Hugh Trevor-Roper at Oxford

January 15, 2014

The centenary of the birth of the controversy-loving historian is marked by the publication of a book of one hundred of his letters

'One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper' published by OUP in 2014 and the Telegraph Sunday Magazine article 'Lord Dacre Crosses Over' published in 1980. All photographs copyright Graham Harrison.

‘One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper’ published by the Oxford University Press in December 2013 and the Telegraph Sunday Magazine article ‘Lord Dacre Crosses Over’ published in October 1980. All photos © Graham Harrison.

“We have invented language, refined it so that it can express even the subtlest thought, even the obscurest sensations; why then should we not use it, and dissolve difficulties by articulating them?” Hugh Trevor-Roper in a letter to James Howard-Johnston, his stepson, written at 8 St. Aldates, Oxford, June 19th 1960.

“The trouble with controversies,” wrote Wallace Notestein, Professor of English History at Yale, to Hugh Trevor-Roper in 1968, “Is they will take your mind away from history. Historians need leisure and quiet almost as much as poets.”

Of course, Trevor-Roper never did take the professor’s advice to heart. And although his critics stress the absence of the monumental volume that might have been expected of a high-flying Oxford don (and his relish for controversy would come back to bite him with his hurried ‘authentication’ of the forged Hitler diaries in 1983) time has been kind to Trevor-Roper’s reputation since his retirement and subsequent death in 2003.

Born in Glanton, Northumberland a hundred years ago today, Hugh Trevor-Roper studied classics at Oxford before changing to history and gaining a first-class honours degree in 1936. During the Second World War he served as an officer in the Radio Security Service decrypting intercepts at Bletchley, and at the war’s end undertook secret research to verify the death of Adolf Hitler for British counter-intelligence. His book on the subject, The Last Days of Hitler, published in 1947, became an international best-seller making him rich and famous at 33. With the support of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan he became Regius Professor of Modern History in 1957 and was created a life peer by Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

Trevor-Roper was knowledgeable on a myriad of subjects and proved even more cavalier in private correspondence than he was in his sometime vitriolic but often sparkling letters and articles written for more public consumption in the press, particularly The Times and The Spectator.

“An enthusiastic (and enjoyably indiscreet) talker,” wrote Tim Heald in the Telegraph Sunday Magazine in 1980. “He signals a good story with a smile which is virtually a smack of the lips, and manages to convey an almost physical suggestion that while life is a serious matter it is also widely comic.”

In July 1980 I photographed Trevor-Roper and his wife, Alexandra, eldest child of Field Marshal Douglas Haig “the butcher of the Somme”, for the magazine as they prepared for Trevor-Roper’s “wholly unexpected defection” from Oxford to Peterhouse, Cambridge. His controversial tenure as Master of Peterhouse lasted until his retirement at the age of 73 in 1987.

“Park in front of the garage with the white door in the yard off Bear Lane,” was the instruction. “Cling left” onto the main street and make your presence known at the yellow door, No. 8 St. Aldates.

In the elegant Georgian property I photographed the departing Regius Professor writing at his desk as Lady Alexandra looked on. I also took shots at neighboring Christ Church of the couple in Tom Quad and of Trevor-Roper outside the library. The next day I photographed the Trevor-Ropers at Cambridge. The Telegraph used the desk shot almost full page: “That’s the best picture you’ve done for us,” growled chief sub-editor Danny Halperin. “It’s got depth.”

Adam Sisman and Richard Davenport-Hines  photos © Graham Harrison

Keeping the don count down: Adam Sisman and Richard Davenport-Hines, editors of ‘One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper’. Photographs © Graham Harrison.

The desk shot has now been used again in One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper. Another of my photographs of Hugh Trevor-Roper, taken in Peckwater Quad looking away from Christ Church Library, is on the cover of the book.

For someone out-of-town and far from gown, any suspicion that the reader of One Hundred Letters might tire of reports concerning bachelor dons or unhappily married dons and their failings – just as Trevor-Roper admits he did of Madame de Sévigné’s “recurrent pregnancies of French countesses” – is allayed as editors Sisman and Davenport-Hines hold the quota south of a profusion leaving their footnotes and Trevor-Roper’s gilded pen to keep the controversies bubbling along.

•  Photos of Hugh Trevor-Roper at Oxford and Cambridge by Graham Harrison: Images available from Rex Features.

•  Richard Davenport-Hines and Adam Sisman at the 2014 FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival: The editors of One Hundred Letter from Hugh Trevor-Roper discuss the historian and his correspondence. 4:00pm, Thursday March 27th 2014 at Christ Church, Oxford.

•  The Battle of Anstey by Ian Bradshaw: In the sixth Fleet Street reminiscence on this page at Gentleman Ranters, Ian Bradshaw, former Picture Editor at the Telegraph colour magazine describes Danny Halperin thus: “An irascible Canadian never far from a joint, who had lived with jazz singer Annie Ross in Paris, Danny had a heart of gold but loved a row and if you could hold your own against him he loved you for ever.”

All photographs and text © Graham Harrison. All rights reserved.


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