Simon Michael Schama, CBE (born 13 February 1945) is an English historian specializing in art history, Dutch history, and French history. He is a University Professor of History and Art History at Columbia University, New York. He first came to popular public attention with his history of the French Revolution titled Citizens, published in 1989. In the United Kingdom, he is perhaps best known for writing and hosting the 15-part BBC television documentary series A History of Britain broadcast between 2000 and 2002.
Early life and education
Schama was born in Marylebone, London. His mother, Gertie (née Steinberg), was from an Ashkenazi Jewish family (from Kaunas, Lithuania), and his father, Arthur Schama, was of Sephardi Jewish background (from Smyrna / now Izmir in Turkey), later moving through Moldova and Romania. In the mid-1940s, the family moved to Southend-on-Sea in Essex before moving back to London. Schama writes of this period in the Introduction to Landscape & Memory (pp. 3–4):
I had no hill [previously alluding to that in Puck of Pook's Hill], but I did have the Thames. It was not the upstream river that the poets in my Palgrave claimed burbled betwixt mossy banks. [...] It was the low, gull-swept estuary, the marriage bed of salt and fresh water, stretching as far as I could see from my northern Essex bank, toward a thin black horizon on the other side. That would be Kent, the sinister enemy who always seemed to beat us in the County Cricket Championship. [...]
In 1956, Schama won a scholarship to the private Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School in Cricklewood, (from 1961 Elstree, Hertfordshire). He then studied history at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he was taught by J. H. Plumb. He graduated from the University of Cambridge with a Starred First in 1966.
He worked for short periods as a lecturer in history at Cambridge, where he was a Fellow and Director of Studies in History at Christ's College, and at Oxford, where he was made a Fellow of Brasenose College in 1976, specialising in the French Revolution. At this time, Schama wrote his first book, Patriots and Liberators, which won the Wolfson History Prize. The book was originally intended as a study of the French Revolution, but as published in 1977, it focused on the effect of the Patriot revolution in the Netherlands, and its aftermath.
In the United States
In 1980 Schama took up a chair at Harvard University. His next book, The Embarrassment of Riches (1987), again focused on Dutch history. In it, Schama interpreted the ambivalences that informed the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century, held in balance between the conflicting imperatives, to live richly and with power, or to live a godly life. The iconographic evidence that Schama draws upon, in 317 illustrations, of emblems and propaganda that defined Dutch character, prefigured his expansion in the 1990s as a commentator on art and visual culture.
Citizens (1989), written at speed to a publisher's commission, finally saw the publication of his long-awaited study of the French Revolution, and won the 1990 NCR Book Award. Its view that the violence of the Terror was inherent from the start of the Revolution, however, has received serious criticism.
In 1991, he published Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations), a relatively (for him) slender work of unusual structure and point-of-view in that it looked at two widely reported deaths a hundred years apart, that of General James Wolfe – and the famous painting by Benjamin West – and that of (by murder) George Parkman, uncle of the better known Francis Parkman. Schama mooted some possible (invented) connections between the two cases, exploring the historian's inability "ever to reconstruct a dead world in its completeness however thorough or revealing the documentation", and speculatively bridging "the teasing gap separating a lived event and its subsequent narration." Not all readers absorbed the nuance of the title: it received a greatly mixed critical and academic reception. Traditional historians in particular denounced Schama's integration of fact and conjecture to produce a seamless narrative, but later assessments took a more relaxed view of the experiment. It was an approach soon taken up by such historical writers as Peter Ackroyd, David Taylor and Richard Holmes. Sales in hardback exceeded Schama's earlier works.
Schama's Landscape and Memory (1995) focused on the relationship between physical environment and folk memory, separating the components of landscape as wood, water and rock, enmeshed in the cultural consciousness of collective "memory" that are embodied in myths, which Schama finds to be expressed outwardly in ceremony and text. While in many ways even more personal and idiosyncratic than Dead Certainties, roaming through widening circles of digressions, this book was also more traditionally structured and better-defined in its approach. While many reviews remained decidedly mixed, the book was a definite commercial success and won numerous prizes.
Appropriately, many of the plaudits came from the art world rather than from traditional academia. This was borne out when Schama became art critic for The New Yorker in 1995. He held the position for three years, dovetailing his regular column with professorial duties at Columbia University; a selection of his essays on art for the magazine, chosen by Schama himself, was published in 2005 under the title Hang Ups. During this time, Schama also produced a lavishly illustrated Rembrandt's Eyes, another critical and commercial success. Despite the book's title, it contrasts the biographies of Rembrandt van Rijn and Peter Paul Rubens.
In 1995 Schama wrote and presented a series called Landscape and Memory to accompany his book of the same name.
