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Simon Schama

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Sir Simon Schama
Simon Michael Schama

(1945-02-13) 13 February 1945 (age 79)
Marylebone, London, England
AwardsWolfson History Prize
Leo Gershoy Award
Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature
Academic background
EducationHaberdashers' Aske's Boys' School
Alma materChrist's College, Cambridge
Academic work
DisciplineHistory and art history

Sir Simon Michael Schama CBE FBA FRHistS FRSL (/ˈʃɑːmə/ SHAH-mə; born 13 February 1945) is an English historian and television presenter. He specialises in art history, Dutch history, Jewish history, and French history.[1] He is a Professor of History and Art History at Columbia University.[2]

Schama first came to public attention with his history of the French Revolution titled Citizens, published in 1989.[1] He is also known for writing and hosting the 15-part BBC television documentary series A History of Britain (2000—2002),[3][4] as well as other documentary series such as The American Future: A History (2008) and The Story of the Jews (2013).

Schama was knighted in the 2018 Queen's Birthday Honours List.[5]

Early life and education[edit]

Schama was born on 13 February 1945 in Marylebone, London.[1][6] His mother, Gertie (née Steinberg), was from an Ashkenazi Lithuanian Jewish family (from Kaunas, present-day Lithuania), and his father, Arthur Schama, was of Sephardi Jewish background (from Smyrna, present-day İzmir in Turkey), later moving through Moldova and Romania.[7][8]

In the mid-1940s, the family moved to Southend-on-Sea in Essex before moving back to London. 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 John H. Plumb. He graduated from the University of Cambridge with a Starred First in 1966.[1]


From 1966 to 1976, Schama was a fellow and director of studies in history at Christ's College, Cambridge.[9] He then moved to Oxford University, where he was elected a fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford in 1976,[9] specialising in the French Revolution.[1] He also worked at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris.

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 Patriottentijd revolution of the 1780s in the Netherlands, and its aftermath.[10][11]

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

In the United States[edit]

In 1980, Schama took up a chair at Harvard University as Mellon Professor of History.[9] His next book, The Embarrassment of Riches (1987), again focused on Dutch history.[12] 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.[13]

External videos
video icon Booknotes interview with Schama, July 14, 1989, C-SPAN

Citizens (1989), written at speed to a publisher's commission, 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 negative criticism.[1][14]

Schama appeared as an on-screen expert in Michael Wood's 1989 PBS series Art of the Western World ("Realms of Light: The Baroque") as a presenting art historian, commenting on paintings by Diego Velázquez, Rembrandt, and Johannes Vermeer.[15]

In 1991, he published Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations),[16] a relatively slender work of unusual structure and point-of-view in that it looked at two widely reported deaths a hundred years apart, that of British Army General James Wolfe in 1759 – and the famous 1770 painting depicting the event by Benjamin West – and that of George Parkman, murdered uncle of the better known 19th-century American historian Francis Parkman.[17][18]

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 very mixed critical and academic reception. Traditional historians in particular denounced Schama's integration of fact and conjecture to produce a seamless narrative,[19] but later assessments took a more relaxed view of the experiment.[20]

It was an approach soon taken up by such historical writers as Peter Ackroyd, David Taylor, and Richard Holmes.[21]

Schama's next book, 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" embodied in myths, which Schama finds to be expressed outwardly in ceremony and text. More personal and idiosyncratic than Dead Certainties, this book was more traditionally structured and better-defined in its approach. Despite mixed reviews, the book was a commercial success and won numerous prizes.[22][23]

Plaudits came from the art world rather than from traditional academia. 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.[24] 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.[25]


External videos
video icon Presentation by Schama on A History of Britain: 3500 B.C. – 1603 A.D., December 5, 2000, C-SPAN

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.[26] Three series were made, totalling 15 episodes,[27][28] covering the complete span of British history up until 1965;[28] 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.[28]

External videos
video icon After Words interview with Schama on Rough Crossings, July 22, 2006, C-SPAN
video icon Presentation by Schama on Rough Crossings, June 26, 2006, C-SPAN

In 2001, Schama received a CBE. In 2003, he signed a 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,[29] 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.[30]

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.[31] It was also shown on PBS in the United States.[32]

External videos
video icon Presentation by Schama on The American Future: A History, May 19, 2009, C-SPAN
video icon Presentation by Schama on The American Future: A History, September 26, 2009, C-SPAN
Schama at New York City's Strand Bookstore in 2006.

