Simon Schama CBE is University Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University. He is the author of Patriots and Liberators, which won the Wolfson Prize for History, The Embarrassment of Riches, Citizens which won the 1990 NCR book award for non-fiction, Dead Certainties, Landscape and Memory which won the W H Smith Literary Award in 1995, and Rembrandt’s Eyes (1999). In 1996, he won the National Magazine Award for Art Criticism. More recently in 2006, his book Rough Crossings, an examination of slavery and the American Revolution, won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for General Nonfiction.
His monumental History of Britain is published in three volumes by BBC Worldwide in the UK and Talk Miramax Books in the US. He was art critic of the New Yorker from 1995 to 1998 and was made CBE in the 2001 New Year’s Honours list. The second volume of Story of the Jews for Bodley Head and Ecco was published in November 2015. His collaborative book with the National Portrait Gallery, The Face of Britain: The Nation through Its Portraits, was published by Penguin in September 2015.
Simon wrote and hosted BBC One’s monumental 15-part series History of Britain, which ran from 2000-2002, as well as BBC Two’s 8-part Power of Art in 2006. In the 2016 BBC Two series The Face of Britain, following his 2015 book of the same name, Simon explores the history of British portraiture.
In 2010, Simon presented a series of 10 talks for BBC Radio 4 on A Point of View.
Longer lectures and interviews:
SHORTLISTED FOR THE BAILLIE GIFFORD PRIZE
The Jewish story is a history that is about, and for, all of us. And in our own time of anxious arrivals and enforced departures, the Jews’ search for a home is more startlingly resonant than ever.
Belonging is a magnificent cultural history abundantly alive with energy, character and colour. It spans centuries and continents, from the Jews’ expulsion from Spain in 1492 it navigates miracles and massacres, wandering, discrimination, harmony and tolerance; to the brink of the twentieth century and, it seems, a point of profound hope.
It tells the stories not just of rabbis and philosophers but of a poetess in the ghetto of Venice; a boxer in Georgian England; a general in Ming China; an opera composer in nineteenth-century Germany. The story unfolds in Kerala and Mantua, the starlit hills of Galilee, the rivers of Colombia, the kitchens of Istanbul, the taverns of Ukraine and the mining camps of California. It sails in caravels, rides the stage coaches and the railways; trudges the dawn streets of London, hobbles along with the remnant of Napoleon’s ruined army.
Through Schama’s passionate telling of this second chronicle in an epic tale, a history emerges of the Jewish people that feels it is the story of everyone, of humanity.
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Churchill and his painter locked in a struggle of stares and glares; Gainsborough watching his daughters run after a butterfly; a black Othello in the nineteenth century; the poet-artist Rossetti trying to capture on canvas what he couldn’t possess in life; a surgeon-artist making studies of wounded faces brought in from the Battle of the Somme; a naked John Lennon five hours before his death.
In the age of the hasty glance and the selfie, Simon Schama has written a tour de force about the long exchange of looks from which British portraits have been made over the centuries: images of the modest and the mighty; of friends and lovers; heroes and working people. Each of them – the image-maker, the subject, and the rest of us who get to look at them – are brought unforgettably to life. Together they build into a collective picture of Britain, our past and our present, a look into the mirror of our identity at a moment when we are wondering just who we are.
Combining his two great passions, British history and art history, for the first time, Schama’s extraordinary storytelling reveals the truth behind the nation’s most famous portrayals of power, love, fame, the self, and the people. Mesmerising in its breadth and its panache, and beautifully illustrated, with more than 150 images from the National Portrait Gallery, The Face of Britain will change the way we see our past – and ourselves.
“A potent celebration of our nation’s diversity… All these lives rendered with an acuity of detail that could rival the best of portraitists… Describing Lawrence’s portait of Wilberforce, Schama calls the painting a work of ‘transforming empathy’. That phrase could be true of his story-telling throughout this book.” – The Independent
“Simon Schama’s richly illustrated history of Britain in portraits is a work of dazzling panache… He is a matchless raconteur, and his book is really a series of self-contained stories, each centred on a picture or group of pictures. A constant theme is the transience of joy and beauty… This is a book to devour.” The Sunday Times
“Entertaining and wonderfully compelling … what this book, full of unhackneyed paintings and unfamiliar stories, shows is that when Schama is at his best he can see straight through people.” – The Times
In the second of three volumes of this magnificently illustrated cultural history, Simon Schama details the story of the Jewish people from 1492 to the end of nineteenth century.
Simon Schama’s great project continues and the Jewish story is woven into the fabric of humanity. Their search for a home where a distinctive religion and culture could be nourished without being marginalized suddenly takes on startling resonance in our own epoch of homelessness, wanderings, persecutions and anxious arrivals.
