It is with sadness that we report the death of Humfrey Butters following a short illness. Those of us who knew him will have many memories of his many years of service in the department. It goes without saying that the Venice programme stands as an enduring reminder of his contributions to the university. He will be greatly missed. There will be a small family funeral followed by a memorial service later in the year.
Rebecca Earle, Head of Department
If you would like to add your memories of Humfrey, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org
My memories of Humfrey focus on the Venice term which we taught together between 2002 and 2011. Following his retirement, Humfrey would visit Venice for a week every autumn, which was always a highlight for us. To the delight of alumni, he also attended reunions and anniversary events in Venice.
For Humfrey, students always came first. He was a legendary teacher who inspired generations. He once told me only one thing matters when lecturing: “Can they hear you at the back?” With his stentorian delivery, this was never a problem for him. But he was too modest. His lectures were carefully crafted models of clarity. Those on Florence were based on his own research, particularly on Lorenzo de’ Medici and Niccolò Machiavelli. Those on historiography drew on his wide and deep reading of philosophy. His lectures were also laced with humour, which could be Rabelaisian. His comparison of the size of Russia with part of his anatomy is hard to forget. But he used humour seriously, making points which would be remembered by students. Pastoral care was also very important to him. Whilst teaching the Venice term over nearly forty years, Humfrey handled almost every possible pastoral issue. His support of students was impressive: calming them, contacting the emergency services, accompanying them to hospital or police station if necessary, and visiting them afterwards. I learnt much from his example. Appreciation of Humfrey’s teaching and his care was evident not only in the students then taking the Venice term but also in the many alumni who returned to visit. Humfrey was at the heart of reunions and indeed many former students came to see him as much as to see Venice.
The administration of the Venice term is now dealt with largely by our exemplary administrator, Chiara Farnea Croff. However, when I began to teach there, the academics still oversaw the finances. In those days, many students requested and received the loan from the University to support those studying in Venice. This predated direct transfers into individual student accounts so we would have to distribute the money on the first day of term. Humfrey and I would collect this cash from the bank, hide it in his rather battered canvas tote bag, and walk through Venice like characters in The Lavender Hill Mob.
Humfrey was loved by many Venetians and his visits to Venice were filled with lunches and dinners with old friends. He usually lived in a flat on Via Garibaldi and was so well-known in its shops and restaurants that one Venetian called him its sindaco (mayor). He was the most sociable of men. He introduced me to the concept of “Alla prossima”: rather than paying individually for drinks or meals we would take it in turns. It was typical of him: always looking forward to the next meeting with a friend. I realise now that I saw him last when I took him for dinner at Da Remigio, his favourite restaurant in Venice, run by his great friend Pino. I can think of no better parting. Alla prossima, Humfrey.
With no exaggeration, the term ‘larger than life’ might have been invented for our irrepressible and irreplaceable colleague, Humfrey Butters. Even those students that were not fortunate enough to have had seminars with him became used to hearing and recognising his distinctive voice from some distance away. I remember once meeting him on Coventry station where he greeted me from far down the platform, turning many heads, and regaling me (and the rest of the passengers) with some extraordinary tale before heading determinedly for the smoking carriage. Colleagues will recall Humfrey’s wry interventions in departmental meetings, often enhanced by a pithy and apt classical quotation. Students in the Renaissance stream will have fond memories of their exposure to and immersion in his formidable and unmatchable knowledge of Italian culture, both past and present.
I first came across Humfrey, and his rigorous and formidable intellect, in Venice as an MA student in Renaissance Studies. A few years later, upon joining the staff of the History Department as the first female early modernist, I presented him with something of a conundrum as he was used to referring to everyone as ‘Dear Boy’. I swiftly became ‘My Girl’, a moniker which I came to treasure, but which only Humfrey could have got away with. After twenty years of working together, I will remember him most as a generous colleague with a huge commitment to teaching and willingness to carry more than his fair share of it. The students loved him and with good reason. He was a fascinating and engaging character who took great pleasure in sharing his scholarship as well as his infectious delight in good food, good wine and good company. We will not see (or hear) his like again.
