Simon Schama

Sir Simon Michael Schama CBE FBA FRSL (/ˈʃæmə/; born 13 February 1945) is an English historian specialising in art history, Dutch history, Jewish history and French history. He is a University Professor of History and Art History at Columbia University, New York.[1]

Sir Simon Schama

Schama in 2013
BornSimon Michael Schama
(1945-02-13) 13 February 1945
Marylebone, London, England
OccupationAcademic, Art historian
ResidenceBriarcliff Manor, New York, U.S.
EducationHaberdashers' Aske's Boys' School
Alma materChrist's College, Cambridge
Notable awardsWolfson History Prize
Leo Gershoy Award
Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature
SpouseVirginia Papaioannou

He first came to public attention with his history of the French Revolution titled Citizens, published in 1989.[1] In the United Kingdom, he is perhaps best known for writing and hosting the 15-part BBC television documentary series A History of Britain broadcast between 2000 and 2002.[2][3] Schama was knighted in the 2018 Queen's Birthday Honours List.[4]

Early life and education

Schama was born in Marylebone, London.[1][5] His mother, Gertie (née Steinberg), was from an Ashkenazi Jewish family (from Kovno, 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.[6][7]

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]


Schama worked for short periods as a lecturer in history at Cambridge, where he was a Fellow and Director of Studies in History at Christ's College. He then taught for some time at Oxford, where he was made a Fellow of Brasenose College in 1976, specialising in the French Revolution.[1]

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.[8][9]

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

In 1980, Schama took up a chair at Harvard University. His next book, The Embarrassment of Riches (1987), again focused on Dutch history.[10] 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.[11]

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][12]

Schama appeared as an on-screen expert in Michael Wood's 1989 PBS series, "Art of the Western World" as a presenting art historian, commenting on paintings by Diego Velázquez, Rembrandt, and Johannes Vermeer.[13]

In 1991, he published Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations),[14] 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.[15][16]

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,[17] but later assessments took a more relaxed view of the experiment.[18]

It was an approach soon taken up by such historical writers as Peter Ackroyd, David Taylor, and Richard Holmes.[19]

Sales in hardback exceeded those of Schama's earlier works, as shown by relative rankings by[20]

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.[21][22]

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.[23] 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.[24]


In 1995, Schama wrote and presented a series called Landscape and Memory to accompany his book of the same name. 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.[25] Three series were made, totalling 15 episodes,[26][27] covering the complete span of British history up until 1965;[27] 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.[27]

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,[28] 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.[29]

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

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.[32]

In 2010, Schama presented a series of ten talks for the BBC Radio 4 series A Point of View:

  • Why We Like Tough Guys in Politics: When times are hard people seem to prefer tough leaders.
  • Singing in the Rain: Schama looks forward to spring with personal reflections on the changing seasons.
  • At the Heart of the Matter: The politics surrounding President Barack Obama's healthcare reforms.
  • The Gift of the Gab: The history of political rhetoric and the power during election campaigns of televised debates.
  • Behold, Newstralia!: Celebrates the distinctive history and culture of New Zealand and regrets any renewed talk of joining forces with Australia.
  • A Welcome Slice of American Pie: Reflection on the quality of American food and eating habits.
  • The Drama of Politics: The timeless drama of British politics.
  • When Money is Just an Illusion: Reflection on the meaning of money as represented by coins and notes and in art.
  • Hearts of Oak: Reflection on the significance of one of the sights that will greet new MPs in the chamber of the House of Commons – the panelling made of solid oak.
  • Britain's New Politics: Reflection on the 2010 United Kingdom general election, favourably comparing the British system for a swift handover of power to the cumbersome American one.[33]

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

In 2018, Simon Schama wrote and presented five of the nine episodes of Civilisations, a reboot of the 1969 series by Kenneth Clark.[37]

Personal life

Schama is Jewish. He is married to Virginia Papaioannou, a geneticist from California; they have two children, Chloe and Gabriel.[38] As of 2014, he resides in Briarcliff Manor, New York.[39] Schama is a Tottenham Hotspur supporter.[40]


In 2010, Schama was a financial donor to Oona King's unsuccessful campaign to become Mayor of London.[41]

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.[42]

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 "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.[43] 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".[44]


Schama was critical of a call by British novelist John Berger for an academic boycott of Israel over its policies towards the Palestinians. Writing in The Guardian in an article co-authored with Anthony Julius, Schama compared Berger's academic boycott to policies adopted by 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."[45]

In 2006 on the BBC, Schama debated with Vivienne Westwood the morality of Israel's actions in the Israel-Lebanon War.[46] He described Israel's bombing of Lebanese city centres as unhelpful to Israel's attempt to "get rid of" Hezbollah.[46] 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."[46]

United States

Schama was a supporter of President Barack Obama[47] and a critic of George W. Bush.[48] He appeared on the BBC's coverage of the 2008 US presidential election, clashing with John Bolton.[49]

