David Cannadine


A reader who only knew Sir David Cannadine from his extraordinarily long and distinguished body of publications would doubtless assume that the Dodge Professor of History has devoted his career entirely to scholarship. Yet these publications represent only one facet of David’s remarkable professional odyssey. He has done as much as any living historian in service both to the world of scholarship and to the general public. This combination of achievements is rare, indeed, and Princeton is fortunate to have benefitted from his membership in the Department of History since 2008 — since 2011 in the Dodge chair. Before arriving at Princeton, David held a lectureship at Cambridge University and served as the Moore Collegiate Professor of History at Columbia University. He also served as the director of the Institute of Historical Research and as the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Professor of British History at the University of London.

David’s nearly half a century of publications have focused above all on the grand themes of social status, hierarchy and distinction. Why do certain social groups gain high status, privilege, and power? How do they preserve these things — or lose them? What are the contributing roles of wealth, culture, tradition, and violence? Princeton can claim at least some credit for David’s interest in these matters, for while still a graduate student at Oxford University, he spent the 1973-74 academic year as a Jane Eliza Procter Visiting Fellow at Princeton, where he fell under the influence of Lawrence Stone, one of the great historians of the English aristocracy. The Ph.D. David was completing at the time soon served as the basis for his first book: Lords and Landlords: The Aristocracy and the Towns, 1774-1967 (Leicester University Press, 1980). It argued compellingly, based on case studies including David’s own hometown of Birmingham, that from the late eighteenth century to the mid-twentieth, British aristocrats exercised less and less real influence over urban development, even while continuing to garner social prestige and high rental incomes from their urban properties.

This book paved the way for David’s magnum opus: The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (Yale University Press, 1990). A brilliant and wide-ranging work of social and cultural history, it tracked the declining fortunes, both literal and figurative, of the British upper class between 1880 and 1980, paying particular attention to two very different factors: the collapse of agricultural prices and the rise of a democratic spirit. “No praise can be too high,” Noel Annan proclaimed of the book in the New York Review of Books. He and other reviewers lauded David not only for the strength of his conclusions and the extent of his research, but also for the elegance of his prose, which made The Decline and Fall’s 800-page length a feast rather than a burden.

From there, David’s work has gone in numerous directions. In two shorter, more speculative books — Class in Britain (Yale University Press, 1998) and Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire (Oxford University Press, 2001) — he offered provocative arguments about the nature and importance of social class, both in Britain itself and its overseas empire. Ornamentalism, David’s most controversial book, offered a riposte to Edward Said’s influential Orientalism; its suggestion that class mattered as much as race in how the British ruling class related to the empire’s subject peoples started a series of lively and important debates.

Meanwhile, David was embarked upon a grand biographical project: Mellon: An American Life (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006). In opulent and fascinating detail, David ventured across the Atlantic into the realm of American history, and told the ultimately tragic story of Andrew Mellon, the financier, industrialist, and treasury secretary who, during the Great Depression, withdrew from public life and devoted himself to the art collection that would eventually form the basis for the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Since Mellon came out, David has published no fewer than ten other books, including short biographies of George V and Margaret Thatcher, and a commanding history of nineteenth-century Britain, Victorious Century: The United Kingdom 1800-1906 (Penguin Press, 2017). All in all, David has written a remarkable twenty-one books, edited or co-edited another seventeen, and shows no sign of slowing down, even as he transitions to emeritus status on July 1, 2023.

But as already noted, this record of exceptionally prolific and distinguished scholarship has been just one aspect of David’s career. Equally important has been his astonishing level of service. He has belonged to a score of editorial boards, while taking on the chief editorship of projects that include the Penguin History of Britain, the Penguin History of Europe, and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. In addition to his time directing the Institute of Historical Research, he has served as a board member or trustee of over forty institutions, principally in Britain. Some of these appointments have been honorific, but many have involved heroic amounts of work, including notably David’s many years as chair of the board of the British National Portrait Gallery, and, since 2017, his presidency of the British Academy (the British equivalent of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences). In addition, visitors to Britain should be grateful to him for the seven years he spent chairing the Blue Plaques Panel of English Heritage, which places informative plaques on famous historical residences and other sites.

David’s achievements have been recognized with too many honors to mention them all here. They include several book prizes, no fewer than nine honorary degrees (including from Cambridge University, the University of London, and the University of Birmingham), and, in 2008, a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II. But as his continued productivity makes clear, David is not one to sit on his laurels.

At Princeton, David has served as an important bridge between the University and British academia. He has been a popular teacher and an unfailingly friendly and generous colleague. The graduate seminar he co-teaches on British history with his wife Dame Linda Colley, the Shelby M.C. Davis 1958 Professor of History, is legendary among the University’s European history Ph.D. candidates.

One of the most striking moments in David’s Princeton career came in 2019, when he was called upon to discuss his mentor Lawrence Stone at the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of the Shelby Cullom Davis Center. Speaking without visible notes, he kept his audience spellbound for a talk that perfectly summed up Stone’s career. All of David’s qualities as a historian were on display: his analytical brilliance, his eloquence and wit, his generosity, and his ability to enchant a large audience. It will be long remembered here, as will, of course, David Cannadine himself.

Written by members of the Department of History faculty.