Volume 2 of The Story of the Jews epic tells the stories of many who seldom figure in Jewish histories: not just the rabbis and the philosophers but a poetess in the ghetto of Venice; a general in Ming China; a boxer in Georgian England, a Bible showman in Amsterdam; a teacher of the deaf in eighteenth-century France, an opera composer in nineteenth-century Germany. The story unfolds in Kerala and Mantua, the starlit hills of Galilee, the rivers of Colombia, the kitchens of Istanbul, the taverns of Ukraine and the mining camps of California. It sails in caravels, rides the stage coaches and the railways; trudges the dawn streets of London with a packload of old clothes, hobbles along with the remnant of Napoleon’s ruined army.
Through Schama’s passionate and intelligent telling, a story emerges of the Jewish people that feels as though it is the story of everyone, of humanity – packed with detail, this second chronicle in an epic tale will shed new light on a crucial period of history.
PUBLISHER: Bodley Head
PUBLICATION DATE: 12th October 2017
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RIGHTS CONTROLLED: Translation
THE STORY OF THE JEWS: FINDING THE WORDS (1000 BCE – 1492)
It is a story like no other: an epic of endurance against destruction, of creativity in oppression, joy amidst grief, the affirmation of life against the steepest of odds.
It spans the millennia and the continents – from India to Andalusia and from the bazaars of Cairo to the streets of Oxford. It takes you to unimagined places: to a Jewish kingdom in the mountains of southern Arabia; a Syrian synagogue glowing with radiant wall paintings; the palm groves of the Jewish dead in the Roman catacombs. And its voices ring loud and clear, from the severities and ecstasies of the Bible writers to the love poems of wine bibbers in a garden in Muslim Spain.
Within these pages, the Talmud burns in the streets of Paris, massed gibbets hang over the streets of medieval London, a Majorcan illuminator redraws the world; candles are lit, chants are sung, mules are packed, ships loaded with spice and gems founder at sea.
And a great story unfolds. Not – as often imagined – of a culture apart, but of a Jewish world immersed in and imprinted by the peoples among whom they have dwelled, from the Egyptians to the Greeks, from the Arabs to the Christians.
Which makes the story of the Jews everyone’s story, too.
“This book shows Schama at his best, doing his shtick and doing it well: no hasty product of midnight oil for a television tie-in, but a labour of love, as full of memorable incident as a Bellow novel and wittier than a Woody Allen movie. His take on Jewish history if highly idiosyncratic and will doubtless infuriate many. Me, I can hardly wait for the second volume”. Daniel Johnson, The Times.
“This is classic Schama: playful, ironic, immensely erudite, exuding humanity. It is also deeply personal.” The New Statesman.
“Schama has written a proud and personal story of his people, one that will make a good starting point for those interested in one of history’s most fascinating and tragic tales.” Josh Glancy, Sunday Times.
“Simon Schama has returned to his roots and written an affecting and raw account of early Jewish history.” Tom Holland, The Guardian.
“Simon Schama’s history of the Jews does a splendid job in challenging stereotypes.” Financial Times.
“The Story of the Jews offers a poignant testimony to a people who have come close to annihilation many times but survived. It is an inspiring story and Professor Schama tells it with panache, weaving facts and anecdotes into a vivid history that ought to be read by Jews and non-Jews alike.” Observer.
PUBLISHER: Bodley Head
PUBLICATION DATE: 12th September 2013
RIGHTS CONTROLLED: Translation
DEAD CERTAINTIES: UNWARRANTED SPECULATIONS – Buy it here
Like his The Embarrassment of Riches and the bestselling Citizens, Simon Schama’s latest book is both history and literature of immense stylishness and ambition. But Dead Certainties goes beyond these more conventional histories to address the deeper enigmas that confront a student of the past. In order to do so, Schama reconstructs—and at times reinvents—two ambiguous deaths: the first, that of General James Wolfe at the battle of Quebec in 1759; the second, in 1849, that of George Parkman, an eccentric Boston brahmin whose murder by an impecunious Harvard professor in 1849 was a grisly reproach to the moral sanctity of his society. Out of these stories—with all of their bizarre coincidences and contradictions—Schama creates a dazzling and supremely vital work of historical imagination.
“An infinitely beguiling book…a mind-teasing delight…Schama brings to bear an immense array of narrative elements.” – The New York Times Book Review
PUBLICATION DATE: 4 April 2013
LANDSCAPE AND MEMORY – Buy it here.