Prizes and other honours

  • 1977: Wolfson History Prize, for Patriots and Liberators
  • 1977: Leo Gershoy Award, for Patriots and Liberators
  • 1987: New York Times Best Books of the Year, for The Embarrassment of Riches
  • 1989: New York Times Best Books of the Year, for Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution
  • 1989: Yorkshire Post Book Award, for Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution
  • 1995: Elected to Honorary Fellowship, Christ's College, Cambridge
  • 1996: Lionel Trilling Book Award, for Landscape and Memory
  • 1996: WH Smith Literary Award, for Landscape and Memory
  • 2001: St. Louis Literary Award from the Saint Louis University Library Associates[50][51]
  • 2001: Broadcasting Press Guild Writer's Award, for A History of Britain
  • 2001: Nominated for BAFTA Huw Wheldon Award for Specialised Programme or Series (Arts, History, Religion and Science), for A History of Britain[52]
  • 2002: Nominated for BAFTA Richard Dimbleby Award for the Best Presenter (Factual, Features and News), for A History of Britain
  • 2003: Nominated for Outstanding Individual Achievement in a Craft: Writing Emmy Award for The Two Winstons, an episode of A History of Britain[53]
  • 2006: National Book Critics Circle Award for Non-fiction winner, for Rough Crossings[54]
  • 2006: Hessell-Tiltman Prize Shortlist, for Rough Crossings
  • 2007: International Emmy Award, for Bernini, an episode of Simon Schama's Power of Art[55]
  • 2007: Nominated for BAFTA Huw Wheldon Award for Specialised Factual Programme or Series, for Simon Schama's Power of Art
  • 2008: The Daily Telegraph's 110 Best Books: The Perfect Library, for Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution
  • 2011: Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement[56]
  • 2015: Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy[57]
  • 2017: Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature[58]
  • 2018: Knight Bachelor, for services to 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)[21][59]
  • Rembrandt's Eyes (1999, ISBN 0676593925)[59]
  • 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)[31]
  • 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, Volume I: Finding the Words, 1000 BCE–1492 CE (2013, Bodley Head, ISBN 9781847921321)[60]
  • The Face of Britain: The Nation through Its Portraits (2015, ISBN 9780241963715)
  • Belonging: The Story of the Jews 1492–1900, Volume II of the trilogy (2017, Bodley Head, ISBN 9781847922809)[61]
Television documentaries


