Professor Arthur Marwick

Open University founding father

Wednesday 04 October 2006 00:00

Arthur John Brereton Marwick, historian: born Edinburgh 29 February 1936; Assistant Lecturer in History, Aberdeen University 1959-60; Lecturer in History, Edinburgh University 1960-69; Professor of History, Open University 1969-2001, Dean and Director of Studies in Arts 1978-84, Emeritus Professor 2004-06; (one daughter); died Exeter 27 September 2006.

The historian Arthur Marwick was colourful and combative in everything that he did - whether from his post as Lecturer in History at Edinburgh University in the 1960s, or at the Open University, where he was the founding Professor of History for 32 years from 1969.

It was while teaching at Edinburgh that he established a reputation as a social historian of 20th-century Britain. The most significant of the four books that he published during the Sixties was The Deluge: British society and the First World War (1965). The Deluge argued that the war had a profound impact on the political and social development of Britain. By implication, Marwick criticised the traditional social and political perspective by which war was seen as an interruption to the development of British history and something best left to military historians. He urged that war fostered domestic change as much as it forced international change.

The Deluge was the first and most powerful of Marwick's interventions into the area that became labelled as "war and society" and that, ever since, has enjoyed enormous popularity among university students. In 1974, with War and Social Change in the Twentieth Century, he sought to expand his theoretical conceptualisation of the social impact of war to a comparison of the First and Second World Wars in Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the United States. Intellectually, this was not as successful, since the conceptual framework of change that he employed was rooted in the unique British experience, but the book marked an important shift in the way that he approached historical issues.

There were to be new books on 20th-century Britain, most notably British Society since 1945 (1982). But, increasingly, his work involved national comparisons, first a study of social class (Class in the Twentieth Century, 1986) and then two books on the perceptions of beauty ranging from the Renaissance to the modern period (Beauty in History: society, politics and personal appearance c1500 to the present, 1988, and It: a history of human beauty, 2004).

At the same time his combative streak manifested itself in his criticism, sometimes intemperate, of historians who, he believed, exalted modern theory at the expense of graft in the archives. This line of argument first appeared in The Nature of History (1970), a book that he intended as an introduction to students of the subject and in which he set out to demonstrate the necessity for history in modern society, the methods of the professional historian and best practice. In successive editions - The New Nature of History: knowledge, evidence, language appeared in 2001 - his criticism of those he considered to be postmodernist metaphysicians became ever more strident.

Arthur Marwick was born in Edinburgh in 1936, a son of W.H. Marwick, the eminent historian of Scottish Dissent and the Scottish economy. He was educated at George Heriot's School in Edinburgh, Edinburgh University and then Balliol College, Oxford, before his first academic appointment, as Assistant Lecturer in History at Aberdeen University in 1959. The following year, he returned to Edinburgh as a Lecturer in History.

At the end of the Sixties, he was appointed Professor of History at the embryonic Open University. It was a bold step to leave the established environment of Edinburgh for the unknown and untried experiment of "the University of the Air". But, ever since acting as a consultant on the BBC's highly successful television series The Great War (1964), Marwick had been keen to urge that historians should take archive film seriously as a historical source. The university's close partnership with the BBC enabled Marwick and his junior colleagues to develop this area, particularly in an early history course called, simply, "War and Society".

It also gave him the opportunity to develop some of the ideas that he had been considering at Edinburgh about the skills of the historian, especially with reference to teaching the analysis of primary source material. Unlike in conventional institutions, the teaching structure of the Open University did not permit a suite of history courses providing both wide geographical and period range, and so Marwick opted to focus on skills.

Moreover, while, in true academic fashion, some of his new colleagues in other disciplines debated at length how best to prepare teaching material for the new system, Marwick pressed ahead and wrote the first ever correspondence texts for the university. When the second round of appointments was made in January 1970, the model teaching material, indeed the only teaching material available for interviewees to consult, was his first two history units for the Arts Foundation Course.

Marwick served the Open University until his retirement in 2001, though he seized the opportunities offered by research leave to take up brief visiting fellowships in Paris, Perugia, Stanford and Memphis. He was Dean and Director of Studies for the Arts Faculty from 1978 until 1984 before returning to head the History Department.

For most of the period he was well-known for, and proud of, his prowess on the football pitch and tennis court. A hip replacement forced him to hang up his football boots long after many of his younger colleagues, but he continued with the tennis. He was equally known for his love of opera and of good French wines - and for his champagne-based Christmas parties.

During the 1990s, he formed a research group at the Open University that explored the social changes and cultural shifts of the 1960s. His own work in this area climaxed with The Sixties: cultural revolution in Britain, France, Italy and the United States (1998), the first serious attempt by an academic historian to make a cross-cultural analysis of the impact of the decade.

Clive Emsley

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