Obituary: Donald J. Olsen

Click to follow
The Independent Online
"A work of art is also a historical source . . . the city, as the largest and most characteristic art form of the 19th century, has something to tell us about the inner nature of that century." Donald J. Olsen thus defined one of the basic assumptions of his last rich and original book, The City as a Work of Art: London, Paris, Vienna (1986), but it also inspired his life's work.

This was dedicated to understanding that "something", trying to work out how the denizens of great 19th-century European cities lived, ate, slept, moved about, thought, and entertained themselves. This made him a stimulating companion, whether he was perambulating Amsterdam with a group of Dutch students, visiting North Kensington with Francis Sheppard, the veteran editor of the Survey of London, or taking a day trip to Sheffield expressly to ride the new metropolitan tramway system.

Though he taught at Vassar College in New York for most of his professional life, with only sabbatical study trips to Europe, his first and greatest love was probably London, though he later extended his interests to other European cities. He wrote extremely well, producing a trio of important and agreeable books, described by one reviewer as "neither architectural history nor urban history, but cultural history in the widest sense". He was working on a fourth, on the history of the street, at the time of his death.

Born in 1929, in Seattle, Washington State (the city to which he finally retired), to parents of Scandinavian extraction, he studied at Yale University. After graduating with an MA in 1951, he came to London with a Fulbright scholarship. The fruit of this study was his doctoral thesis, published in 1964 as Town Planning in London: the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. It was not, in fact, so much a study of London, as of Bloomsbury, and it extended the study of the great London estate, as a framework for development, pioneered by John Summerson in Georgian London, and by the post-war Survey of London volumes.

Olsen's work went into the mechanics of estate management in great detail, analysing the relationship between the Duke of Bedford and his auditor Christopher Haedy, and their attitude to the estate architect, Charles Fowler, and the estate surveyor. This was an early foray into the world of the great estate office, now much less suspicious of researchers than it was in the 1950s. By analysing the records of the estates, and by using the evidence given to such bodies as the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes in 1886, he revealed the success of the aristocratic and corporate estates in creating and maintaining agreeable residential areas. This was an unfashionable approach in a London accustomed to the Rent Act, and the inexorable spread of the municipal housing estate, and contrasted with the more left-wing approach then popular with some urban historians who tended to pillory the great landlords.

Olsen was a hard-working scholar researching in many collections of estate records, not only on the Bedford and Eton College estates in London, but on those of the Duke of Norfolk in Sheffield. He also used contemporary newspaper reports and other commentators; this is demonstrated by his Growth of Victorian London (1976), for which he drew on not only John Britton and James Elmes, the Builder, the Building News, and Charles Booth's The Life and Labour of the People of London, but also Anthony Trollope's novels. He also kept up to date with the work of other urban historians, many of whom were personal friends. All this information he wove into books which were not only informative and often revolutionary in approach, but always elegantly written.

He taught at Hull University in 1952-53, held a visiting professorship at Leicester University in 1970, and his work was recognised by the award of the British Council Prize in the Humanities in 1987 for The City as a Work of Art. Next to cities, Olsen loved trains and other forms of rail transport, and would go to endless trouble to avoid travelling by air, trying to the last to cross the Atlantic by ship. I had the pleasure of travelling by train with him from Chicago to Seattle last October, a memorable trip through the Rockies, broken by a visit to Denver, Colorado, in order to travel on its innovative tram system.

This love of travel was the more striking, since throughout his life he was severely physically disabled, relying at first on crutches, later a wheelchair. In order to indulge this passion for trains, he had a specially narrow wheelchair which enabled him to propel himself along the upper storey of a double-decker Amtrak railway coach. Like the European bourgeoisie he studied so closely, he took a great interest in good food, something his return to the city of his birth and its excellent fish restaurants enabled him to pursue.

Donald Olsen kept up an acquaintance with a large circle of urban historians, and a wide and disparate group will mourn the passing of a stimulating colleague and a widely read friend.

Hermione Hobhouse

Donald J. Olsen, urban historian: born Seattle, Washington 8 January 1929; Lecturer in History, Vassar College 1955-86, Professor of History (Eloise Ellery Chair) 1986-91; Visiting Professor, Victorian Studies Centre, Leicester University 1970; died Seattle 19 May 1997.

Comments