We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  Alan John Percivale Taylor (1906–1990), by Maggi Hambling, 1988 Alan John Percivale Taylor (1906–1990), by Maggi Hambling, 1988
Taylor, Alan John Percivale (1906–1990), historian, was born on 25 March 1906 in Birkdale, Lancashire, the only son (and sole surviving child) of Percy Lees Taylor, Preston cotton merchant, and his wife, Constance Sumner Thompson, schoolmistress. His well-to-do Edwardian Liberal parents subsequently became ardent Labour supporters, which shaped Taylor's lifelong commitment to left-wing causes, notably the first Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Precocious, learned, and spoilt, he was educated at Bootham School in York and Oriel College, Oxford, where, as something of a gilded youth who flirted with the Communist Party, he took a first class in modern history as a medievalist in 1927.

Abandoning his intention of becoming a labour lawyer, Taylor went to Vienna in 1928 as a Rockefeller fellow to work on modern diplomatic history. Appointed a lecturer at Manchester University in 1930, he came under the influence, which he later denied, of his professor, Lewis Namier, and wrote the first of his more than thirty books, The Italian Problem in European Diplomacy, 1847–1849 (1934) and Germany's First Bid for Colonies, 1884–1885 (1938), both mischievous products of hard work, rarely repeated thereafter, in the archives. He schooled himself to lecture (and speak publicly) without notes, a craft he later brought to perfection; contributed regularly as reviewer and leader writer on the Manchester Guardian under A. P. Wadsworth; travelled widely; and cultivated his vegetable garden at Disley in the High Peak.

With Namier's crucial support, Taylor returned to Oxford in 1938 as a fellow of Magdalen College, to which he remained devoted until his retirement in 1976. Soon established as an outstanding tutor of responsive undergraduates and a charismatic, early-morning lecturer, he began to make a wider name for himself as an incisive speaker on current affairs, in person and on the radio. Throughout the Second World War his house at Holywell Ford was a centre for writers young and old, wayward musicians, and the grander Slav refugees clustered in north Oxford as well as his pupils coming on leave. In 1941 he published the most elegant of his books, the elegiac first version of The Habsburg Monarchy, and this was followed in 1945 by his initial best-seller, The Course of German History, a graphic, opinionated pièce d'occasion and the clue to much of his later work in its anti-German assumptions.

Notorious as an early critic of the cold war, Taylor emerged as a national figure with the advent of television. On In the News and Free Speech he caught the viewers' fancy as a quick-witted debater, a Cobbett-like scourge of the ‘establishment’, and, quite simply, something of a card, much appreciated by the ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’, in the phrase of his exemplar, Lord Macaulay. First of the television dons, he retained this primacy into old age as he delivered unscripted lectures direct to the camera on historical themes to a vast audience. Meanwhile he was taken up by Lord Beaverbrook, a lover of maverick left-wingers, as the charms of Oxford faded. A highly paid, sometimes outrageous columnist on the Sunday Express, and the first (and last) director of the Beaverbrook Library, Taylor paid uneasy tribute to an improbable but close friend in Beaverbrook (1972), the last of his substantial works and dedicated to the only man who ever persuaded him to cross the Atlantic.

Long before, Taylor had consolidated his academic reputation. In 1954 The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848–1918 was at once recognized as a model analysis, with its careful attention to the published records. This massive work, with the brief but perceptive Bismarck (1955) and the self-indulgent Ford lectures, The Trouble Makers (1957), fully justified his election to the British Academy in 1956. (Perversely, he resigned on libertarian grounds in 1980 when Anthony Blunt relinquished his fellowship.) Contrary to many expectations, however, Taylor was not appointed regius professor at Oxford in 1957. This failure, in which Namier played some part, remains a subject of uncertain legend, but it did not prevent an embittered man denigrating the university he loved. Thereafter he was consoled by honorary doctorates at Bristol, Manchester, New Brunswick, Warwick, and York, as well as honorary fellowships of both Magdalen (1976) and Oriel (1980).

