Simon Schama

Simon Schama

Schama in 2013
Born Simon Michael Schama
(1945-02-13) 13 February 1945
Marylebone, London, England
Nationality British
Ethnicity Jewish[1]
Alma mater Christ's College, Cambridge
Spouse Virginia Papaioannou
Children 2
Simon Schama's voice
Recorded December 2013 from the BBC Radio 4 programme Start the Week

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.[2] He first came to popular public attention with his history of the French Revolution titled Citizens, published in 1989.[2] 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.[2][3] 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.[4][5] 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.[2]


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.[2] 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.

His second book, Two Rothschilds and the Land of Israel (1978), is a study of the Zionist aims of Edmond James de Rothschild and James Armand de Rothschild.

In the United States

Schama at New York City's Strand Bookstore in 2006.

In 1980 Schama took up a chair at Harvard University. His next book, The Embarrassment of Riches (1987), again focused on Dutch history.[6] 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.[7]

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.[2][8]

In 1991, he published Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations),[9] 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,[10] but later assessments took a more relaxed view of the experiment.[11] It was an approach soon taken up by such historical writers as Peter Ackroyd, David Taylor and Richard Holmes.[12] Sales in hardback exceeded those of Schama's earlier works as shown by relative rankings by[13]

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.[14][15]

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.[16] Three series were made, totalling 15 episodes,[17][18] covering the complete span of British history up until 1965;[18] 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.[18]

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 David with the Head of Goliath, Bernini's Ecstasy of St Theresa, Rembrandt's Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis, Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Marat, 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.[19] It was also shown on PBS in the United States.[20]

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:

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,[21] The title became The Story of the Jews and broadcast was delayed until September 2013.[22] Writing in The Observer, Andrew Anthony called it "an astonishing achievement, a TV landmark."[23]

Writing style

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."[2]

Personal life

Schama is married to Virginia Papaioannou, a geneticist from California; they have two children, Alex Kelley.[24] As of 2014, he resides in Briarcliff Manor, New York.[25] 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.[26] 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.[27]


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."[28]

In 2006 on the BBC, Schama debated with Vivienne Westwood the morality of Israel's actions in the Israel-Lebanon War.[29] He characterised Israel's bombing of Lebanese city centres as unhelpful in Israel's attempt to "get rid of" Hezbollah.[29] 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."[29]

United States

Schama was a vocal supporter of President Barack Obama[30] and critic of George W. Bush.[31] He appeared on the BBC's coverage of the 2008 US presidential election, clashing with John Bolton.[32]


