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Oliver, 1st Year

Dr John Harvey

Photo of Dr John Harvey

MA LittD

Life Fellow

John Harvey has published three books in the past six years. The most recent is The Poetics of Sight from Peter Lang (2015), which compares the role of sight in the visual imagination of writers and in the actual practice of artists. The key concept is Visual Metaphor, which in the twentieth century gained overarching importance: in art from Duchamp to Kapoor, in poetry from Eliot to Hughes, in aesthetics from Pound to Derrida. Jorge L Contreras, writing in the PRSReview, found the book ‘accomplished and lucid. . . a lively and engaging tour de force . . . enjoyable and edifying.’ Jane Partner, in the Cambridge Quarterly, found it ‘serious, profound, and economical, but also lively, inventive and warmly conversational’. She began her review with the comment ‘Anyone who reads this book will read differently afterwards’ while Simon Lavery, in Tredynas Days, concluded 'I commend this book: it’ll change the way you read'.

Another of John’s visual studies, published in 2013, was The Story of Black (Reaktion) -- actually the second of two books he has written on the colour black. The Story of Black records the inward movement of the colour black through history as various blacks were discovered inside our bodies, our minds and our souls, and then transformed again into masterpieces of art. The Journal of Visual Studies called it 'composed and elegant . . . an excellent, readable and even joyful general introduction to a complex topic’ and The Literary Review ‘a richly informative treat, with curiosities culled from a very wide range of sources, and written with unostentatious elegance . . . a book to instruct and delight'. Between them the ‘black’ books have been translated into ten languages.

And in 2014 John published his latest novel, The Subject of a Portrait (Polar Books), which recreates the trip to Scotland, in 1853, of John Ruskin, his young wife Effie, and the PreRaphaelite painter John Everett Millais. One purpose of the trip was for Millais to paint Ruskin's portrait in a scene of nature. The novel seeks to catch the excitement of watching an artist, torn by conflicts, produce a great painting: while a young wife must change the foundations of her life, and a great critic gains revolutionary insight at the cost his personal disaster. The novel was described by Lucy Scholes in The Independent as 'a discerning and rather sumptuous study of one of history's most infamous love triangles'. The novelist Anita Desai found it 'so alive, so full of movement and momentum', and the distinguished literary critic Christopher Ricks described it as 'excellent; I was taken by every page; more, every sentence. It is beautifully and startlingly written, the sudden shifts and turns, impulse and counter-impulse within and from these remarkable people. A very fine love story.' Happily, the specialist reviewer in The Pre-Raphaelite Society Review found the Ruskin marriage 'vividly and viscerally present', and the novel itself 'a true page-turner' which 'becomes impossible to put down'

John has published four novels. His first was The Plate Shop (Collins, 1979), which depicts shop floor life in a heavy engineering works, as observed at first hand. It won the David Higham Prize for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize and the Yorkshire Post Fiction Prize. Coup d'Etat (Collins, 1985) describes life under the military dictatorship in Greece, and also portrays the dictators themselves. It anatomizes the life-cycle of a dictatorship from revolution to collapse, and just missed the Booker shortlist for 1985. The novel was described by the literary critics Anthony Thwaite and Geoffrey Strickland as 'Tolstoyan', and was selected by Chris Patten (in The Sunday Telegraph) as 'the novel which shows the best grasp of political life'. Alan Massie in the Scotsman found it 'Impressive, compelling . . . a fine work . . . tense, exciting and significant.' The Legend of Captain Space (Collins, 1990) considered how strange and frightening the experience of motherhood may be. Maureen Freely in the Independent on Sunday found the picture it paints of parenthood ‘eerie, convincing and, in a perverse way, beautiful.' A. S Byatt said in The Independent that it created 'perfected instances of some terrible mystery of human existence'.

Many of John’s publications relate to what broadly is called ‘visual culture’. His first book, Victorian Novelists and their Illustrators (Sidgwick and Jackson, 1970), is acknowledged as the authoritative pioneering study in the field of literary illustration. His more recent study Clothes (Acumen, 2008) was praised in Essays in Criticism for 'its verbal exuberance...the writer's delight in language and rhythm', and for covering 'all the important issues that clothes provoke – historical, theoretical, social, psychological, material, aesthetic'. Vathmedon /Stairs (University Studio Press, Thessaloniki, 2011), co-produced with Aris Georgiou, is a photographic essay, with a text in English and Greek, on our most ancient invention, and regular symbol, for rising and descending.

John has reviewed widely for the national press, and has given keynote speeches and invited lectures to audiences ranging from the Getty Center in Los Angeles to the Praesidium of the Russian Academy of Fine Art in Moscow. His latest radio appearance, discussing two of his books, was on the BBC Radio 4 programme Thinking Allowed in April 2018 (‘Menswear Revolution’). He has been a Trustee of the Dickens Society of America and of the Cambridge Darkroom Gallery. In 1970 he redesigned the service of plates that are used by students in Hall at Emmanuel.


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