Professor Kevin Sharpe passed away in Southampton General Hospital on Saturday 5 November. It was a real loss not only to his family and friends, but also to English history and literature.
Obituaries and tributes will be appearing shortly, and they will tell a tale of two Kevins, the historian and the man. His was a brilliant and prolific career in writing. His publications describe a trajectory from revisionist early-Stuart history, in which he drew attention to short-term interventions and minute circumstances in the processes of historical causation … and moved, extraordinarily, into critical interpretation of literature and art (and into an English department), a drift that was accompanied and paralleled by a gradual, more or less unspoken drift from political right to left. And the plain inadequacy of this generalisation is a revealing one: because even his early work showed an attentive reader of texts and a methodological innovator. His first book, on Sir Robert Cotton (1979), anticipated later developments in the histories of books and of reading that he would himself foreground in Reading Revolutions (2000), which was not a strange departure from the historical mainstream so much as an imaginative return to questions he’d asked decades earlier. A similar case could be made for his trilogy on art and literature and power in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England (Selling the Tudor Monarchy, 2009, Image Wars, 2010; the third volume is complete but not yet published). His Criticism and Compliment (1987), an authoritative account of court culture and court masques in the 1630s, essential reading for students of literature, was in effect a digression he pursued while working on high politics. I read every single word (and especially the footnotes) of The Personal Rule of Charles I (1992) in December/January 1992/3 as a doctoral student while pushing my older son around the Oxford Parks in a pushchair, and his influence on my own work is thorough and unmeasurable.
His output was extraordinary, and the only thing fiercer than his work ethic was his play ethic. This is the other Kevin: those fortunate enough to have been his friend will know him as a truly and remarkably caring and funny man, whose humour was deep, broad and frequently inappropriate. Many of the anecdotes will be unpublishable and have to be saved for the pubs across the world where he will be being remembered. He was an insightful and empathic commentator and adviser on affairs of the head and heart; he was the first person I would have called to express my grief at his absence.
The photograph shows him holding my younger boy in early 1997 – I think we’re in the quiet room of the King’s Arms, opposite Bodley.