In October 2008, on the eve of the presidential election won by Barack Obama, 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.[33]

In 2010, Schama presented a series of ten talks for the BBC Radio 4 series A Point of View.[34]

External videos
video icon Presentation by Schama on The Story of the Jews, March 27, 2014, C-SPAN

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,[35] The title became The Story of the Jews and broadcast was delayed until September 2013.[36] Writing in The Observer, Andrew Anthony called the series "an astonishing achievement, a TV landmark."[37]

In 2018, Simon Schama wrote and presented five of the nine episodes of Civilisations, a reboot of the 1969 series by Kenneth Clark.[38]

Personal life[edit]

Schama is Jewish. He is married to Virginia Papaioannou, a geneticist from California; they have two children, Chloe and Gabriel.[39] As of 2014, Schama resides in Briarcliff Manor, New York.[40] He is a Tottenham Hotspur supporter.[41]


In 2010, Schama was a financial donor to Oona King's unsuccessful campaign to become Mayor of London.[42]

In August 2014, Schama was one of 200 public figures who were signatories to a letter to The Guardian expressing their hope that Scotland would vote to remain part of the United Kingdom in September's referendum on that issue.[43]

In November 2017, Schama joined Simon Sebag Montefiore and Howard Jacobson in writing a letter to The Times about their concern over antisemitism in the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, with particular reference to a growth in Anti-Zionism and its purported "antisemitic characteristics". Schama and Sebag Montefiore have both written historical works about Israel, while Jacobson has written regularly about Israel and the UK Jewish community in his newspaper columns.[44] Schama made a further criticism of the party in July 2019, when he joined other leading Jewish figures in saying, in a letter to The Guardian, that the crisis was "a taint of international and historic shame" and that trust in the party was "fractured beyond repair".[45]


Schama was critical of British art critic John Berger's support for the Palestinian call for an academic boycott of Israel. Writing in The Guardian in a 2006 article co-authored with Anthony Julius, Schama compared the open letter written by Berger and signed by 92 other leading artists to Nazi Germany, saying: "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."[46]

In 2006 on the BBC, Schama debated with Vivienne Westwood the morality of Israel's actions in the Israel-Lebanon War.[47] He described Israel's bombing of Lebanese city centres as unhelpful to Israel's attempt to "get rid of" Hezbollah.[47] 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."[47]

United States[edit]

Schama was a supporter of President Barack Obama[48] and a critic of George W. Bush.[49] He appeared on the BBC's coverage of the 2008 US presidential election, clashing with John Bolton.[50]

Reception and appraisal[edit]

Niall Ferguson praised Schama, "Amongst [historians] currently writing, Simon Schama stands out as the Dickens of modern historiography: bewilderingly erudite and prolific, passionate in his enthusiasms and armed with the complete contents of the thesaurus."[51]

Prizes and other honours[edit]


Commonwealth honours[edit]

Commonwealth honours
Country Date Appointment Post-nominal letters
 United Kingdom 2001 – Present Commander of the Order of the British Empire CBE
 United Kingdom 2018 – Present Knight Bachelor Kt


University degrees
Location Date School Degree
 England 1966 Christ's College, Cambridge Starred First Bachelor of Arts (BA) in History
Chancellor, visitor, governor, rector and fellowships
Location Date School Position
 England 1995 – Present Christ's College, Cambridge Honorary Fellow[61]
 England 12 December 2012–Present Queen Mary University of London Honorary Fellow[62][63]
 England 2015 – 2016 Trinity College, Oxford Visiting Professor of Historiography[64]
 England Brasenose College, Oxford Fellow[65]
Honorary degrees
Location Date School Degree Gave Commencement Address
 New York 20 May 1990 Adelphi University Doctor of Humane Letters (DHL)[66]
 England 5 November 1999 University of Greenwich Doctor of Letters (D.Litt)[67]
 Newfoundland and Labrador October 2002 Memorial University of Newfoundland Doctor of Letters (D.Litt)[68]
 New York 24 May 2003 Bard College Doctorate[69]
 England 21 July 2006 University of Essex Doctor of the University (D.Univ)[70]
 England 2007 Anglia Ruskin University Doctor of the University (D.Univ)[71]
 Pennsylvania 2009 Gettysburg College Doctorate[72]
 England 2010 Royal College of Art Doctorate[73]
 England 19 May 2011 Royal Holloway, University of London Doctor of Literature (D.Litt)[74][75]
 Israel 29 March 2015 Weizmann Institute of Science Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)[76] Yes[76]

Memberships and Fellowships[edit]

Location Date Organisation Position
 United Kingdom 2015 – Present British Academy Fellow (FBA)[77]
 United Kingdom 2017 – Present Royal Society of Literature Fellow (FRSL)[60]


Location Date Institution Award
 District of Columbia 1977 The American Historical Association The Leo Gershoy Award
  • For his Book "Patriots and Liberators: Revolution in the Netherlands 1780–1813"
  • [78]
 England 1977 The Wolfson Foundation The Wolfson History Prize
  • For his Book "Patriots and Liberators: Revolution in the Netherlands 1780–1813"
  • [79]
 New York 1992 The American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature
 England 2002 The Historical Association The Medlicott Medal
 Italy 2015 The Accademia dei Lincei The Feltrinelli Prize for History


