Dr John Harvey

Photo of Dr John Harvey

MA LittD

Life Fellow

John Harvey was for many years Director of Studies in English at Emmanuel, and was a Lecturer and later a Reader in the English Faculty. In the College he has served as a Tutor, Praelector, Vice-Master and magazine-editor, and has been much involved in the College’s care, purchase and exhibition of paintings.

John’s most recent academic book is The Poetics of Sight from Peter Lang (2015), which analyses the role of sight in memory, dream and popular culture, and compares the different roles sight plays in the visual imagination of writers and in the visual practice of artists. Jorge L Contreras, writing in the PRSReview, called the book ‘an accomplished and lucid exploration of the multifaceted relationship between visual images and the written word . . . 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’.

Another of John’s visual studies, published in 2013, was The Story of Black (Reaktion). This was actually the second of two books on the colour black. The first had been Men in Black (Reaktion, 1995), which examined the growing use, through history, of the colour black in menswear. The Library Journal called it 'the best contribution to the growing body of literature on the meaning of clothes and colours' and it was shortlisted for the Grand Prix du Livre de Mode in Paris. The Story of Black records the inward movement of the colour as successive blacks were discovered inside our bodies, our minds, our souls and our art. It was described in the Journal of Visual Studies as 'composed and elegant . . . an excellent, readable and even joyful general introduction to a complex topic’ and in the Literary Review as ‘a richly informative treat . . . written with unostentatious elegance . . . a book to instruct and delight'. Between them the ‘black’ books have been translated into ten languages.

And this October sees the publication of John’s latest novel Pax, in which a contemporary artist wrestles with an intimate crisis while illustrating the trip to London of the painter Peter Paul Rubens in 1629, when he came as an emissary of the Court of Spain to negotiate a Peace with England – and found here his own intimate catastrophe. The celebrated novelist Anita Desai has said of it: ‘Harvey, who is fascinated by the creative process involved in the making of art, finds the perfect subject in Rubens’ painting ‘Peace and War’ and its themes that intrigue and inspire a contemporary artist. The result is a many-layered novel, impressively skillful and deeply absorbing.’

John has published five 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 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'. The Legend of Captain Space (Collins, 1990) considered how strange and frightening the experience of motherhood may be: A. S Byatt said in The Independent that it created 'perfected instances of some terrible mystery of human existence'. The Subject of a Portrait (Polar Books, 2014) recreated the trip to Scotland, in 1853, of John Ruskin, his young wife Effie, and the PreRaphaelite painter John Everett Millais. 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' while the distinguished literary critic Christopher Ricks found it '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.'

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. 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.

John Harvey's website: john-harvey.co.uk