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Hale, Sir John Rigby (1923–1999), historian and public servant, was born on 17 September 1923 at Ashford, Kent, the only son and youngest of the three children of Edward Rigby Stephenson Hale, a medical doctor, and his wife, Hilda, née Birks. As a boy he was extraordinarily precocious in both reading and writing, and at thirteen he went to Eastbourne College with a scholarship. He won a scholarship to Jesus College, Oxford, in 1941, but postponed taking it up until after the war, spending the intervening years in the merchant navy as a radio operator. He went up to Oxford in 1945, won the Gladstone memorial prize for history in 1947, and graduated with the top first in history in 1948. As an undergraduate he was also heavily involved in the theatre, being secretary of the Oxford University Dramatic Society (1946–7), and making several notable stage appearances in Oxford. In the summer of 1948 he was elected to a fellowship and college tutorship in modern history at Jesus, but postponed taking up the appointment for a year in order to hold a Commonwealth fellowship in the United States.

Hale was a passionate traveller. His years in the merchant navy and in America, followed by many later visits to the USA, nourished an enthusiasm which lasted all his life and coloured much of his writing. His first visit to Italy in 1947 captured his imagination completely, and on his return he studied the Italian Renaissance with Cecilia Ady in his final undergraduate year. From that beginning he went on to become one of the foremost Renaissance historians in Britain. He remained an Oxford don for fifteen years, continuing to play a central role in the university's theatrical life, and editing the Oxford Magazine in 1958–9. He married a student, Rosalind Margaret, daughter of Theodore Rowland Williams, a member of the executive council of Jamaica, on 19 July 1952. They had three children, Sophie, Matthew, and Charlotte. The marriage ended in divorce, and on 22 December 1965 he married Sheila MacIvor, an American journalist and travel writer, and daughter of Frederick Hamm, an advertising executive. They had one son, John.

In 1964 Hale accepted the founding chair of history at the new University of Warwick. Over a period of five years he created a history department with a strong emphasis on European and American history, and a syllabus which involved undergraduates in studying abroad both in American universities and in Venice, where he established a Warwick Renaissance programme. In 1969 he left Warwick to take up a visiting professorship at the University of California, Berkeley, and in the following year he was appointed to the chair of Italian at University College, London, after the death of Roberto Weiss. He remained at University College until he retired in 1988, presiding over the Italian department until 1985 and then moving to a personal chair in history.

Hale was a man of extraordinarily wide interests. Among his early books were contributions to the history of travel and colonization, England and the Italian Renaissance (1954), Machiavelli and Renaissance Italy (1961), and the chapters on war and diplomacy in the first three volumes of the New Cambridge Modern History (1957– ). All were distinguished by a fresh and vivid style, and an ability to cut straight to the heart of a subject. By the late 1960s two particular interests had emerged: the first was what he once called ‘consensus history’, that is, the investigation of popular ideas, attitudes, and perceptions as expressed in literature, letters, and diaries; the second was in Renaissance fortifications, both as indications of changing priorities and preoccupations in war, and as works of art, a subject on which he had lectured in the early 1960s. Literary and visual culture were the sources for some of his best-known books, the stimulating textbook Renaissance Europe, 1480–1520 (1971), Artists and Warfare in the Renaissance (1990), and above all his final book, the monumental Civilisation of Europe in the Renaissance (1993). Also in the late 1960s came a growing interest in and commitment to Venice, which led him to make increasing use of archive sources in his work and led to a stream of specialist articles on aspects of Venetian history, mostly associated with war. Many of these were brought together in Renaissance War Studies (1983) and woven into the fabric of his book written jointly with Michael Mallett, The Military Organisation of a Renaissance State: Venice, c.1400–1617 (1984). While it was as a leader of a new generation of military historians that he came to be best-known, his sensitive handling of a wide range of cultural topics, from printing to painting, was also a trade mark.

Apart from being a charismatic teacher and a very productive working historian, Hale also had another career, as a successful and influential cultural administrator. He was for six years chairman of the trustees of the National Gallery (1974–80) at a time of remarkable development for the gallery, and he served on the committees of many other galleries and museums. He chaired the museums and galleries committee working party on museum professional training and career structure, and was largely responsible for its influential report in 1987. He masterminded the Genius of Venice exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1983, and was knighted in the following year for his services to scholarship and the arts. In 1977 he had been elected a fellow of the British Academy, and in 1986 he was awarded the academy's Serena medal for distinguished publications in Italian studies.

Hale was an immensely popular figure. Auburn-haired, of medium height, quietly elegant, and a brilliant conversationalist and raconteur, he radiated both enthusiasm and good sense. In an increasingly busy life he always seemed to have time for everyone, though not necessarily at the time appointed. Nothing was more indicative of his own inner toughness and zest for life, and of the strength of his friendships, than the courage with which he faced the effects of a severe stroke in 1992, and the love with which his friends and family supported and encouraged him. The last seven years of his life were as much a triumph as a travail, given that he continued to lead a full life and to communicate, without speech, with his friends. He died peacefully in his sleep at his home, 26 Montpelier Row, Twickenham, of a secondary stroke on 12 August 1999. He was survived by his wife Sheila and his four children.

Michael Mallett

Sources  

M. E. Mallett, PBA, 111 (2001), 531–50 · D. S. Chambers, C. H. Clough, and M. E. Mallett, War, culture and society in Renaissance Venice: essays in honour of John Hale (1993), ix–xi, xiii–xxiii · WWW · The Times (13 Aug 1999) · The Guardian (13 Aug 1999) · Daily Telegraph (16 Aug 1999) · The Independent (19 Aug 1999) · private information (2004) · personal knowledge (2004) · m. certs. · d. cert.

Archives  

National Gallery, London, corresp. · UCL, official corresp. and academic papers |  Tate collection, corresp. with Lord Clark


Likenesses  

F. Martin, photograph, 1977, repro. in The Guardian · photograph, 1977, repro. in Daily Telegraph · photograph, 1987, repro. in The Times · S. Quill, photograph, repro. in The Independent

Wealth at death  

£53,261—gross; £51,261—net: probate, 8 Nov 1999, CGPLA Eng. & Wales