Biography

I was born and grew up in Bishops Stortford Hertfordshire, where my father had a market garden, and went to college at Cambridge. In 1967 I moved from Magdalene College, where I was a student, to Emmanuel, where I was a Fellow and where I have worked ever since. I might have seen little of the bigger world if I had not married Julietta Papadopoulou, who is like me a scholar and lecturer in English literature, and also writes novels – shortlisted for literary prizes -- but in addition is Greek, so that necessarily I now know two sides of Europe's culture.

 

Through my gap year, and through long vacations afterwards, I worked at the local engineering works, Millars Machinery Company, which made all sorts of building plant. Heavy iron is maybe hard to digest and it was well more than a decade before my factory experience turned into the novel The Plate Shop.

Julietta and I married in 1968 – in a small monastery built on the site where St Paul preached to the Thessalonians, with peacocks resting on the roof and coming off it with a long loud swoosh at intervals through the hour-long ceremony, of which then I did not understand a word. 1968 was the second year of the Colonels’ dictatorship, and each year following we spent the long university summer in Greece, where we watched at first hand the ugly evolution of ‘The National Government’, meeting acquaintance who ranged from ardent supporters to those tortured during their interrogation and imprisonment. The Junta fell in 1974, and again it took more than a decade for this ‘political’ experience to become the novel Coup d’Etat.

 

When young I drew a lot, and when I came to Emmanuel I was still making -- and exhibiting locally -- drawings and prints (see below – I had bought for £25 a magnificent Victorian lithographic press like a cast-iron cathedral). The joint interest in books and art gave me my PhD subject, later the book Victorian Novelists and their Illustrators. When I became a Lecturer, and afterwards a Reader, in the English Faculty I continued to teach especially on books, pictures -- and colours. The colour black had intrigue for me, as for many, because it can mean such opposite things, in art and in poetry, in fashion and in funerals. These researches became first one, now two, books. Men in Black analyses the rise and rise of the colour black in men's dress, from mourners through priests to kings, merchants, bankers, engineers, servants, the police: till, in the twentieth century, women took over the strong smart use of black. The Story of Black gives a broader history of the colour, in art from the caves through Caravaggio to Rothko, and within such different evolving studies as physiology and theology: for instance sin, mainly crimson in the aeons before Christ, became black for the Church Fathers, while we find now other blacknesses in the psyche, and in sexuality also. In my recent book The Poetics of Sight I have tried to track the main line through my takes on art and books.

 

I have always had on the stocks, for writing and re-writing, one or another novel. The Legend of Captain Space recalls times spent or mis-spent with motor-bike and cars, at scrambles and racing circuits, in pubs, business offices, and the places where young families go. The Subject of a Portrait imagines the events behind the once-notorious love-affair between the young PreRaphaelite artist Everett Millais and Effie (Euphemia), the wife of John Ruskin, during their trip to the Scottish Highlands in which Millais painted his famous portrait of Ruskin. The idea for this novel came to me abruptly, in a high but deep valley in the aboriginal virgin European forest near the border of Greece with Bulgaria, where we were following a stream with waterfalls so exactly like Glenfinlas that, in as they say a ‘flash’, I visualized Ruskin on his rock, and began to picture the other characters in their long coats and wide dresses. So it grew to be a novel, involving a visit to the Trossachs and stumbling through the under- and over-growth to find the real portrait-site in the real Glenfinlas. I took photos of the waterfalls, to set beside Millais’ painting when trying to imagine what they said – or thought but didn’t say – as the three of them watched the painting emerge.

 

At Emmanuel College, where I am now a Life Fellow, I did my stint as supervisor, Director of Studies, Tutor, Praelector, magazine-editor, and was Vice-Master 2004-06. I was much involved with the Picture, Plate and Furniture Committee, and later with the College Picture Guild, which bought the contemporary paintings at the car-park end of the South Court Picture Gallery. I regularly organized exhibitions of contemporary art in the College and was a co-organiser of the epic Moscow in Cambridge art exhibition, held at Emmanuel, Clare College, and Churchill, in 1990. Later I went to Moscow to organize the exhibition of Russian contemporary art held at Emmanuel in 1994. These frequent contacts with artists, together with my own essays in visual art, contributed to my latest novel Pax, about two artists in two centuries, which is described in the Home section of this website.

 

Otherwise I have reviewed widely for the national press, and given lectures to audiences ranging from the Getty Center in Los Angeles to the Praesidium of the Russian Academy of Fine Art in Moscow. Parts of me have been translated into ten or more languages. I have been a Trustee of the Dickens Society of America and of the Cambridge Darkroom Gallery. Long ago now, in 1970, I redesigned the service of plates that are still used by students in Hall at Emmanuel.

NOTE: The book-descriptions and review-quotes in this website are mainly taken from the publishers’ copy. The good looks of the website are thanks to Tom Corder, who made it.

New-born baby by John Harvey
New-born baby (lithograph)
Thessaloniki evening by John Harvey
Thessaloniki evening (pen drawing)

© 2019 by John Harvey, jrh49@cam.ac.uk 

Novelist, art critic, literary critic and Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge

  • Facebook
  • Twitter