The forest primeval, the river of life, the sacred mount – read Landscape and Memory’ to have these explained…
Landscape and Memory is a history book unlike any other. In a series of journeys through space and time, it examines our relationship with the landscape around us – rivers, mountains, forests – the impact each of them has had on our culture and imaginations, and the way in which we, in turn, have shaped them to answer our needs.
This is not a conventional history book, but a book that builds up its argument by a series of poetic stories and impressions which cumulatively have the effect of a great novel. The forest primeval, the river of life, the sacred mount – at the end of this wonderful book we understand where these ideas have come from, why they are so compelling and how they still lie all around us.
PUBLISHER: Harper Perennial
PUBLICATION DATE: 19 April 2004
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The great 17th-century Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn left us so many arresting self-portraits, painted at every stage in his eventful life, that his distinctive face and bearing are a familiar part of the 20th-century cultural landscape, a recognisable presence in galleries across Europe and North America. Nonetheless, the artist himself remains tantalisingly an enigma. A notoriously difficult man and an inveterate risk-taker in life and art, Rembrandt’s aspirations to a grandiose Amsterdam lifestyle in the heyday of his popularity as a painter of portraits and large-scale historical works bankrupted him and he died in relative poverty. His personal effects and his treasured collection of paintings and natural rarities were sold off and dispersed, leaving the historian with a tantalisingly scant body of fragmentary records around which to build a convincing biography.
In Rembrandt’s Eyes Simon Schama—the leading historical craftsman of our era, with a career-long commitment to Dutch history—succeeds with consummate skill in bringing the heroic painter of such masterpieces as The Night Watch and Portrait of Jan Six vividly to life again. Returning to the bustling Dutch world with which he first made his reputation in his bestselling The Embarrassment of Riches (1987), Schama recreates Rembrandt’s life and times with all the verve and panache of a historical novelist, whilst never for an instant losing his scrupulous grip on recorded fact and detail. The telling surviving fragments of archival information about Rembrandt’s personal and professional history are embedded skilfully in a richer and denser tapestry of the commercial whirl and political hurly-burly of the 17th-century Low Countries—a divided territory, split between the Catholic and Protestant faiths and the contested powers of the Spanish Habsburgs and the Dutch Republic—with the tentacles of the tale reaching into the most unexpected shadowy corners of European love and war, aspiration and intrigue.
Rembrandt’s Eyes is, in fact, two biographies for the price of one. From the outset Schama contrasts the life of Rembrandt with that of his older, equally artistically talented, countryman Peter Paul Rubens, whose meteoric rise and sustained success as a society painter forms a revealing contrast with Rembrandt’s unhappier relationship with fame and fortune. The comparison is a telling one. Where Rubens furnishes the wealthy and powerful with glorious reflections of and visual foils for their social and political aspirations and glory, Rembrandt can never resist testing the envelope of taste and stylistic acceptability. His challenge to his clients to rise to embrace the shock of his painterly experiments with technique, texture and composition, ultimately produced his downfall. The Amsterdam Town Council took down his The Oath-swearing of Claudius Civilis, rolled it up and returned his masterpiece to him, to be cut-down in an attempt to sell it to a suitable buyer.
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Pre-eminent author and art historian Simon Schama has written widely on art for many years to great acclaim. In Hang-Ups, a personal selection of his articles from, amongst others, The New Yorker, appears in Britain for the very first time. Brilliantly and lucidly written by one of the most singular voices in non-fiction, this volume of provocative and often idiosyncratic essays makes hugely satisfying reading for lovers of both art and social history. In contains pieces on artists as diverse as David Hockney, Rembrandt and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and on such subjects as the unforgettable peculiarity of Stanley Spencer. From the author whose writing has been called sublime and whose ability to bring art and history vividly to life has earned him admiration worldwide, Hang-Ups is Schamas rallying cry for the art lover to look at familiar works of art and their artists and embrace a new way of seeing.
‘Schama is an utter original, a showman whose wit and erudition outpace his academic rivals’ — Andrew Marr, Daily Telegraph,
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Rough Crossings is the astonishing story of the struggle to freedom by thousands of African-American slaves who fled the plantations to fight behind British lines in the American War of Independence. With gripping, powerfully vivid story-telling, Simon Schama follows the escaped blacks into the fires of the war, and into freezing, inhospitable Nova Scotia where many who had served the Crown were betrayed in their promises to receive land at the war’s end. Their fate became entwined with British abolitionists: inspirational figures such as Granville Sharp, the flute-playing father-figure of slave freedom, and John Clarkson, the ‘Moses’ of this great exodus, who accompanied the blacks on their final rough crossing to Africa, where they hoped that freedom would finally greet them.
