Kevin Sharpe (1949-2011)

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.


Joad Raymond

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About joadraymond

English Professor at the University of East Anglia, and director of the News Networks in Early Modern Europe project. I have written books about news, pamphleteering and angels in early modern Britain, and I am currently editing Milton's defences.

5 thoughts on “Kevin Sharpe (1949-2011)

  1. Thank you Joad for a very moving and touching obituary to our friend Kevin. This tribute, to both the Historian and the man captures Kevin very well. I can vouch that the pubs of Leamington, of which he was so fond, are saddened and his friends are in disbelief. The anecdotes, jokes and stories (especially the in appropriate ones) Kevin has left us with are helping us to come to terms with this very sad loss.

  2. He was a friend of mine, I met him when I was an undergraduate of English at Southampton University. I hadn’t been in touch with him in years but suddenly thought of him only to discover he is gone – so sad.

  3. I was fortunate to be tutored by KS at Southampton and reading the many obituaries it is both sad but also a joy to note the aspects of his personality that I can still vividly recall 30 years later. He made a lasting impression on me and I remember the delight and possibly surprise on his face when I stumbled upon some wonderfully disparaging comments from congregations about their unscrupulous and hypocritical Ministers, or the bawdy goings-on around the Royal Dockyards as recorded within the Calendar of State Papers Domestic. I often think of Kevin and only recently became aware of his passing, so wanted to pass on my tribute and best wishes to his family and friends.

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