  • Patriots and Liberators: Revolution in the Netherlands 1780–1813 (1977)
  • Two Rothschilds and the Land of Israel (1978)
  • The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (1987)
  • Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (1989)[1]
  • Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations (1991, ISBN 0394222202)
  • Landscape and Memory (1995, ISBN 0679402551)[22][82]
  • Rembrandt's Eyes (1999, ISBN 0676593925)[82]
  • A History of Britain Vol. I (2000, ISBN 0-563-48714-3)
  • A History of Britain Vol. II (2001, ISBN 0-563-48718-6)
  • A History of Britain Vol. III (2002, ISBN 0-563-48719-4)
  • Hang Ups: Essays on Art (2004, ISBN 0563521732)
  • Rough Crossings (2005, ISBN 0-06-053916-X)
  • Simon Schama's Power of Art (2006, ISBN 0-06-117610-9)[32]
  • The American Future: A History (2009, ISBN 0-06-053923-2)
  • Scribble, Scribble, Scribble: Writing on Politics, Ice Cream, Churchill and My Mother (2011, ISBN 978-0062009869)
  • The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1000 BCE–1492 CE, Volume I (2013, Bodley Head, ISBN 9781847921321)[83]
  • The Face of Britain: The Nation through Its Portraits (2015, ISBN 9780241963715)
  • Belonging: The Story of the Jews, 1492–1900, Volume II (2017, Bodley Head, ISBN 9781847922809)[84]
  • Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations (2023, ISBN 9781471169892)
Television documentaries
  • Landscape and Memory (1995), in five parts
  • Rembrandt: The Public Eye and the Private Gaze (1995)
  • A History of Britain by Simon Schama – BBC (2000), in 15 parts
  • Murder at Harvard – PBS (2003)
  • Rough Crossings – BBC (2005)
  • Simon Schama's Power of Art – BBC (2006), in eight parts
  • The American Future: A History – BBC (2008), in four parts
  • Simon Schama's John Donne – BBC (2009)
  • Simon Schama's Obama's America – BBC (2009)
  • Simon Schama's Shakespeare – BBC (2012)
  • The Story of the Jews – BBC (2013), in five parts
  • Schama on Rembrandt: Masterpieces of the Late Years – BBC (2014)
  • The Face of Britain by Simon Schama – BBC (2015), in five parts
  • Civilisations – BBC (2018), five of nine parts
  • The Romantics and Us with Simon Schama – BBC (2020) 3 episodes: Passions of the People; The Chambers of the Mind; Tribes [85]
  • Simon Schama's History of Now – BBC (2022) 3 episodes: Truth and Democracy; Equality; The Price of Plenty [86]


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  14. ^ 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.
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  19. ^ 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
  20. ^ Toplin, Robert Brent (1996). History by Hollywood: the use and abuse of the American past. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. p. 7. ISBN 0-252-06536-0. "a fascinating experiment in historical writing".
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  34. ^ "A welcome slice of American pie, A Point of View – BBC Radio 4". BBC. Retrieved 16 September 2018.
  35. ^ "Simon Schama to present The History of the Jews on BBC Two". BBC. 2 February 2011.
  36. ^ "The Story of the Jews". BBC Programmes. BBC Two. Retrieved 10 September 2013.
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  40. ^ Lombroso, Linda (24 March 2014). "Briarcliff historian tells PBS' 'The Story of the Jews'". The Journal News. Retrieved 2 September 2014.
  41. ^ Schama, Simon (20 September 2013). "The Yid Army's chants turn anti-semitism into kitsch banter". Financial Times. Archived from the original on 10 December 2022.
  42. ^ White, Michael (13 August 2010). "David Miliband hits it rich in leadership race as stars back Burnham and Balls". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 3 October 2021.
  43. ^ "Celebrities' open letter to Scotland – full text and list of signatories". The Guardian. London. 7 August 2014. Retrieved 26 August 2014.
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  45. ^ Boscia, Stefan (14 July 2019). "Jewish figures rail against Labour's handling of antisemitism charges". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 November 2019.
  46. ^ Simon Schama; Anthony Julius (22 December 2006). "John Berger is wrong". The Guardian.
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  48. ^ 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.
  49. ^ 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.
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  69. ^ Relations, Bard Public. "BARD COLLEGE TO HOLD ONE HUNDRED FORTY-THIRD COMMENCEMENT ON SATURDAY, MAY 24, 2003 Civil Rights Champion and Harvard Law Professor Lani Guinier to Deliver Commencement Address | Bard College Public Relations". www.bard.edu.
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  81. ^ "The Medlicott Medal". 18 April 2016.
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  83. ^ Johnson, Paul (21 September 2013). "The Story of the Jews, by Simon Schama – review". The Spectator. Retrieved 7 October 2013.
  84. ^ Freedland, Jonathan (6 October 2017). "Simon Schama: finding the light in the darkness of the Jewish story – review". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 October 2017.
  85. ^ "BBC Two – the Romantics and Us with Simon Schama – Episode guide".
  86. ^ "BBC Two – Simon Schama's History of Now – Episode guide".

External links[edit]