I can only add a few footnotes to the excellent vignettes by Jonathan and Penny. I knew Humfrey from when he came, as what I considered a newcomer, to Warwick in 1973. Already then he had the confident individualism and reluctance to follow the herd so characteristic of him. For decades his weekly teaching at Warwick was followed by a scramble to catch a train, not always running to schedule, to be at home in Manchester with his beloved Suzy, who sadly died earlier this year. Academic marriages in which the partners work some distance away from one another create problems which may lead to marital breakdown, but Humfrey and Suzy remained devoted, sharing as they did common interests in the history and art history of Italy which enabled them to conduct research trips together. Humfrey was a scholar of the highest order, if sometimes using erratic work methods. He would read during the night, napping at intervals, but staying out of bed for a good part of the time. His publications were not especially numerous but received with acclaim. Under the general editorship of Michael Mallett, with whom he conducted the Venice operations for many years, he edited two volumes of the letters of Lorenzo de’ Medici. Their editions, as I told them, will be read and consulted long after the monographs and articles by the rest of us will have been consigned to the dustbin of history.
When the university forbade smoking in our teaching building, Humfrey and I raised this tyrannical act at a staff meeting, which accepted our proposal to declare our two offices extraterritorial to the department and building, while we undertook to smoke only when students were not present. I have to confess to the Schadenfreude which we shared when seeing colleagues standing outside the building snatching a crafty fag break. I did enjoy and still cherish the story he told me that when lunching with friends in a Venetian restaurant, a native resident at a nearby table sent over a bottle of wine with the message ‘for the loudest Englishman in Venice’. His complete deafness in one ear was another good reason be on the right side with Humfrey.
Humfrey was one of those larger than life characters (in every sense) that no one who encounters will ever forget. In his case, colleagues and students alike will remember him with huge affection and great respect. I remember a very young Humfrey joining the Department in the early 1970s, replacing Sir John Hale, the founding father of both the Department and the Venice programme. For many years Humfrey was a mainstay of that programme, alongside Michael Mallett and Martin Lowry, and later Jonathan Davies and Luca Mola. Humfrey, I think, did more ‘Venice terms’ than anyone. He brought to it a great sense of responsibility, and was equally determined to make sure students enjoyed and would always remember the experience. As a scholar of Renaissance Italy his own research focus was Florence, and it was in the Florentine archives that he met his future wife Suzy, who was to become professor of Art History at Manchester. Theirs was a close and lasting marriage. They lived in Manchester, so throughout his career Humfrey commuted each week to teach at Warwick, and he took slightly early retirement to care for Suzy when her health declined.
Humfrey’s background was Winchester and New College, and his stentorian voice and distinctive accent made him very different in manner from most of his students and his new colleagues. His outlook on life was deeply conservative, with both a small and capital C. What was striking, however, was the affection and respect he always enjoyed from colleagues of very different backgrounds and political views. Humfrey and Roger Magraw, also sadly no longer with us, differed on almost everything, but had a warm relationship over many years. They also shared a quality I greatly admired in them both: a sense of commitment to the department as a community, making them always ready to step in and cover any emergency. Humfrey was deeply committed to his role as a teacher, and always sought to ensure that students were never disadvantaged.
Humfrey never tried to disguise who and what he was, and students and colleagues respected him for that. Most of us did not understand the Latin aphorisms and allusions he would drop into conversation and departmental meetings, and he probably viewed us as barbarians, but we were barbarians he liked nonetheless. Most of his male colleagues he addressed as ‘Dear boy’ (even those older than him), and he would introduce every loudly whispered confidence with ‘A word in your shell-like’. He had endless good humour, and down to earth qualities too. His office was even messier than mine, and I can still hear his voice, bellowing down the corridor almost every day, ‘Got a fag, Lewis’? It is hard to imagine him gone. He will be greatly missed, and fondly remembered.
