Obituary: Alex Danchev, historian, teacher and author

Professor Alex Danchev, historian who believed it was down to artists to create a new world order. Picture: Contributed
Professor Alex Danchev, historian who believed it was down to artists to create a new world order. Picture: Contributed
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Born, 26 August 1955 in Bolton. Died: 7 August 2016, aged 60.

Alex Danchev, who has died suddenly aged 60, was one of the most brilliant and versatile historians of our day.

He had been due to appear at Edinburgh’s Book Festival this Friday, to discuss the question that has recently taken much of his attention: the idea that “artists are crucial moral witnesses to our troubled times”.

A warm friend and inspiring teacher, he was the author of biographies of Glasgow University Professor of Moral Philosophy and wartime supply mastermind Lord (Oliver) Franks(“Oliver Franks: Founding Father 1993), and of the British military historian Sir Basil Liddell Hart (“Alchemist of War”, 1998).

Danchev went on to write a life of the artist Paul Cezanne (2012), and is well known to many outside his own academic purlieu in particular for his editorship (with Daniel Todman) of the unexpurgated diaries of the Second World War Chief of the Imperial General Staff Lord Alanbrooke (2001), a work that lays bare much that had hitherto been coyly hidden about Churchill, and others, in action, and contains a drawing by Alanbrooke of Churchill.

Professor Garry Taylor, acting principal and master of St Andrews, paid tribute to Danchev’s “profound commitment to an interdisciplinary exploration of the power of the artistic imagination to illuminate the human and social worlds.”

A prolific author, Danchev was much in demand for reviews and articles, and expressed his own wide-ranging philosophy in a reflection about the German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer: “Contrary to popular belief, it is given to artists, not politicians, to create a new world order.

“The Kieferworld is rich and strange, boundless and immersive, elemental and metaphysical. This artist traffics in fundamental truths…”

Danchev arrived at his insights about art and its influence on the world after taking many academic laurels since the start of his career, which he began in 1979 as an officer in the Royal Army Education Corps.

The son of a mining engineer, he was brought up in Alloa, Clackmannanshire, and Huddersfield, West Yorkshire. He was educated at University College, Oxford, Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and King’s College, London.

He rose to a professorship in his early thirties at Keele University, Staffordshire, specializing in International Relations, and was also the university’s Dean of Social Sciences. By that time he had already held Fellowships at St Antony’s College Oxford and the Wilson Center in Washington DC.

An early interest, which produced many books and articles, was the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States.

He published “Very Special Relationship: Field Marshal Sir John Dill and the Anglo-American Alliance 1941-44 ” in 1986, and kept up his attention to the subject, with “On Specialness: Essays in Anglo-American relations” (1998).

With his wife Dee Cooper and two step-children, 
he made many friends, and was a great follower of jazz music.

His endeavours as a biographer also spread his reputation among the eminent figures he sought out: interviewing Oliver Franks (who lived until 1987) he was astonished when Franks remarked, “I understand you have been to see Isaiah Berlin”.

”Yes”, I said, a little taken aback (Danchev replied) “You are very well informed.” “Oh they all ring up, you know.”

After Keele Danchev moved on to a professorship at Nottingham University, and finally became Professor of International Relations at St Andrews, where he enjoyed the freedom to cross disciplines, spreading his intellectual wings still further.

A recent interest was art as a response to terrorism, and he produced a book of essays, “On Art and War and Terror”, and a further collection, “On God and Evil and the Gray Zone”.

He was revered by his many students as a teacher, and won the Dearing Award for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, and the Political Studies Association Award for Innovation in Teaching.

His many works appeared on a number of lists for prizes: the Liddell Hart biography was put forward for the Whitbread Prize and the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction.

He won acclaim for his translation published in 2013 of The Letters of Cezanne, and at the time of his death was preparing a work on Rene Magritte.

Colleagues, including the historian Lawrence Freedman, expressed dismay at the loss of a still up-and-coming historian whose influence was growing in Britain and internationally: “desperately sad”, Freedman wrote.

At St Andrews, it is recalled: “Colleagues in the school remember a man of great personal warmth, hugely committed to his students; and who was passionate, and deeply articulate, about the wide range of topics that interested him.”

“His life’s work”, wrote the university’s Professor Taylor about Danchev, was “of exploring what it means to live well as a human being. He set us a great example.”