Television documentaries

Prizes and other honours


  1. "Simon Schama thinks The Story Of The Jews may ruffle feathers". Metro. London. 12 September 2013. Retrieved 7 October 2013.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Snowman, Daniel (2004). "Simon Schama". History Today. 54 (7): 34–36.
  3. "Schama's art of making history". The Jewish Chronicle. Retrieved 23 July 2006.
  4. "A Jewish Telegraph Newspaper". Retrieved 2014-08-26.
  5. "Simon Schama Interview | The Jewish Chronicle". 2013-10-12. Retrieved 2014-08-26.
  6. Daniel, M., and S. Steinberg. "Simon Schama." Publishers Weekly 238, No. 22 (17 May 1991): 46. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed 30 April 2009).
  7. "He provides a reading of cultural tints and social textures", the reviewers in Contemporary Sociology (Vol. 17.6 (November 1988:760–62) found, "at a level of visual detail that is usually reserved for art history."
  8. Notably in Timothy Tackett, "Interpreting the Terror" French Historical Studies 24.4 (Autumn 2001:569–578); Tackett's view of swiftly evolving revolution in his prosopography of the deputies, Becoming a Revolutionary: The Deputies of the French National Assembly and the Emergence of a Revolutionary Culture, 1789–1790 (Princeton University Press) 1996, was not fundamentally at variance with Schama.
  9. Halttunen, Karen. "Review of "Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations.) by Simon Schama". The Journal of American History. p. 631. JSTOR 2080071.
  10. Windschuttle, Keith (2000). The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists are Murdering Our Past. San Francisco: Encounter Books. p. 252. ISBN 1-893554-12-0. [...] drawing absolute conclusions from [...] fragments of evidence
  11. Toplin, Robert Brent (1996). History by Hollywood: the use and abuse of the American past. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. p. 7quote=a fascinating experiment in historical writing. ISBN 0-252-06536-0.
  12. Byatt, A. S. (2000). On histories and stories: selected essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. p. 10. ISBN 0-674-00451-5.
  13. Amazon sales ranks (hardback versions), as at December 2010: Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations, 103,781; Citizens, 320,762; The Embarrassment of Riches, 877,177.
  14. 1 2 Williams, Michael. "Review of: "Landscape and Memory" by Simon Schama". Annals of the Association of American Geographers. pp. 564–565. JSTOR 2564086.
  15. Gussow, Mel (5 June 1995). "Into Arcadia with Simon Schama". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  16. "Simon Schama Antidote". History News Network. Archived from the original on 18 June 2006. Retrieved 28 March 2007.
  17. "A History of Britain". IMDb. Retrieved 28 March 2007.
  18. 1 2 3 Cooper, Barbara Roisman. "A Wild Ride" Through A History of Britain With Simon Schama. British Heritage 23, no. 6 (November 2002): 48. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed 30 April 2009)
  19. "Simon Schama's Power of Art". BBC Two. BBC. Retrieved 28 March 2007.
  20. 1 2 Nalley, Richard. "Simon Schama's Power of Art." Forbes 180 (18 September 2007): 165–165. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed 30 April 2009).
  21. "Simon Schama to present The History of the Jews on BBC Two". BBC. 2 February 2011.
  22. "BBC Two – The Story of the Jews". BBC Programmes. BBC. Retrieved 10 September 2013.
  23. Anthony, Andrew (28 September 2013). "Simon Schama: a man always making history". The Observer. Retrieved 7 October 2013.
  24. "Penguin Authors: Simon Schama". Penguin Books. Retrieved 11 April 2010.
  25. Lombroso, Linda (24 March 2014). "Briarcliff historian tells PBS' 'The Story of the Jews'". The Journal News. Retrieved 2 September 2014.
  26. White, Michael (13 August 2010). "David Miliband hits it rich in leadership race as stars back Burnham and Balls". The Guardian. London.
  27. "Celebrities' open letter to Scotland – full text and list of signatories | Politics". 2014-08-07. Retrieved 2014-08-26.
  28. Simon Schama; Anthony Julius (22 December 2006). "John Berger is wrong". The Guardian.
  29. 1 2 3 "This Week – Simon Schama & Vivienne Westwood". This Week. BBC. 24 July 2006.
  30. Schama, Simon (30 August 2008). "In its severity and fury, this was Obama at his most powerful and moving". The Guardian. London. p. 34. Retrieved 5 November 2008.
  31. Schama, Simon (3 November 2008). "Nowhere man: a farewell to Dubya, all-time loser in presidential history". The Guardian. London. pp. 1–2. Retrieved 5 November 2008.
  32. "Road to the White House". The Evening Times. 5 November 2008. Archived from the original on 8 November 2008. Retrieved 5 November 2008.
  33. 1 2 Binstock, Benjamin. "eRembrandt's Eyes by Simon Schama". The Art Bulletin. pp. 361–366. JSTOR 3051386.
  34. Johnson, Paul (21 September 2013). "The Story of the Jews, by Simon Schama - review". The Spectator. Retrieved 7 October 2013.
  35. Website of St. Louis Literary Award
  36. Saint Louis University Library Associates. "Saint Louis University Library Associates Announce Winner of 2001 Literary Award". Retrieved July 25, 2016.
  37. "BAFTA Awards". British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Retrieved 12 November 2013.
  38. Bosman, Julie. "National Briefing | Arts: National Book Critics Circle Winners." New York Times (9 March 2007): 20. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed 1 May 2009).


  • Cooper, Barbara Roisman (2002). ""A Wild Ride" Through A History Of Britain With Simon Schama.". British Heritage. 23 (6): 48. 
  • Daniel, M., and S. Steinberg. "Simon Schama." Publishers Weekly 238, No. 22 (17 May 1991): 46. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed 30 April 2009).
  • Julie Bosman. "National Briefing | Arts: National Book Critics Circle Winners." New York Times (9 March 2007): 20. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed 1 May 2009).
  • Nalley, Richard. "Simon Schama's Power Of Art." Forbes 180 (18 September 2007): 165. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed 30 April 2009).
  • "Simon Schama; Dumbed Down." New York Times (24 November 2002): 4. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed 1 May 2009).
  • Snowman, Daniel. "Simon Schama." History Today 54, No. 7 (July 2004): 34–36. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed 30 April 2009).

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