Carola Hicks was an art historian with an astonishingly wide range of interests who was a pioneer in the field of what she defined as “biographies” of objects: explorations of the history of cultural icons and the ways in which their reception was modified by the changing agendas of those who manufactured, commissioned and interpreted them. Her notable book on the stained glass of King’s College Chapel at Cambridge was serialised by the BBC as its Christmas book of the week on Radio 4 in 2007.
Her career was a varied one, although anchored in the academic world for much of her life. Her wider reputation results from three scholarly but highly accessible books over the past decade. The first, Improper Pursuits (2001) was the biography of an 18th-century Lady Diana Spencer, wife of Viscount Bolingbroke and then of Topham Beauclerk and a friend of Samuel Johnson and Horace Walpole. Lady Diana broke free of the conventions which imprisoned aristocratic women, marrying her lover after a divorce from her first husband and supporting herself in difficult financial circumstances by her artistic endeavours, in which she was encouraged by Walpole: some are in the current Strawberry Hill exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The book’s epilogue, which traces the reputation of Lady Diana and her works after her death in 1808, showed Hicks’s growing interest in contextualising works in their “afterlife” and cultural impact.
In 2006 she duly produced a history of the Bayeux Tapestry which put forward new suggestions about its origins — commissioned in England by Edith Godwinson, the sister of King Harold and widow of Edward the Confessor, as part of an astute self-repositioning in the face of William’s conquest — and traced the way in which it became subsumed into both French and German nationalism, barely surviving the successive attentions of Napoleon and Himmler. Described by Raymond Carr in The Spectator as “a scholarly book ... a masterly account of [the] origins and the controversies that have always surrounded” the tapestry, and in The Times Literary Supplement as “well-written, well documented, quite often serious but not too grave, allergic to over-imaginative fantasy but not immune to the romantic pull of those colourful worsted threads on plain linen”, The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece was a great success. It received unexpected coverage in The Sun, which demanded “Give us back our Tapestry — the Bayeux masterpiece is British”, and few of those present will forget Hicks’s lecture on it at the Society of Antiquaries of London, of which she had been elected a Fellow in 1979, which was at once learned, elegant, exciting and funny.
Her last published book, The King’s Glass: A Story of Tudor Power and Secret Art (2007), was about the windows of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. While The Bayeux Tapestry traced the way in which an object became interpreted after its manufacture, this book showed how the programme and design of the windows changed from their inception and during the decades of their manufacture, from an orthodoxly Catholic juxtaposition of episodes of the Old Testament with episodes from the New, to a more nuanced humanist theology which was itself modified by the demands of the Reformation and the chequered marital history of the last of the great windows’ patrons, Henry VIII. Peter Ackroyd said in The Times that “by concentrating her gaze upon one of the outstanding buildings of England, Carola Hicks provides a history of an entire culture ... The King’s Glass, then, is in miniature the story of the nation”.
A few days before her death, which she faced as clear-headedly and stylishly as she had lived, she had almost completed The Girl in a Green Gown, a study of Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage portrait in the National Gallery, and the lives of its various owners from the 16th to 19th centuries.
Carola Margaret Brown was born at Bognor Regis in 1941, the daughter of two actors, Margaret Gibson and David Brown. Her father was killed on active service in North Africa in 1943. A great pleasure in the last months of Carola’s life was the discovery that his letters home, lodged in the Imperial War Museum, had been used in several histories of the Second World War. She was brought up by her mother who continued to work as a professional actress, attended The Lady Eleanor Holles School in Hampton, Middlesex, and then read archaeology with medieval art history at Edinburgh University, getting a first in 1964, followed by a PhD in 1967 on the “animal style in English Romanesque art”. She was also a member of the Edinburgh University drama society, playing Olivia in a production of Twelfth Night and one season being wardrobe mistress. Her hilarious account of a student acting tour in the Highlands and Islands is available online.
After finishing her doctorate, she did stints at the Reader’s Digest and Woman’s Own, and with the Council for British Archaeology. She then became a researcher in the House of Commons Library, and met her future husband, the lobby journalist and now fellow-author, Gary Hicks, in the Strangers’ Bar during an all-night debate on Harold Wilson’s doomed attempt to reform the House of Lords. They were married in 1969.
Later she worked at the British Museum, on the publication of The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, where her academic expertise in the period was invaluable. In 1978 she returned to academic life as a research Fellow at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, where she turned her doctoral research into a book on Animals in Early Medieval Art for Edinburgh University Press.
From 1984 she was curator of the Stained Glass Museum at Ely Cathedral for several years, producing a thorough revision of John Harries’s Discovering Stained Glass in 1996 as well as editing a volume on Cambridgeshire churches. She combined this post with teaching for the History of Art Department and the Extra-Mural Department at Cambridge University. Hicks was also director of studies in art history for a number of colleges including Newnham, where she was a Fellow. From 1979 to 1981 she was assistant editor of medieval archaeology for the Society for Medieval Archaeology and then editor of the society’s monograph series. Recently she had become reviews editor of The Antiquaries’ Journal, a post she relinquished only when she became ill.