I was on my way to Italy when I heard the news of Humfrey’s death, and it feels appropriate to be gathering these recollections of him there. Humfrey seemed like, and in some ways was, the quintessential Englishman. But he was also an immensely cultured cosmopolitan, whose knowledge and understanding of European languages, art and literature put many of the rest of us to shame. I never had the opportunity to observe Humfrey “in action” in Venice - other than on the occasion of his retirement celebration at the palazzo, when he gave an immensely erudite and witty address, and when the esteem and affection in which he was held by Italian colleagues, and by Venice students past and present, was evident for anyone to see. As a colleague at Warwick, already a fixture of the department when I joined as a callow junior lecturer in 1994, Humfrey was exceptionally generous with his time and accumulated wisdom. I recall with gratitude him patiently advising me about how to approach my very first seminar in the European second-year survey course, which in those days we called, in brutally functionalist manner, Basic II. As others will know, Humfrey was a very definite “presence” in the department. I remember on one occasion emerging from the lift on the third floor of the Humanities Building to hear Humfrey’s voice booming from half-way down the corridor, “My God, Marshall, what are you wearing?!” Another time, I recall Humfrey’s first words on entering my office and spotting on the wall a reproduction of Velasquez’s painting of the Surrender of Breda: “Finest horse’s arse in the history of art!” Humfrey had an exceptionally quick wit, and could be acerbic when he had the mind to be, but he was never knowingly unkind. Students without exception loved him and treasured his lectures and seminars, despite (or because of?) the fact that he tended cheerfully to ignore whatever the latest prescriptions were about teaching “best practice”. Humfrey was impatient of cliche, so he will be frowning somewhere as I write that he was one of a kind, and that we shall not see his like again. But it’s true. I shall miss him greatly, and remember him with much fondness.
Jonathan and Penny have captured Humfrey’s profile to a T. I can only add something from my own idiosyncratic point of view.
I first got to know Humfrey well when I was Chair of the Department. Humfrey was examination secretary. I admired him for his tireless devotion to the onerous task and one of the pleasures of our collaboration was to thresh out problems over a meal. Sadly, it wasn’t always at Da Remigio, to which he introduced me when I visited the Venice students as Chairman.
He then became a bastion of support to me as Director of the Historiography course. I valued his deep understanding of Machiavelli, Plato and Aristotle, of course. But what I valued most of all was his staunch defence of historiography against, on the one hand, the philistines who thought that all you had to do to learn to be a good historian was to ‘sit by Nelly’, and the post-modernists, who were busily trying to saw off the branch they were sitting on. Significantly, I never came across support for either position among the Venice students.
Finally, we shared an interest in current affairs. We occupied almost extreme ends of the political spectrum, but we never discussed matters with rancour. No one could get mad with Humfrey on such occasions. Even when you thought his opinion outrageous, he turned away wrath with a sparkling witticism that just folded you up.
I will miss him.
I smile whenever I think of this story. I first met Humfrey in 1974, when he was in his first year in the Warwick department and I was in my final undergraduate year. He didn't teach me, but shortly before Finals we were given the opportunity to take mock exams, and the paper I wrote (for Basic II, I think) was given to Humfrey to mark. I went to see him. "From what I've heard about you," he said, "this is disappointing. I would have expected better. In the real exam this would have earned you a Third." He then gave me the best advice I've ever received about what to do in an exam: prepare an outline for every answer before starting to write any of them. I followed the advice, and it served me well. Many years later, after I had joined the department and become Humfrey's colleague, I mentioned this to him. "What advice was that?" he asked. I told him. "Ah yes," he said, "that often works well for weaker students."
My first term teaching for Warwick took place in Venice alongside Humfrey, and it was quite an introduction to an academic career! Working with someone with such a long history of teaching was a little intimidating, but also an extremely memorable and educative experience.
