The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
March 13, 2008

William D. Rubinstein on Hugh Trevor-Roper's strange friendship with Bernard Berenson: Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson - (Ed.) Richard Davenport-Hines

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson
edited by Richard Davenport-Hines
Pp. xlii+326. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006
Hardback, 20; Paperback, 14.99

This rather unusual book has become something of a cult work. It consists of the many letters written between 1949 and 1960 by Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper (1914-2003; later Lord Dacre of Glanton), the eminent Oxford historian, to Bernard Berenson (1865-1959), the renowned art authenticator and author of many celebrated works on Italian Renaissance art, who lived at his mansion, Villa I Tatti, near Florence.

They were the oddest of odd couples. Despite his aristocratic sounding- name, Trevor-Roper was the son of a doctor in Northumberland and attended Charterhouse rather than Eton. Like many other eminent historians Trevor-Roper was something of a youthful loner, who read voraciously in many subjects at local libraries and was extraordinarily learned as well as an outstanding linguist. At Christ Church, Oxford he won four named scholarships and took a double first degree.

During the Second World War he served in Intelligence and, after V-E Day, was sent to Berlin to ascertain what really happened to Adolf Hitler. The result was Trevor-Roper's most famous book, The Last Days of Hitler (1947), which is still in print, and which was chiefly responsible for our image of the demented inmate of the Fuhrerbunker.

The work made Trevor-Roper a fortune, and also showed his great versatility as an historian, for he made his real academic reputation in the 1950s in an entirely different area, demolishing the views set out by R. H. Tawney and Lawrence Stone about the "rise of the gentry" and the decline of the Elizabethan aristocracy from c. 1570-1640.

In 1957 Harold Macmillan rather unexpectedly chose Trevor-Roper, in preference to A. J. P. Taylor and other candidates, to be Regius Professor of History at Oxford, the premier historical chair in England, and, rather remarkably, in the gift of the Prime Minister. Although he wrote innumerable sparkling essays and articles, Trevor-Roper never really produced the considered masterwork (in any area of history) of which he was capable.

The present work ends in 1959, just before Trevor-Roper received national publicity for his attacks on A. J. P. Taylor's controversial Origins of the Second World War (1961). The two famous historians had much in common, from an Oxford background to a pervasive sense of fun and lack of gravitas, but were diametrically opposed politically - Trevor-Roper was a keen Tory, Taylor an old-fashioned radical turned Communist and then a CND Labourite - and never were friendly or close.

It is inconceivable that Trevor-Roper, a far more responsible man than Taylor, would have argued, as Taylor did in his controversial book, that Hitler was a "normal" German statesman pursuing long-standing German goals, rather than utterly outside of the Western political spectrum. More unfortunate for Trevor-Roper was his endorsement, late in life, of the fraudulent "Hitler Diary" for the Sunday Times, an act which has sadly clouded his reputation. He had been given a life peerage by Mrs. Thatcher in 1979.

Bernard Berenson was as different as anyone could be. Despite his intellectual eminence, sophistication, and savoir-faire, he was the son of a Lithuanian-born Jewish peddler who had migrated to Boston, Massachusetts. Like Trevor-Roper, he had educated himself by voracious reading in Boston libraries, and managed to attend Harvard.

From 1900 he lived at I Tatti, where he became extremely wealthy through highly questionable means. In the 1890s Berenson had published a series of major books on Italian Renaissance artists which made him into an international authority.

He quickly made a second career as an authenticator of questioned artworks for potential sale to American mega-rich purchasers like J. P. Morgan and Andrew Mellon, first for the firm of P. & D. Colaghni, and, from the mid-1900s, for Duveen Brothers, the famous London dealers.

By an extraordinary agreement, Duveen paid him a 10 per cent commission on the sale of works for which he provided positive authentications, a rate later raised to 25 per cent. In 1909 alone, Berenson earned $80,000 (around $4 million today) for these attributions. This arrangement of course gave Berenson an immediate vested financial interest both for providing positive attributions and also for selling these works for as high a price as possible. This agreement was - to put it at its most charitable - highly dubious, and might well today have landed both Berenson and the Duveens with long prison sentences for fraud. Berenson was extremely lucky that his reputation never catastrophically suffered, presumably because he was so manifestly an expert and an enthusiast of Renaissance art.

Berenson was, however, old enough to have been Trevor-Roper's grandfather, and the close relationship which grew up between the two men is somewhat difficult to explain. Both loved art and loved life; both were strong anti-Communists and right-wingers politically; both were very learned in many national cultures.

Trevor-Roper's lengthy letters to Berenson are worth publishing because he wrote so well. It is presumably rare for anyone writing in the 1950s, long after the Victorian golden age of letter-writing, to pen epistles of this quality. Trevor-Roper wrote mainly about Oxford gossip, as well as about the social and intellectual worlds he moved in.

In 1954 Trevor-Roper unexpectedly married Lady Alexandra ("Xenia"), the eldest daughter of Lord Haig the general, who was seven years older than he, and was engaged in bitter divorce proceedings against her husband Rear-Admiral Clarence Howard-Johnston.

What emerges from Trevor-Roper's letters most strongly is that the 1950s were the last period when British high society, of which Oxford was a core constituent, remained reasonably intact. His world is composed primarily of Britain's traditional social elite, with the occasional intrusion of rich Americans, sophisticated Europeans, and brilliant Jews like Sir Isaiah Berlin (who appears frequently).

A rather surprising feature is the frequency which with Trevor-Roper claimed that Catholics overtly or covertly ran the country, and were hard at work making gains through conversions. For him, the Redbrick universities hardly existed, the social revolution of the 1960s unanticipated; Oxbridge and Burke's still reigned supreme. Even fifteen years after the time of his letters, it is difficult to believe that a similar set by an Oxbridge don would not have been very different.

The editor of this work, Richard Davenport-Hines, has written widely on business history and other topics, and was also a frequent entry-writer in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. I have generally found his entries there rather off-putting. His biography of Sir Charles Clore seems to me to be close to character assassination.

The ODNB decided to include an entry on "Jack the Ripper" (as it did on "Robin Hood"), which outlined the various theories about his identity. For some reason, Davenport-Hines was given the assignment, although he has written nothing about the Ripper, rather than one of the many genuine experts on this topic (such as Paul Begg, Martin Fido, Keith Skinner, or Philip Sugden, just to name some of the most prominent serious authors). Davenport-Hines produced a mediocre entry which has been the subject of criticism among "Ripperologists".

In Letters From Oxford, however, Davenport-Hines has done a first-class job, in particular in identifying in footnotes the many now obscure persons mentioned in Trevor-Roper's letter; his Introduction is notably excellent as well.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth. He is the author of Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution, (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and co-author of The Richest of the Rich: The Wealthiest 250 People in Britain Since 1066, (Harriman House, 2007).

To read Prof. David Womersley's take on Letters from Oxford, see Hugh Trevor-Roper's harsh judgements are a refreshing contrast to today's prevailing atmosphere of public sentimentality, argues David Womersley.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement