The Warden: A Portrait of John Sparrow

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9780002153928: The Warden: A Portrait of John Sparrow

John Sparrow was the brilliant, eccentric warden of All Soul’s, Oxford and friend of, amongst others, John Betjeman, Kenneth Clark, Harold Nicolson. This is his authorised biography.

John Sparrow was a scholarship boy from Wolverhampton and one of the cleverest men of his generation – a classical scholar, lawyer, essayist and connoisseur. Warden of All Souls’, Oxford for over 25 years, he became post-war Oxford’s most celebrated eccentric, homosexual intellectuals with an undying love for poetry and an acerbic wit and style.

John Lowe knew Sparrow for well over 40 years and has been given exclusive and unrestricted access to the treasure-trove of Sparrow’s papers which include unpublished letters from John Betjeman, as well the complete correspondence between Sparrow and his mother, letters from Harold Nicolson, Edith Sitwell, Kenneth Clark, Maurice Bowra, James Pope-Hennessey, etc… All the defining moments of Sparrow’s life are here – his time as one of London’s cleverest young barristers, his delight in airing unorthodox opinions, his controversial election to the Wardenship of All Souls’, his homosexuality, his alcoholism on retirement, his love of books and book collecting, his own writing and reputation as the last great English essayist.

Lowe also sees Sparrow as a symbol of the successes and failures of post-war Oxford and its reluctance to look into the future and re-address its role in British education.

‘Here, with his talents in a napkin hid,
Lies one who much designed, and nothing did;
Postponing and deferring, day by day,
He quite procrastinated life away,
And, when at length the summons came to die,
With his last breath put off – mortality.’
This epitaph John Sparrow wrote for himself – a joke at his own expense. In many ways, his story is a story of failure, of the many problems faced by those who are found to be very clever very young. It is an extraordinary account of an extraordinary man.

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From the Back Cover:

An outstanding classical scholar, John Sparrow was also a rising young lawyer at the Chancery Bar, a distinguished Latinist, essayist and literary critic, and one of the most discerning book collectors anywhere. During his long reign as Warden of All Souls, his conservative views made him so well known that now, more than twenty years after his retirement, his name and that of All Souls are still often linked. He was also openly homosexual at a time when it was punishable by law. John lowe, a close friend for over forty three years, attempts to explain this intensely paradoxical figure who came more than anyone else to represent the old Oxford. Vivid with letters from John Betjeman, Edith Sitwell, Harold Nicolson, Kenneth Clark, Maurice Bowra and Harold Macmillan, 'The Warden' is both a moving memoir of an unusual man and a fascinating study of twentieth century Oxford.

“This is an excellent book, well-written, thoughtful, understanding and above all fair – a telling portrait. Sparrow’s outstanding quality, Lowe once told him, was his gift for friendship. Lowe was his friend and, without seeking to conceal any of his subject’s frailties, he has done the Warden proud.”
PHILIP ZIEGLER, 'Daily Telegraph'

“An affectionate portrait of a man divided between the calls of scholarship, literature and the legal profession, but who succumbed to the dutiful temptation of the wardenship of his college … The other issue Lowe treats well is Sparrow’s homosexuality. It will fascinate readers of a future generation to see how something so illegal could have been so widely accepted. The book uses well Sparrow’s letters to his mother and others, letters that are sad through their brilliance.”
ANTHONY SMITH, 'Observer'

“A sympathetic yet penetrating study of John Sparrow, Warden of All Souls, scholar, homosexual and velvet gloved tiger in the grooves of academe.”
DAILY TELEGRAPH, 'Books of the Year'

“A friendly but honest biography”
HUGH TREVOR ROPER, 'Sunday Times'

About the Author:

John Lowe was, for many years, the head of the Birmingham Art Gallery. He has written three books about Japan, where he has lived for many years. He also lives in France.

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