Superficially, Taylor was an old-fashioned historian, holding that ‘politics express the activities of man in society’, with the addendum that economic and social circumstances must be taken into modest account. A master of narrative but essentially an analyst, he founded no school, despite his influence upon younger historians, and his methods could be a dangerous model. In his heyday Taylor came to rely upon assiduous reading in five languages and sheer intuition—‘green fingers’, in Namier's envious phrase. There was no elaborate filing system, but a prodigious memory could usually supply some evidence for the thousand words tapped out each well-organized morning. Despite his commitment to popular journalism, he was also a superb and creative essayist, and published several volumes based upon serious reviews in the learned journals and The Observer.

Ultimately, Taylor's scholarly standing depends upon three major achievements. The Struggle for Mastery remains unrivalled as a totally authoritative study of international relations in a complicated period. English History, 1914–1945 (1965) is an enthralling, highly idiosyncratic account of his own times, regarded by some as his best book. The Origins of the Second World War (1961) was a dazzling exercise in revisionism, which earned him a mixture of international obloquy and acclaim. Whatever its flaws, this treatment of Hitler as a product of German tradition summed up Taylor's paradoxical, provocative, and inventive approach to historical explanation. A pragmatic loner, suspicious of philosophies of history and a brilliant stylist, he was admired even by his many critics for the range of his erudition, his clarity of presentation, and the fertility of his hypotheses.

Though he enjoyed portraying himself as a simple, true-born Englishman, Taylor was a cosmopolitan intellectual, with an expert knowledge of European architecture, music, and wine. An admirable but frugal host, his table talk was inimitable; a shrewd if nervous man of business, he was soothed by domestic chores; and in old age he became an indefatigable walker in town and country. Short, stocky, and bespectacled, he was vain about his appearance, but always happiest in a crumpled tweed or, more often, corduroy suit, invariably accompanied by a flamboyant bow-tie.

An emotional man, despite the brash exterior, Taylor was three times married and devoted to his six children. In 1931 he married a musician, Margaret, the daughter of Harold Adams, an English merchant trading in India; they had two sons and two daughters. Margaret was later an over-indulgent patron of Dylan Thomas. This marriage was dissolved in 1951 and in the same year he married Eve, daughter of Joseph Beardsel Crosland, under-secretary at the War Office, and sister of Tony Crosland, Labour politician. There were two sons of this marriage, which was dissolved in 1974. In 1976 he married the Hungarian historian Eva Haraszti (1923–2005), daughter of Mitse Herczke, an ironmonger in east Hungary, and widow of Vilmos Hudecz, civil servant. Taylor's last years were clouded by Parkinson's disease and he died at a nursing home in Barnet on 7 September 1990. His remains were cremated at Golders Green on 17 September.

A. F. Thompson, rev.

Sources  

A. J. P. Taylor, A personal history (1983) · A. J. P. Taylor, Letters to Eva (1991) · A. Sisman, A. J. P. Taylor (1994) · K. Burk, Troublemaker (2000) · C. J. Wrigley, ‘Alan John Percival Taylor, 1906–1990’, PBA, 82 (1993), 493–524 · personal knowledge (2004) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1991)

Archives  

Ransom HRC, corresp., research notes, and papers · U. Warwick Mod. RC, notes relating to his views on the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament |  JRL, letters to the Manchester Guardian · King's Lond., Liddell Hart C., corresp. with Sir B. H. Liddell Hart · Parl. Arch., Aitken MSS · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Lord Beaverbrook · Parl. Arch., letters to Eva Haraszti Taylor · U. Sussex Library, corresp. with New Statesman magazine


Likenesses  

M. Hambling, oils, 1988, NPG [see illus.]

Wealth at death  

£307,083: probate, 5 April 1991, CGPLA Eng. & Wales