a great success, however, was that he was outward-looking, with worlds outside Oxford. He might leave the college around teatime, sometimes dinner-jacketed, for a London club or debates in the House of Lords. A journalist wrote that, when he met up with colleagues from the London political or media world, Blake "went into overdrive". His parliamentary interests, indeed, bore fruit in some magisterial interventions in the Lords, often embellished with historical analogies as on Ireland. These usually reflected the Conservative orthodoxy: thus Blake became notably Eurosceptic. A radical exception, however, was that, as Chairman of the Electoral Reform Society, and in the Hansard Committee's report of 1976, he became a strong supporter of PR.
He left Queen's and Oxford in 1987 in somewhat less agreeable circumstances. He stood for the Chancellorship of the university that year, following the death of Harold Macmillan, but was narrowly defeated (by 575 votes) by a fellow historian, Roy Jenkins. As a loyal follower of Margaret Thatcher, Blake was chagrined to discover that Oxonian Tory MPs and peers were dispatched to Oxford with instructions to vote for the dissident ex-leader, Edward Heath. Blake regarded this as betrayal by the Tory whips. He seldom returned to Oxford thereafter, but kept his distance somewhat from the Lords as well, and retired to Norfolk to write.
One enjoyable interlude was a semester as Cline Professor of English Literature at the University of Texas, where he lectured on the novels of Anthony Trollope. His retirement was sadly interrupted by a fall at the Oxford and Cambridge Club, which led to a leg's being amputated. He continued, however, to review books, to pen his long-running column in the Illustrated London News (where he had succeeded Arthur Bryant) and to pronounce on the radio as a "constitutional expert", especially on the monarchy: he was a private constitutional adviser to the Queen. (Visits by the Queen Mother to Queen's were particularly appreciated by Blake, who acted as compere and impresario with much brio.)
His public engagements became very occasional after the death of his beloved wife in 1995. There were, however, two memorable events, a party at a London club for a new edition in 1998 of Disraeli, with his daughters as hostesses, and a final visit to Queen's in 1999 to mark a volume in honour of Geoffrey Marshall, a later Provost who predeceased Blake by three months. Otherwise, he lived stoically at Brundall, writing his memoirs, enjoying his garden. At the time of his death, he was anticipating an ABC television crew, busy to the end.
Robert Blake will be long remembered as a man of understated wisdom, shrewd judgement, courtesy and good-humour, excellent company on all occasions. He was as pleasant a guest as he was a host, with a genuine interest in others, emphasised by a stooping posture when he addressed them. He owed much to the charm, warmth and natural grace of his wife Patricia, herself an extremely popular figure in Oxford and Queen's, while three delightful young daughters completed a picture of happy family life.
As a historian, he was sometimes underestimated. There was no flashiness of style, no arresting thesis or over-arching doctrine. Blake was never caught up in historical or personal controversies as was his Christ Church colleague Hugh Trevor-Roper. New developments in historical writing in the Eighties and Nineties overtook his political/literary approach. But his literary grace and impeccable scholarship made for works of enduring value. His masterpiece on Disraeli was called by an American scholar "the best biography of anyone in any language".
He brought his subjects vividly to life, not only in print but on the platform: this very English man lectured with panache in Harare, Beijing and Aberystwyth. He also enjoyed teaching: when I went on leave in 1971, he offered himself as my replacement! In a turbulent world, he represented the best of the academic virtues, and of Oxford college life.
Kenneth O. MorganReuse content