“This brilliant book by the leading historian of our times about a subject of great significance will delight professional historians and entrance the reading public. Rough Crossings succeeds in all respects. It is a ‘tour de force’ and a landmark in historical scholarship” – Times Higher Education Supplement
“Schama’s gift for plunging us into the very centre of the action, whether in Charleston, London or on the African coast, makes reading an exhilarating experience” – Daily Telegraph
“Brilliant and deeply moving” – Observer
PATRIOTS & LIBERATORS: REVOLUTION IN THE NETHERLANDS 1780-1813 – Buy it here
Simon Schama’s landmark study of the Netherlands from 1780–1813 is a tale of a once-powerful nation’s desperate struggle to survive the treacheries and brutality of European war and politics.
Between 1780 and 1813 the Dutch Republic – a country once rich enough to be called the cash till of Europe and powerful enough to make war with England – was stripped of its colonies, invaded by its enemies, driven to the edge of bankruptcy, and, finally, reduced to becoming an appendage of the French empire – an appendage not even the French seemed to value overmuch. Out of these events Simon Schama has constructed a gripping chronicle of revolution and privateering, constitutions and coups, in a tiny nation desperately struggling to stay afloat in a sea of geopolitics.
Like his classics The Embarrassment of Riches and Citizens, Patriots and Liberators combines a mastery of historical sources with an unabashed delight in narrative. The result confirms Schama as a historian in the finest tradition – one whose study of the past reveals volumes about the present. This is one of our most revered historians’ greatest works, and this new Perennial edition will reintroduce his genius to a new generation of readers.
PUBLISHER: Harper Perennial
PUBLICATION DATE: 4th October 2010
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Simon Schama explores the mysterious contradictions of the Dutch nation that invented itself from the ground up, attained an unprecedented level of affluence, and lived in constant dread of being corrupted by happiness. Drawing on a vast array of period documents and sumptuously reproduced art, Schama re-creates in precise detail a nation’s mental state. He tells of bloody uprisings and beached whales, of the cult of hygiene and the plague of tobacco, of thrifty housewives and profligate tulip-speculators. He tells us how the Dutch celebrated themselves and how they were slandered by their enemies.
“History on the grand scale…An ambitious portrait of one of the most remarkable episodes in modern history.” – New York Times
“Wonderfully inclusive; with wit and intense curiosity he teases out meaning from every aspect of Dutch seventeenth-century life.”- Robert Hughes
TWO ROTHSCHILDS AND THE LAND OF ISRAEL
PUBLICATION DATE: June 1978
CITIZENS: A CHRONICLE OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION – Buy it here
One of the great landmarks of modern history publishing, Simon Schama’s Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution is the most authoritative social, cultural and narrative history of the French Revolution ever produced.
Winner of the NCR Book Award
‘Monumental…provocative and stylish, Simon Schama’s account of the first few years of the great Revolution in France, and of the decades that led up to it, is hard to put down’
– The New York Times Book Review
‘I have read nothing to compare with Simon Schama’s epic Citizens, which plunges the reader headlong into those violent years of “universal ferment”‘
– Sunday Times
‘Dazzling…beyond praise…He has chronicled the vicissitudes of that world with matchless understanding, wisdom, pity and truth, in the pages of this marvellous book’
‘Admiration and pleasure are owing to Simon Schama’s learned gusto…the humaneness of his verdicts…a formidable, often heart-warming achievement’
– New Yorker
‘An astonishing tour de force…Thsi extraordinary book…identifies and conveys the essence of the Revolution, the key to its appeal, the secret of its power, and the reason for its eventual failure: violence’
‘Stunning…Fizzing with vitality and insight, bubbling over with ideas and perceptions, buzzing with gossip, anecdote and a sense of drama’
– The Times Literary Supplement
PUBLICATION DATE: May 1989
A HISTORY OF BRITAIN – VOLUME 1: AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD? 3000 BC – AD 1603 – Buy it here
‘History clings tught but it also kicks loose,’ writes Simon Schama at the outset of At the Edge of the World?, the first book in his three-volume journey into Britain’s past. And change – sometimes gentle and subtle, sometimes shocking and violent – is the dynamic of Schama’s unapologetically personal and grippingly wirtten history. At its heart lie questions of compelling importance for Britain’s future as well as it past: what makes or breaks a nation? To whom do we give our allegiance and why? And where do the boundaries of our community lie – in our hearth and home, our village or city, tribe or faith? what is Britain – one country or many? What is Britain – one country or many? Has British history unfolded ‘at the edge of the world’ or right st the heart of it?
