Influential historian who made history accessible and entertaining through his writing, television and radio broadcasts
The historian and broadcaster A. J. P. Taylor (1906-1990), known as “The History Man”, is to be commemorated with an English Heritage blue plaque at 13 St Mark’s Crescent, Primrose Hill. This mid nineteenth-century semi-detached villa was his home from 1955 to 1978, and was where he enjoyed his greatest period of productivity and fame. Being based in London proved crucial for Taylor and as he later admitted in his biography: “without the contacts I made in London, I should never have become either a journalist or a television star.”
A tremendously influential historian and a talented communicator, Taylor radically changed the way international and diplomatic history was studied and became a pioneer in making history accessible and entertaining for all. From his beginnings as a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford in 1938, he went on to establish a career as a radio and television celebrity and writer for the popular press. Despite his popularity, he was no stranger to controversy; in The Origins of the Second World War (1961), he argued, controversially, that Hitler had not planned the war and was not solely responsible for its timing.
"The Peoples' Historian"
Professor Sir Christopher Frayling, member of the English Heritage Blue Plaques Panel, said: "A.J.P. Taylor was by far the best-known professional historian in postwar Britain: his provocative, best-selling books on the origins and causes of the First and Second World Wars; his broadcasts on radio and television; his regular newspaper columns; his witty and argumentative style combined with first-rate scholarship – all led to him being justly dubbed "the peoples' historian". He was the best television lecturer there has ever been – without notes, but with the confidence of a lifetime's experience of 19th and 20th century European history. Other historians were deeply envious of this gift. AJP Taylor was a genuine 'public intellectual' – in a culture where that phrase is usually greeted with embarrassment: a major figure in British public life, who brought serious history out of the cloister and into everyone's living rooms."
Born in Lancashire in 1906, Arthur John Percivale Taylor was the only surviving child of Percy and Connie Taylor, who were Radical Liberals and Nonconformists and a major intellectual influence on their son. Having graduated with a first in History from Oxford, he travelled to Vienna to read in the Chancellery archives, which resulted in his first book, The Italian Problem in European Diplomacy, 1847-1849 (1934). While working as an Assistant Lecturer at Manchester University in 1930 he met Lewis Namier, who encouraged him to branch out into book-reviews and journalism.
Shortly after being elected as a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford in 1938, Taylor began giving lectures to the armed forces on recent war developments, alongside public lectures for the Ministry of Information. He continued teaching his courses on European history, having not been called up, and saw the beginnings of real academic success. His hugely popular book The Course of German History (1945) sold 6,000 copies in six months and, in what was probably the high point of his career as a diplomatic historian, he began writing his major work The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918 (1954) shortly after his move to London in 1950.
It was during this period that Taylor made his first appearance as a broadcaster, on Your Questions Answered for the BBC Forces Network in 1942. Thereafter he became a regular commentator on political matters and was further inspired to concentrate on his radio and television career when he failed to win the Regius Professorship at Oxford. During the 1950s he appeared on television discussion programmes such as In the News and Free Speech, thus becoming one of the first ‘media dons’, and had a series of history lectures broadcast on Independent Television. These included When Europe was the Centre of the World, reaching an estimated audience of 750,000. He also wrote weekly columns in the popular press, such as the Sunday Pictorial and the Sunday Express and became an active member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).
It was in 1961 that Taylor’s most controversial book was published – The Origins of the Second World War; it took a revisionist line which some critics thought evidentially suspect and overly lenient towards Hitler. His later works included English History, 1914–1945 (1965), regarded by some as his best book, and a biography of the press baron Lord Beaverbrook (1972), his friend and sometime employer. From the 1960s to the 1980s Taylor broadcast many lecture series for Independent Television and the BBC, including Prime Ministers (1960) and The Twenties (1962), with his final lecture series, How Wars End, on Channel 4 in 1985. The lectures were notable for being filmed in one take, without notes, and showcased his extraordinary communication skills. Taylor ceased being a lecturer at Magdelen College 1963, although he continued as a Fellow, and he was Honorary Director of the Beaverbrook Library from 1967 to 1975. Three times married, he had six children.
Taylor died in 1990, having suffered from Parkinson’s disease for a number of years. His autobiography, A Personal History, was published in 1984, and he continued to indulge his love of communicating history until very late in his life, volunteering as a lecturer for the Historical Association, and giving occasional papers at Oxford and other universities. Several of his publications remain on university reading lists today.
St Mark's Crescent
Number 13 St Mark’s Crescent, Primrose Hill, was Taylor’s main London home from 1955 to 1978 and of great significance to his career – he spent time working at the house during the most productive and successful stage of his life. The semi-detached villa, which dates from between 1851 and 1862, lies within a Conservation Area. Taylor’s will be the third blue plaque in St Mark’s Crescent, the street already being home to English Heritage plaques for Sir Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-1861), poet, and William Roberts (1895-1980), artist; the latter is on the house next door.
Taylor’s grandson, Ben Taylor, said: "A.J.P. Taylor was not only a brilliant historian but also a role model to his family. His enthusiasm, knowledge and passion for history shone through in his numerous television appearances and although I only knew him briefly before his death in 1990, I look back on his many achievements with a large sense of pride and feel honoured that he is my grandad. I have just completed a masters in history and my brother is a history teacher, so although we may never achieve as much as he did in his lifetime and beyond, a large part of his passion for history lives on through us."