Professor John Dixon Hunt
Doctor of Letters
20 July 2006 - Orator: Professor Stephen Bann
Few scholars in the arts have had so distinguished and varied an academic record as John Dixon Hunt. Few, if any, can claim to have launched not just one, but two sites of interdisciplinary study in the course of their career. The fact that Professor Hunt spent many of his formative years at Bristol, first at the Grammar School, and later as a postgraduate at the University, is a source of pride to us, and makes it a privilege as well as a pleasure to welcome him today.
John Dixon Hunt was born in Gloucester in 1936. His father was a professional actor, who established his own company and barnstormed the West Country with Shakespeare and dramatised Dickens in the 1920s. In the 1930s, he became a local government officer in Gloucester, but kept up his involvement with the stage as an amateur. We cannot tell if John was paraded during his childhood as an ‘infant phenomenon’, à la Nicholas Nickleby, but his first speaking role was certainly Puck on a vicarage lawn in Gloucester. This thespian heritage stood him in good stead when he progressed to Bristol Grammar School. At the school play in 1951, he was the Dauphin in Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth, noted for his ‘vast sneer, penetrating accent, effective venom and petulant stamp’. I quote the lively drama reviews in the Grammar School Chronicle, which acclaimed his versatility in switching to Hamlet’s companion in the following year: ‘His Horatio was like the Rock of Gibraltar, but also intelligent – an unusual quality’. In such roles, and in his performances at the annual poetry-reading competition, John Dixon Hunt made his mark at Bristol Grammar. Roy Avery, a future headmaster, quotes the words of the then headmaster, John Garrett, as being fully applicable to him: ‘Whatever success he will achieve in life will always delight but never surprise us’.
The immediate reward was an exhibition to King’s College, Cambridge, where he read English between 1954 and 1957, and demonstrated more versatility by captaining the hockey team, and editing an occasional little poetry magazine, Pawn (spelled P A W N). In the partisan world of post-war Cambridge English studies, FR Leavis of Downing College represented one camp, that proselytised through the journal Scrutiny. King’s, with the mantle of Bloomsbury still extending over it, was Leavis’s bête noir. We suppose that John Dixon Hunt steered a tactful path between these rival camps. But it was a critic of the old school, FL Lucas, of whom he wrote that his ‘example and enthusiasm first led [him] into Victorian literature’. After a period as teaching fellow and instructor in America, he returned to Britain to undertake a PhD in that field in the English department at Bristol, under the supervision of Dr BL Joseph. His doctorate was conferred in 1964, and in 1968 a revised version became his first book, The Pre-Raphaelite Imagination.
The mid-1960s were an exciting time for higher education in Britain, and (like myself, I may say) John Dixon Hunt soon opted for the challenge of the ‘New Universities’. He spent the years 1964 to 1975 as Lecturer in English at the University of York, where he was also Deputy Provost of Langwith College. This was where I first met him around 1972, on a quest for contributors to a forum on ‘interdisciplinary approaches’ in the Humanities. The eloquent piece that he wrote for me on ‘the role of visual items in the literary imagination’ betokened his growing interest in the relation between words and images, already evident in the innovative texts that he had edited in 1971 under the title Encounters: essays on literature and the visual arts.
These years in Yorkshire were fortunate ones, since, acknowledging his maternal grandparents, he has always considered himself a Yorkshireman. If Americans ask where in England he is from, he replies, ‘Yorkshire’, and explains that it is the Texas of the United Kingdom, leaving them to figure it out … However the success of his publications, including The Figure in the Landscape (1971), duly led to him being offered a Readership at Bedford College, where he remained, and had his first Chair conferred, between 1975 and 1982. Occupying a splendid office in one of the villas in Regents Park, he took every opportunity to develop his growing passion for the history of gardens, while extending his Victorian themes with outstanding work on Ruskin. The sad demise of Bedford College then prompted him to look further afield, and he accepted a Regius Chair of English Literature at the ancient University of Leiden in Holland.
This account could continue – and will – with further personal achievements. But it is important to record an achievement of another kind. Lady Bracknell implied that it was unfortunate to lose one parent, but to lose two might be attributed to ‘carelessness’. I say that to launch one unique, highly successful academic journal could be attributed to good luck, but to launch two must bethe result of genius. The Journal of Garden History began publication in 1981, setting a new standard for intellectual rigour in the subject. Though it has changed its format and its title, it has not lost its authority. Word & Image – A Journal of Verbal-Visual Enquiry followed in 1985. In that case, format and title have remained impregnable, and it would take hours to exhaust the topics constellating over two decades around this pre-eminent interdisciplinary theme.
Garden History has been John Dixon Hunt’s major concern from the mid-1980s onwards. In 1986, having left Leiden for a period at East Anglia, he published Garden and Grove: the Italian Renaissance garden in the English imagination. He was then living in Aylesham, the Norfolk village associated with Humphrey Repton, whose garden we proudly maintain around Royal Fort House. But he was ineluctably drawn to the most prestigious world institution promoting garden studies: Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Library in Washington DC, itself flaunting the most charmingly sophisticated garden in North America. John Dixon Hunt was Director of Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks for several years, transforming what had become a slightly inward-looking section into a powerhouse for international research. Living in Washington enabled him to forge links with other research centres in the national capital. I note the publication of a symposium held in 1989 at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery, where he documented his introduction on ‘The Pastoral Landscape’ with an image of ‘Sheep grazing at the White House, late 1910s’, and the wry caption: ‘there sheep may safely graze’.
From 1994 until the present, John Dixon Hunt has been Professor of Landscape Architecture and Chair of the department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania. His list of publications continues to grow, with his book on The Afterlife of Gardens offering a stimulating new direction. His edited series, Penn Studies in Landscape Architecture, is without doubt at the cutting edge of the field. His European reputation has been confirmed by the French government’s conferment of the title of ‘Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres’ – an appropriate honour for someone so proficient in both. As Bristol is now building upon the existing graduate programme, and creating its own Institute of Garden History, this is an auspicious time to honour him.
Madam Chancellor, I present to you Professor John Dixon Hunt as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.