Humfrey seemed to embody another age of academia that now already seems long gone. He loved Italy and knew how to enjoy life there, while also giving himself entirely over to the needs of the students under his care. I remember him saying that the good thing about teaching in Venice was that, whatever stresses and anxieties you carried with you through the day, the walk home from work would ease them out, and he was right. In the same vein, a lot of my memories of him also have to do with food and drink. Our first meeting before the start of term that year took place at the historic Caffè Florian in Piazza San Marco, according to Humfrey's inimitable tradition, and at his invitation. There Humfrey, Chiara and I discussed plans over - if I recall correctly - a martini (for him) and coffee (for us). Long days of teaching seminars were punctuated by lunch around the corner from the Palazzo Papafava at the Osteria della Vedova (spaghetti alle vongole, polpette and white wine). These occasions were always enlivened by Humfrey's tales of his years in Venice and the great and good that he had met during his career, from the Renaissance historian Nicolai Rubinstein to Peggy Guggenheim.
Humfrey was a kind, generous and supportive colleague, extremely funny, and adored by the students. It was a pleasure and a privilege to have worked with him.
When I joined the department in 1996 I quickly gained a (largely unjustified) reputation as one of the go-to people for IT. It was based almost entirely on my age I suspect. So when colleagues had computers that didn’t turn on or printers that didn’t print, I was summoned. I visited Humfrey’s office more than once and he usually pronounced whatever I did as ‘marvellous’. Like some others have mentioned, my sartorial choices were critiqued more than once by Humfrey, particularly if I wore shorts. But it was always done with a smile.
One departmental tradition is that when a colleague is leaving someone gives a little speech about them at the examiners’ dinner. By far the most memorable of these was the one Humfrey gave when Patrick Major left. Patrick worked on eastern European history but Humfrey wove a masterful tale of how Patrick’s past as a Stasi agent had finally caught up with him. I don’t think I have laughed so much at any other examiners’ dinner.
I last saw Humfrey on campus back in May. I was entertaining some visiting speakers and Humfrey was enjoying a nice lunch (and a nice bottle of wine). We had a lovely chat, and I will fondly remember his warmth and his smile.
Humfrey - what a superstar. I arrived at Warwick 30 years ago as the first female member of the Department of History. At that time Humfrey was the minutes secretary. Needless to say his minutes did not conform to any university template but were apposite and entertaining nonetheless.
We shared a love of political theory and I welcomed his support when criticised of having Namier (a 1950s historian) on my reading list. We both knew his worth!
I was appointed as an expert in IT and history and supported Humfrey as he grappled with the new demands of academia. He was generous to a fault for the support I gave him for example in producing his editions of the Lorenzo de' Medici letters.
But mostly my memories of Humfrey reside in his support for students. I have known no better teachers in my career. He was a nurturer who brought out the best in all he taught.
For the History Department at Warwick, Humfrey’s death is truly the end of an era. But I hope we will continue to capture his spirit and commitment to students as his ethos is what has defined History @Warwick
Terrific colleague, humorous, fun, supportive, erudite, wonderfully messy office, booming voice, great with students, delightful. "My dear boy", we will miss you. Irreplaceable.
Humfrey inherited me, succeeding my Ph.D. supervisor Michael Mallett, who had retired at the end of my first year of research. As Humfrey admitted later in our relationship, I was an inheritance about which he had initially had some misgivings, but also one that he was glad he had received. We shared too much, he said, starting from our profound love for Florence and for all the good things “she” (Humfrey's choice of words) has to offer, whether these were kept in archives or in restaurants. Humfrey was my mentor and my friend, a man who professed his profound scholarship with honesty and verve, and I am proud of having been one of his doctoral students. I will forever miss his wit (and wisdom), as well as being called "my dear boy” by him, and hearing his unmistakable, loud (and, at times, devastating) “Hah!”. And I will strive to honour his memory and his legacy.