Schama delivers these themes in a form that is at once traditional and excitingly fresh. the great and the wicked are here – Becket and Thomas Cromwell, Robert the Bruce and Anne Boleyn – but so are countless more ordinary lives, depcited in Schama’s brilliant portrait of the life of the British people.
PUBLISHER: Bodley Head
PUBLICATION DATE: November 2009
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“This is the most exhilarating book that has been written about America for at least eight years…ebulliently combative…instantly engaging…weaving the immediate present with its earliest history…Schama has delivered a glittering tale of America’s past” – Spectator
“The American Future shares Kerouc’s almost inebriated eloquence, the words tumbling delightfully across the page, the sentences as playfully ornate as Charlie Parker saxophone solos. as you read you almost feel like shouting: “Go, man, go!”…Schama’s genius lies in the way he uses micro-historical, human-scale narratives to make his big analytical points…Every one of the book’s chapters will tell you something new about the American past, and each nugget will alter your view of the American future.” -Niall Ferguson, Financial Times
SCRIBBLE, SCRIBBLE, SCRIBBLE: WRITING ON ICE CREAM, OBAMA, CHURCHILL AND MY MOTHER – buy it here.
‘Wednesday brought a pungent sheepy smell emanating from the greyish lamb and barley soup my mother optimistically called ‘Taste of the Garden of Eden’. Expel me, please. Haddock in the air? That would be Thursday. The faintest whiff of roasting garlic? That would be what my sister and I uncharitably dubbed ‘Friday Night Memorial Chicken’; a venerable object smeared on the breasts with a dab of marmite meant to cheer the bird up as it emerged defeated from the oven. Rattling inside the brittle cavity was that one solitary clove of garlic; the exotic knobble that my mother conceded as a romantic touch amid the iron regimen of her unvarying weekly routine.’
Cookery is not necessarily a subject one immediately associates with Simon Schama – one of Britain’s most distinguished historians and commentators. But this selection of his occasional writings is a treasure trove of surprises. Passionate, provocative, entertaining and informative, Scribble, Scribble, Scribble ranges far and wide: from cookery and family to Barack Obama, from preaching and Shakespeare to Victorian sages, from Charlotte Rampling and Hurricane Katrina to ‘The Fate of Eloquence in the Age of The Osbournes’.
Never predictable, always stimulating, Scribble, Scribble, Scribble allows us to view the world, in all its diversity, through the eyes of one of its most original inhabitants.
‘This sparkling, effervescent collection bridges the gap between scholarly and popular writing…It is excellent holiday reading…’ – The Spectator
‘An enticing collection of pieces old and new, a bedside book of rich insights’ – The Observer
‘It really is very good…witty, learned, informative and clarifying’ – Evening Standard
‘His eloquence is on magnificent display in this new book: a delightful collection of journalistic essays…’ – The Independent on Sunday
‘The most stimulating and surprising writing here is on cooking and eating…diverting personal history.’ – The Telegraph
PUBLISHER: Bodley Head
PUBLICATION DATE: 5th August 2010
THE POWER OF ART — Buy it here
Eight stories from the edge
‘Great art has dreadful manners…’ Simon Schama observes at the start of his epic exploration of the power, and whole point, of art. ‘The hushed reverence of the gallery can fool you into believing masterpieces are polite things, visions that soothe, charm and beguile, but actually they are thugs. Merciless and wily, the greatest paintings grab you in a headlock, rough up your composure and then proceed in short order to re-arrange your sense of reality…’ With the same disarming force, Power of Art jolts us far from the comfort zone of the hushed art gallery, as Schama closes in on intense make-or-break turning points in the lives of eight great artists who, under extreme stress, created something unprecedented, altering the course of art forever. The embattled heroes – Caravaggio, Bernini, Rembrandt, Turner, Van Gogh, Picasso and Rothko – faced crisis with steadfast defiance. The masterpieces they created challenged convention, shattered complacency, shifted awareness and changed the way we look at the world. With powerfully vivid story-telling, Schama explores the dynamic personalities of the artists and the spirit of the times they lived through, capturing the flamboyant theatre of bourgeouis life in Amsterdam, the passion and paranoia of Revolutionary Paris, and the carnage and pathos of civil-war Spain. Most compelling of all, Power of Art traces the extraordinary evolution of eight world-class works of art. Created in a bolt of illumination, such works ‘tell us something about how the world is, how it is to be inside our skins, that no more prosaic source of wisdom can deliver. And when they do that they answer, irrefutably and majestically, the nagging question of every reluctant art-conscript… “OK, OK, but what’s art really for?”
PUBLISHER: BBC Books
PUBLICATION DATE: September 2006