Professor Denis Cosgrove: Cultural and historical geographer

Tuesday 08 April 2008 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Denis Cosgrove was widely viewed as the pre-eminent cultural and historical geographer of his generation. He was a polymath reminiscent of the Renaissance humanists he admired, and his innovative and sparkling studies immeasurably deepened understanding of how changing Western perceptions have viewed, interpreted and transformed the world around them. His gifted teaching and dedicated supervision, no less than his dozen books and scores of essays, inspired colleagues and students throughout the humanities and the natural and social sciences, well beyond his chosen discipline. Indeed, interdisciplinarity was for him an article of faith.

Cosgrove's central mission was to illuminate the dynamic interplay between the world's diverse material landscapes and equally diverse modes of imagining and exploring them. That overarching programme began with his 1976 doctoral dissertation on the Palladian townscape in Vicenza and the Veneto. As his external examiner, I had the privilege of upgrading this remarkable synthesis of architectural enterprise, land management and regional history from a BLitt to a PhD. He refined and amplified it in The Palladian Landscape: geographical change and its cultural representations in sixteenth-century Italy (1993).

Cosgrove had already broadened his reach to embrace the multi-millennial saga of landscape as a Western cultural concept. Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape (1984) traced how Europeans envisaged, discovered and depicted their expanding world, in the context of religious salvation, political power, economic endeavour, and aesthetic pleasure. His Apollo's Eye: a cartographic genealogy of the Earth in the Western imagination (2001) chronicled global images in maps, charts, paintings, prints, photos and cartoons. Embracing Western history from classical Greece and Rome, through astronauts' space missions and satellite images, Cosgrove's magnum opus braids together the conflicting impulses – to see the world as a unified whole and to see it in its fragmented differences, to treasure it intact and to conquer and remake it – that inform our imaginative gaze.

"Earthbound humans are unable to embrace more than a tiny part of the planetary surface", he noted. "But in their imagination they can grasp the whole of the earth, and communicate and share images of it." Seeing and picturing are as much acts of imagination as of optical perception; vision must include the visionary.

Space allows only cursory mention of a fraction of Cosgrove's subsequent influential work which included: The Iconography of Landscape (1988); Water, Engineering and Landscape (1990); Mappings (1999) – and his University of Heidelberg Hettner Lectures, Geographical Imagination and the Authority of Images (2006). At least three books remain to be published, including Geography and Vision: seeing, imagining and representing the world, 12 scintillating essays on utopian visions, geographical discovery, the shaping of America, conceptions of the Pacific, landscape, masculinity, wilderness, and the astonishing lure of the equator. Geography and Vision is the quintessence of Cosgrove's life-long dialogues between "eyewitness knowledge and interpretation" and the "ideas, hopes and fears of imagined geographies".

Born in Liverpool, Cosgrove traced his geographical passion to a toy globe showing Liverpool as the centre of the world, while the ships in Liverpool's great docks held the promise of exotic realms to be experienced. Following his undergraduate degree at St Catherine's, Oxford, in 1969 and an MA at Toronto in 1971, Cosgrove returned to Oxford for postgraduate study, and worked as lecturer and senior lecturer at Oxford Polytechnic.

In 1980 he became senior lecturer and then reader at Loughborough University, before moving to Royal Holloway, University of London, as Professor of Human Geography from 1994 to 1999 and becoming Dean of the Graduate School in 1998-99. The following year, he gained the inaugural Alexander von Humboldt Chair in Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, being designated head of department just before his final illness.

Deeply engaged with architectural and art history, landscape design, and the visual media, Cosgrove conceived and curated the Ashmolean Museum exhibition on John Ruskin in 2000. He held visiting appointments at the universities of Toronto, Oregon, and Texas. Myriad academic service posts and research training programmes complemented his devotion to teaching and guiding scores of postgraduate students from all over the world. He advised and participated in many British and international scholarly enterprises, and was a founding editor of the geographical journal Ecumene.

Cosgrove received the Royal Geographical Society's Back Award for contributions to human geography in 1988, gave the prestigious Heidelberg Hettner Lectures in 2005, was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Tallinn in February 2008, and would have been Getty Distinguished Scholar at the Getty Research Institute next academic year.

Prizing geography's traditional mélange of nature and culture, Cosgrove had little affinity with either the abstract positivism of spatial science or the radical activism of post-colonial social critique. Happy in 16th-century Italy, he recalled that at home and at his Jesuit school, Rome had always been more important than London. Like Renaissance humanists, he saw the fulfilled life as a balance between the vita activa and the vita contemplativa; for himself he chose contemplation, self-reflection, thoughtful critical converse. His vocation was less about changing the world than changing oneself. Whereas policy-driven social science was blind to the liberating and consoling power of beauty, dismissing it as veneer and distraction, Cosgrove's aesthetic concern reflected his conviction that beauty was inseparable from goodness and truth. In common with Stoics and Jesuits, he told an interviewer, he valued education as "something that feeds the soul and the mind and the body together, posing questions like 'Who are we in relation to the world? How should we live our lives in a way that is fulfilling and morally proper?' "

In that quest, he was eminently successful. His warmth, humour, kindness, delight in children, theirs in him, and intellectual challenge, charmed and dazzled all who knew him.

David Lowenthal

Denis Cosgrove, geographer: born Liverpool 3 May 1948; Lecturer in Geography, Oxford Polytechnic 1972-75, Senior Lecturer 1975-79, Principal Lecturer 1979-80; Lecturer in Geography, Loughborough University 1980-83, Senior Lecturer 1983-88, Reader 1988-94; Professor of Human Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London 1994-99, Dean of the Graduate School 1998-99; Alexander von Humboldt Professor of Geography, University of California, Los Angeles 2000-08; twice married (one son, two daughters); died Los Angeles 21 March 2008.

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