Hearing that Humfrey had died was the more shocking because I'd assumed he was indestructible. I arrived at Warwick in 1975, and my earliest memories are of him holding lunchtime court in the Arts Centre bar in the days when we still drank a mid-day beer, while risking early experiments in microwaved food. He was, as he always would be, vastly entertaining. We came into closer proximity in Venice where, from the mid-1980s, I was despatched to help Paul Hills who single-handedly carried Art History's Venice term for decades. I had been chosen, I was informed, because I taught British Palladian architecture, and therefore knew all about Palladio.
Teaching in Venice with Paul was joyous; working closely with the historians and with Humfrey in particular spread layers of icing on the cake. I, like anyone else who experienced them, have exceptionally fond memories of feasts in Da Remigio. Working with Humfrey and Michael Mallett was as near to collegiate as Warwick was ever going to get: we all believed that the point of university study was to get engaged with the material, think for yourself and realise how much it mattered. Humfrey's lectures, as his colleagues have remembered, were models of clarity, and I learned much both from them, and simply chewing the fat with him. He knew that without students we'd be unemployed, and he knew that at its best teaching was an infinitely rewarding calling.
Humfrey, who could sometimes appear as though he washed himself as well as his clothes in the laundromat, was sociable in the best way, and enjoyed holding forth in bars, or anywhere, really. His conversation ranged from the scholarly to the scurrilous, and he was as deft in trading insults and wisecracks as discoursing upon the niceties of historiography, for his was a fittingly broad hinterland. He was instinctively generous. On one occasion I was entertaining visiting Australian friends, and he seamlessly assimilated them into his orbit. They still talk about it, in a slightly shell-shocked way. Humfrey was as straight as they come. He could spot a fraud at five hundred paces in the dark with his eyes closed. To be admitted into his company was a compliment. I rue that the good ones go too soon while the bastards live for ever. I can see why the gods do it, but.
The memories of Humfrey offered by colleagues capture him so well: his booming voice, his towering presence, his affectionate way of referring to colleagues as ‘Dear Boy’, his not infrequent references to Winchester, his interjections in staff meetings, followed by ‘as you were’ to the Chair. Just a few anecdotes to add: we were once moving some furniture in a room to prepare for an examiners meeting. I was rather ineffectually moving a chair, which immediately afterwards had to be placed back where I had found it. He gazed down at me (he was a tall man!) and said: ‘hmm, as always, good to have the Dutch on board’. Somehow, a put-down from Humfrey still felt like an honour. He had a sort of mild patience blended with pity for those of us not educated at Winchester. ‘That’s a question for my Harley Street doctor’ he replied once to my question of ‘How are you, Humfrey?’ I was informed that I should be greeting him with ‘How do you do, Humfrey’. I confess that I never quite managed that. I only had the pleasure once of hearing him lecture our undergraduates. It was a lecture on Russia, in the European World module, which he opened with: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Russia is large. Very large. Even larger, ladies and gentlemen, than this’ (at which point he turned sideways to the students and gave himself a loud clap on his behind). No wonder the students were mesmerized. For years, Humfrey was the person in charge of collecting contributions for the leaving gift of a colleague. He’d drop in to ask for money, and leave with his usual ‘very good doing business with you’, and inevitably appear at the Examiners Dinner with a crumpled plastic bag, containing a superbly chosen book from his rare book dealer friend. Those of us still in the department will never know what he might have chosen for us. What a great loss his absence will always be for this department.
I was so very sad to hear of Humfrey’s death. I had been in postal contact with him a year or so ago and a meeting was proposed – but, life (and death) being what they are, it never happened, to my very great regret.
Many of my best and most amusing memories in my 10 years at Warwick (1996-2006) had something to do with Humfrey. Let me pick out three points which I think all who knew him will find reflected in their own memories.
