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On Tuesday 7 March a memorial lecture organised by the British Academy was held for Professor Margaret McGowan at the Society of Antiquaries in London. As part of the event, former Director of the Warburg Institute, Professor Peter Mack, presented the following tribute.

Margaret at her university graduation

Professor Margaret McGowan FBA was a remarkable academic administrator as well as a great scholar. In 1981, aged 48, she moved from her position as Dean of the School of European Studies at Sussex to become Pro-Vice-Chancellor with responsibility for Arts and Social Sciences and from 1992 Deputy Vice-Chancellor or as they used to say at Sussex, “she moved into the Kremlin”. Most people who take up such demanding posts find that their own research withers. That was not Margaret’s approach. She produced more monographs, more scholarly editions and far more research articles after 1981 than before. Today I shall speak mostly about her research, though I shall say something about the administrative post in which I knew her best at the end. But we need to remember that much of this research was done in time somehow borrowed from demanding administrative roles, including the Vice-Presidency of the British Academy and chairing the finance committee of the British Institute in Paris for twenty years. It is amazing that she managed to do so many things so well.

In a CV composed towards the end of her life, Margaret declared that her main research interests were in the renaissance, that her approach was always interdisciplinary and that she was concerned to explicate texts, festivals and dance events in relation to their political and cultural contexts. While she was an undergraduate at Reading, Margaret conceived the project of an in depth study of the interplay between art, music, poetry and dance in the French renaissance ballet de cour. Close connections at the time meant that as a Reading PhD student she made her way to the Warburg Institute, where Dame Frances Yates became her unofficial but in reality principal supervisor. From 1952 to 1957 Margaret was largely resident in France, scouring the libraries and archives of Paris and the provinces for records connected with the ballet de cour, and returning occasionally to London for supervisions with Dame Frances. These meetings usually involved Dame Frances scurrying up ladders in the library stacks for volumes to help Margaret’s research. Margaret was associated with the Warburg for almost seventy years and it was through Dame Frances that in 1957 she met her future husband Professor Sydney Anglo FBA.

Margaret made important, often pioneering contributions in three areas of renaissance studies: dance history, festivals, and renaissance French literature. While L’art du ballet de cour en France (1964) establishes a new basis for early dance history through archival research, Dance in the Renaissance (2008) establishes the ubiquity of dance in sixteenth-century courts and sets out the theoretical and practical conditions under which dances were produced. She edited many primary texts of festivals and set out procedures for the critical reading of festival books. Since other speakers will discuss her work on dance and festivals, I shall focus mainly on two of her books concerned with French literature.

Montaigne’s Deceits: The art of persuasion in the Essais (1974) was a pioneering study of the ways in which Montaigne used language and techniques taught in rhetoric to win the assent of his readers to his approach to living well in the troubled times of the wars of religion. Margaret saw Montaigne as absorbed in the workings of the human mind and in trying to solve the problem of communicating complex thoughts and feelings to others. She examined the oblique, self-deprecating ways in which he sought to obtain sympathy and goodwill and the eloquent ways in which he explored both human moral and physical weakness and the constant motion and changeability of the human mind. The book makes its points by digging into the detail of Montaigne’s French expression while making illuminating comparisons with other writers of his time addressing similar problems. Both the detailed philology and the insistence on putting individual works in their political and cultural context were characteristic of Margaret’s research.

Cover page of The Vision of Rome in Late Renaissance France

The Vision of Rome in Late Renaissance France (2000) is more interdisciplinary in its approach, showing how French writers and artists thought about Rome and what they made for themselves out of the ruins of the ancient city and its literary record. The book encompasses travel-writing, drawings and engravings, collections of medals and the new architecture of French renaissance palaces. At the centre of the book are illuminating close readings of Ronsard, Montaigne, Grévin and Garnier. The book culminates in discussions of French renaissance receptions of the figure of Julius Caesar and attempts to draw on the public celebrations of the Roman Triumph. The book shows how the surviving fragments of Rome stimulated French writers and artists to make new works.

In addition to her official and paid posts Margaret was always willing to undertake administration for causes she believed in, such as the study of early dance and the TEMPUS project for the integration of Hungarian universities within Europe. She was a strongly committed critical friend of the Warburg Institute, writing a report for the School of Advanced Study in 2007 in which she analysed both the intellectual reach of the Institute and its need for new investment and new approaches in its resources and teaching. I worked most closely with her when she took over as Chair of the Warburg Advisory Council in 2012 at the height of the law-case between the Institute and the University over the meaning of the 1943 deed of trust through which Aby Warburg’s library was donated to, and incorporated as an Institute within, the University of London. She built on the work of the previous committee and the support of the American Friends of the Warburg and the Polonsky Foundation. She pursued the court case with determination while recognizing that eventually peace would have to be made. After the case was won and once the University had decided not to appeal, together with Raphaële Mouren and Catherine Charlton, Margaret led the preparations and the all night negotiation which resulted in an agreement which preserves the financial security of the Institute together with a high degree of independence.

Margaret with her husband, Professor Sydney Anglo, after receiving her CBE in 1998.

Margaret was a great friend to younger scholars and a staunch advocate of the need to learn languages and to study the political and social circumstances in which texts and performances were produced. She had a strong sense of what ought to be done in all the situations she confronted but she also realised that others might not be able to handle people with the firmness which she could deploy. She will be remembered for her moral and academic principles, her strategic shrewdness, her laughter, her practical optimism, her enthusiasm for new books and new artistic experiences, and for her personal kindness.

A French honour for Professor Margaret McGowan: “un amour partagé”

In this blog, Frances Yates Long-Term Fellow, Luisa Capodieci, chatted with Professor McGowan to discover the roots of her interest in French Renaissance.