Schama returned to the UK in 2000, having been commissioned by the BBC to produce a series of television documentary programmes on British history as part of their Millennium celebrations, under the title A History of Britain. Schama wrote and presented the episodes himself, in a friendly and often jocular style with his highly characteristic delivery, and was rewarded with excellent reviews and unexpectedly high ratings. There has been, however, some irritation and criticism expressed by a group of historians about Schama's condensed recounting of the British Isles' history on this occasion, particularly by those specialising in the pre-Anglo-Saxon history of Insular Celtic civilisation. Three series were made, totalling 15 episodes, produced in total covering the complete span of British history up until 1965; it went on to become one of the BBC's best-selling documentary series on DVD. Schama also wrote a trilogy of tie-in books for the show, which took the story up to the year 2000; there is some debate as to whether the books are the tie-in product for the TV series, or the other way around. The series also had some popularity in the United States when it was first shown on the History Channel.
In 2001 Schama received a CBE. In 2003 he signed a lucrative new contract with the BBC and HarperCollins to produce three new books and two accompanying TV series. Worth £3 million (around US$5.3m), it represents the biggest advance deal ever for a TV historian. The first result of the deal was a book and TV show entitled Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution, dealing in particular with the proclamation issued during the Revolutionary War by Lord Dunmore offering slaves from rebel plantations freedom in return for service to the crown.
In 2006 the BBC broadcast a new TV series, Simon Schama's Power of Art which, with an accompanying book, was presented and written by Schama. It marks a return to art history for him, treating eight artists through eight key works: Caravaggio's , Bernini's Ecstasy of St Theresa, Rembrandt's Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis, Jacques-Louis David's , J. M. W. Turner's The Slave Ship, Vincent van Gogh's Wheat Field with Crows, Picasso's Guernica and Mark Rothko's Seagram Murals. It was also shown on PBS in the United States.
In October 2008 the BBC broadcast a four-part television series called The American Future: A History presented and written by Schama. In March 2009, Schama presented a BBC Radio 4 show entitled 'Baseball and Me', both exploring the history of the game and describing his own personal support of the Boston Red Sox.
In 2010, Schama presented a series of ten talks for the BBC Radio 4 series A Point of View:
- Why We Like Tough Guys in Politics: When times are hard people seem to prefer tough leaders.
- Singing in the Rain: Schama looks forward to spring with personal reflections on the changing seasons.
- At the Heart of the Matter: The politics surrounding President Barack Obama's healthcare reforms.
- The Gift of the Gab: The history of political rhetoric and the power during election campaigns of televised debates.
- Behold, Newstralia!: Celebrates the distinctive history and culture of New Zealand and regrets any renewed talk of joining forces with Australia.
- A Welcome Slice of American Pie: Reflection on the quality of American food and eating habits.
- The Drama of Politics: The timeless drama of British politics.
- When Money is Just an Illusion: Reflection on the meaning of money as represented by coins and notes and in art.
- Hearts of Oak: Reflection on the significance of one of the sights that will greet new MPs in the chamber of the House of Commons – the panelling made of solid oak.
- Britain's New Politics: Reflection on the 2010 United Kingdom General Election, favourably comparing the British system for a swift handover of power to the cumbersome American one.
In 2011 the BBC commissioned Simon Schama to write and present a five-part series called A History of the Jews for BBC Two for transmission in 2012, The title became The Story of the Jews and broadcast was delayed until September 2013. Writing in The Observer, Andrew Anthony called it "an astonishing achievement, a TV landmark."
One critic noted that Schama's writing is "packed with evocative detail: rich fruit cakes crammed with raisins, currants, nuts and glacé cherries all mulled in brandy sauce."
Schama is married to Virginia Papaioannou, a geneticist from California; they have two children. As of 2014, he resides in Briarcliff Manor, New York. He appeared on Question Time on 15 October 2015.
Schama is a supporter of the Labour Party, donating £2,000 to Oona King's bid to become Labour's candidate for the 2012 London Mayoral election. In August 2014, Schama was one of 200 public figures who were signatories to a letter to The Guardian opposing Scottish independence in the run-up to September's referendum on that issue.
Schama was critical of a call by British novelist John Berger for an academic boycott of Israel over its policies towards the Palestinians. Writing in The Guardian in an article co-authored with lawyer Anthony Julius, Schama compared Berger's academic boycott to policies adopted by Nazi Germany, noting: "This is not the first boycott call directed at Jews. On 1 April 1933, only weeks after he came to power, Hitler ordered a boycott of Jewish shops, banks, offices and department stores."
In 2006 on the BBC, Schama debated with Vivienne Westwood the morality of Israel's actions in the Israel-Lebanon War. He characterised Israel's bombing of Lebanese city centres as unhelpful in Israel's attempt to "get rid of" Hezbollah. With regard to the bombing he said: "Of course the spectacle and suffering makes us grieve. Who wouldn't grieve? But it's not enough to do that. We've got to understand. You've even got to understand Israel's point of view."