Hicks was erudite, elegant, witty and kind. She is survived by her husband and by their son and daughter.
Carola Hicks, art historian and author, was born on November 7, 1941. She died of cancer on June 23, 2010, aged 68
The following obituary first appeared in The Guardian on 27 July 2010.
Carola Margaret Hicks, art historian and author, was born on 7 November 1941 and died on 23 June 2010. Art historian and biographer, her work infused large, iconic subjects with new life
Carola Hicks in King’s College Chapel – her book about the stained glass of King's was described as being ‘in part a hymn to their light’.
Carola Hicks, who has died of cancer aged 68, was a glamorous academic and a serious populariser of art. She created something new in the world of contemporary biography, writing the life stories and afterlives of iconic works of art such as the Bayeux tapestry and the stained-glass windows of King's College Chapel, Cambridge. She swept the dust off old masterpieces, explained their cultural contexts and infused them with life for a new public.
Her first book to reach a wide general audience was the acclaimed Improper Pursuits: The Scandalous Life of Lady Di Beauclerk (2001), a gripping account of an 18th-century aristocrat, an earlier Lady Diana Spencer. This Lady Di defied convention: she abandoned her husband, the second Viscount Bolingbroke, for a secret liaison with Topham Beauclerk, concealed her illegitimate child, divorced, remarried and earned her living by becoming an accomplished painter. Carola's biography illuminated 18th-century artistic life and exposed the consequences of transgressive behaviour by women.
Her next book, The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece (2006), was the first of her innovative biographies of works of art. Carola brought fresh insights to this medieval strip cartoon and instrument of political propaganda. Most groundbreaking was her investigation of the afterlife of the Bayeux tapestry: its rediscovery by 18th-century antiquarians, its survival though the French revolution, its reinvention by the pre-Raphaelites, its skewed interpretation by over-reachers from Napoleon to Heinrich Himmler.
She followed this success with The King's Glass: A Story of Tudor Power and Secret Art (2007), which Radio 4 serialised as its Christmas book of the week. As Henry VIII's queens disappeared, they were erased from the stained-glass windows of King's College Chapel. When he replaced orthodox Catholicism with his own Supremacy and Reformation, the glass was adapted to reflect this, too. The magisterial images were made by immigrant craftsmen handling tiny pieces of luminous glass. "This book is in part a hymn to their light, with glass of beryl and amethyst, sapphire and emerald … in miniature the story of the nation," Peter Ackroyd wrote of it.
Born in Bognor Regis, West Sussex, Carola was the daughter of actors, David Brown and Margaret Gibson. After her father died on active service in North Africa in 1943, Carola was brought up by her mother, who continued her stage career. Carola was educated at the Lady Eleanor Holles school at Hampton, Middlesex, and then at Edinburgh University, where in 1964 she took a first in archaeology, and was one of the stars of the department.
True to her thespian inheritance, she played Olivia in Twelfth Night on a student tour of the Highlands and Islands. During one exploit, she and fellow actors constructed a Loch Ness monster out of hessian, wire and newspaper and faked a sighting, reported in the national press. After acting in repertory and television, Carola returned to Edinburgh and gained her PhD, in 1967, on "the animal style in English Romanesque art".
She worked on Reader's Digest and Woman's Own and for the Council for British Archaeology before becoming a researcher in the House of Commons library. Carola said you could always tell what MPs were really like by the way they treated their staff. She met her future husband, the lobby journalist and now fellow author, Gary Hicks, in the Strangers' Bar. They married in 1969.
She worked at the British Museum on the account of the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, whose three volumes were published in 1975, 1978 and 1983, before becoming a research fellow at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, in 1978 and writing her first book, Animals in Early Medieval Art (1993). For several years from 1984 she was curator of the Stained Glass Museum at Ely Cathedral. She became a fellow and director of studies in art history at Newnham College, Cambridge, where for more than 20 years she taught as she wrote, in a lively, accessible style that combined erudition with enthusiasm.
A keen gardener, amateur photographer, ice-skater and botanic drawing student, with a lifelong love of theatre, Carola was witty and irreverent, wrote wickedly funny articles for the Literary Review, and especially enjoyed Biographers' Club events. Days before her death she had almost completed Girl in a Green Gown, a "biography" of Jan van Eyck's enigmatic portrait The Arnolfini Marriage.
Six months ago, Carola was diagnosed with cancer, which she faced with clear-eyed dispassion. She died at home, stylish to the last, with a red rose from the garden on her pillow. She is survived by Gary and their children, Colette and Toby.