  1. Snowman, Daniel (2004). "Simon Schama". History Today. 54 (7): 34–36.
  2. "BBC Two - A History of Britain by Simon Schama - Episode guide". BBC. Retrieved 16 September 2018.
  3. McCrum, Robert (30 September 2000). "Observer review: A History of Britain by Simon Schama". the Guardian. Retrieved 16 September 2018.
  4. "Honours list" (PDF). 2018.
  5. Silverstone, Ben. "Schama's art of making history". The Jewish Chronicle. Archived from the original on 5 October 2011. Retrieved 23 July 2006.
  6. "A Jewish Telegraph Newspaper". Retrieved 26 August 2014.
  7. "Simon Schama Interview | The Jewish Chronicle". 12 October 2013. Retrieved 26 August 2014.
  8. "Patriots and Liberators by Simon Schama - Paperback | HarperCollins". HarperCollins UK. Retrieved 16 September 2018.
  9. "History, his way". the Guardian. 16 October 1999. Retrieved 16 September 2018.
  10. Daniel, M., and S. Steinberg. "Simon Schama." Publishers Weekly 238, No. 22 (17 May 1991): 46. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed 30 April 2009).
  11. "He provides a reading of cultural tints and social textures", the reviewers in Contemporary Sociology (Vol. 17.6 (November 1988: 760–62) found, "at a level of visual detail that is usually reserved for art history."
  12. 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.
  13. Art of the Western World (TV Series 1989– ), retrieved 16 September 2018
  14. Halttunen, Karen. "Review of "Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations) by Simon Schama". The Journal of American History. 79 (2 (Sep. 1992)): 631. JSTOR 2080071.
  15. "Simon Schama on Dead Certainties: 'Historians shouldn't make it up,". The Independent. Retrieved 16 September 2018.
  16. Bernstein, Richard. "A Historian Enters Fiction's Shadowy Domain". Retrieved 16 September 2018.
  17. 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
  18. Toplin, Robert Brent (1996). History by Hollywood: the use and abuse of the American past. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. p. 7quote=a fascinating experiment in historical writing. ISBN 0-252-06536-0.
  19. Byatt, A. S. (2000). On histories and stories: selected essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. p. 10. ISBN 0-674-00451-5.
  20. Amazon sales ranks (hardback versions), as at December 2010: Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations, 103,781; Citizens, 320,762; The Embarrassment of Riches, 877,177.
  21. Williams, Michael. "Review of: "Landscape and Memory" by Simon Schama". Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 87 (3): 564–65. doi:10.1111/1467-8306.t01-1-00067. JSTOR 2564086.
  22. Gussow, Mel (5 June 1995). "Into Arcadia with Simon Schama". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  23. "Hang-Ups, Essays on Painting (Mostly) by Simon Schama". Retrieved 16 September 2018.
  24. Schama, Simon (6 November 2004). "Hang Ups by Simon Schama". the Guardian. Retrieved 16 September 2018.
  25. "Simon Schama Antidote". History News Network. Archived from the original on 18 June 2006. Retrieved 28 March 2007.
  26. "A History of Britain". IMDb. Retrieved 28 March 2007.
  27. Cooper, Barbara Roisman. "A Wild Ride" Through A History of Britain With Simon Schama. British Heritage 23, no. 6 (November 2002): 48. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed 30 April 2009)
  28. Walvin, James (3 September 2005). "Review: Rough Crossings by Simon Schama". the Guardian. Retrieved 16 September 2018.
  29. Butterworth, Alex (24 September 2005). "Observer review: Rough Crossings by Simon Schama". the Guardian. Retrieved 16 September 2018.
  30. "Simon Schama's Power of Art". BBC Two. BBC. Retrieved 28 March 2007.
  31. Nalley, Richard. "Simon Schama's Power of Art." Forbes 180 (18 September 2007): 165–165. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed 30 April 2009).
  32. "BBC Radio 4 Extra - Simon Schama - Baseball and Me - Episode guide". BBC. Retrieved 16 September 2018.
  33. "A welcome slice of American pie, A Point of View - BBC Radio 4". BBC. Retrieved 16 September 2018.
  34. "Simon Schama to present The History of the Jews on BBC Two". BBC. 2 February 2011.
  35. "The Story of the Jews". BBC Programmes. BBC Two. Retrieved 10 September 2013.
  36. Anthony, Andrew (28 September 2013). "Simon Schama: a man always making history". The Observer. Retrieved 7 October 2013.
  37. "Civilisations: Masterworks of beauty and ingenuity". BBC. Retrieved 16 June 2018.
  38. "Simon Schama: Could I have multiple personality disorder?". The Telegraph. Retrieved 15 February 2017.
  39. Lombroso, Linda (24 March 2014). "Briarcliff historian tells PBS' 'The Story of the Jews'". The Journal News. Retrieved 2 September 2014.
  40. Schama, Simon. "The Yid Army's chants turn anti-semitism into kitsch banter". Financial Times.
  41. White, Michael (13 August 2010). "David Miliband hits it rich in leadership race as stars back Burnham and Balls". The Guardian. London.
  42. "Celebrities' open letter to Scotland – full text and list of signatories". The Guardian. London. 7 August 2014. Retrieved 26 August 2014.
  43. Sugarman, Daniel (6 November 2017). "Schama, Sebag-Montefiore and Jacobson unite to condemn Labour antisemitism". The Jewish Chronicle. Retrieved 2 May 2018.
  44. Boscia, Stefan (14 July 2019). "Jewish figures rail against Labour's handling of antisemitism charges". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 November 2019.
  45. Simon Schama; Anthony Julius (22 December 2006). "John Berger is wrong". The Guardian.
  46. "This Week – Simon Schama & Vivienne Westwood". This Week. BBC. 24 July 2006.
  47. 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.
  48. 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.
  49. "Road to the White House". The Evening Times. 5 November 2008. Archived from the original on 8 November 2008. Retrieved 5 November 2008.
  50. "Saint Louis Literary Award - Saint Louis University".
  51. Saint Louis University Library Associates. "Saint Louis University Library Associates Announce Winner of 2001 Literary Award". Retrieved 25 July 2016.
  52. "BAFTA Awards". British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Retrieved 12 November 2013.
  53. "Simon Schama - Awards". Retrieved 22 January 2019.
  54. Bosman, Julie. "National Briefing | Arts: National Book Critics Circle Winners", New York Times (9 March 2007): 20. Academic Search Premier; accessed 1 May 2009.
  55. "Professor Schama Wins International Emmy for Power of Art". Retrieved 22 January 2019.
  56. "Kenyon Review for Literary Achievement". Retrieved 16 June 2018.
  57. "British Academy Fellowship reaches 1,000 as 42 new UK Fellows are welcomed". 16 July 2015. Retrieved 16 June 2018.
  58. Natasha Onwuemezi, "Rankin, McDermid and Levy named new RSL fellows", The Bookseller, 7 June 2017; accessdate 16 June 2018.
  59. Binstock, Benjamin. "eRembrandt's Eyes by Simon Schama". The Art Bulletin. 82 (2 (Jun. 2000)): 361–366. JSTOR 3051386.
  60. Johnson, Paul (21 September 2013). "The Story of the Jews, by Simon Schama – review". The Spectator. Retrieved 7 October 2013.
  61. Freedland, Jonathan (6 October 2017). "Simon Schama: finding the light in the darkness of the Jewish story – review". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 October 2017.

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