First, a random memory of getting on the bus from the campus to Leamington late one night, and Humfrey arriving, with bulging briefcase, large umbrella, generally dishevelled. He then went into a routine with the bus-diver who evidently knew him well as he looked for some change, kept up a running conversation, cracked jokes, dropped Latin tags etc etc. I looked around the crowded bus and literally everyone on it was smiling. Humfrey brightened all our lives.
Second, a post-seminar drink in the Arts centre whereupon Humfrey and Emma Spary engaged in one of the most brilliant intellectual encounters I have been privileged to witness. Both coming from very different intellectual positions, both highly nimble in mobilising their arguments, both unfailingly courteous even as they dealt each other’s arguments mighty blows, and both relishing the sheer fun of learning. It was like an intellectual re-play of Hector and Achilles before the gates of Troy. Epic.
Finally there is not one occasion but so many times, especially as head of department, that I witnessed Humfrey’s enormous love of teaching and learning, both in the department and out in Venice. One got a sense of his greatness by listening to students talk about him.
Irreplaceable and unforgettable - and almost unbelievable!
My friends and I have such fond memories of Humfrey Butters (though, sadly for us, Humfrey was not out in Venice in 1988, he taught us courses at Warwick and we also saw him in Venice at the reunion in 2004).
He was such a wonderful teacher and always so generous, entertaining and unforgettable.
I remember one seminar with him when he asked us all why Louis XIV's campaign into Russia had failed. The group looked worried (no one had read that bit). One girl suggested that the Urals were impassable, someone suggested that the cold weather was the problem, then my friend Clive said 'but Louis XIV didn't ever try to invade Russia?!' NO! HA! HAAAAAHAAAHAAAA!!! Boomed Humfrey.
Visiting Venice soon after graduating, I met Humfrey when he was teaching the Warwick term out there. I mentioned that I was heading to Rome. 'Amanda!' he declared, 'there's something you simply must experience'. I was expecting to be told that I should visit a particular church or site but instead came the order that I 'must take the opportunity to have chocolate tartuffe in Caffe di Colombia in Piazza Navona'.
How fortunate we all were to be taught by Humfrey. So many students and colleagues will remember him with huge affection and respect.
Amanda Wilson (Warwick 1986-89)
I met Humfrey when I became one of his Ph.D. students at Warwick University. Until his death he always guided me through the numerous difficulties of studying history, introducing me to the challenges and uses of this incredible field of study. Humfrey was a distinguished British historian with a masterly knowledge of archival sources. He transmitted to me the importance of studying the interplay of ideas and action in what he called the lifelong examination of the Western civil tradition. Throughout his life his main commitment was to ideas and to dialogue, to the language of democracy, mutual respect, and individual liberty. Using his archival expertise, Humfrey skillfully related the story of Florence’s Golden Age and the linked forces which transformed the city on the Arno into one of the most glorious civilizations the world has known. He was what a great teacher should be: able and passionate in building caring relationships with his students, and generous in inspiring new generations with his enlightening writings: thank you, Humfrey!
I studied under Humfrey at the end of the 70s. My abiding memory is when he came to our help when we got ejected from our accomodaton in Venice. I was a 6ft 4in young man carrying my suitcase to a new apartment but was struggling because it was heavy. Despite his age and size, he grabbed my bag and marched through the streets of Venice carrying my bag as if it was feather-light. And of course he bellowed at us all to hurry up and follow him. 40 years later, I still find the story wonderfully amusing.
Humfrey, as we all know, was a big man. He liked to recall his sporting prowess at Winchester, when The Times, reporting a match against Eton, referred to ‘Butters, whom nature has built on generous lines …’ During my time as lecturer in the History of Art at Warwick (1976–98) it was my good fortune to teach in Venice alongside him. In the early years, when we frequently had to move our library from one temporary teaching space to the next, I remember struggling to carry boxes with books to the boat waiting on the fondamenta: Humfrey, looked at me with a smile on his face and picked a box up as though it was filled with feathers. Over the years I also came to know his moral strength and his sense of fairness. A shrewd judge of character, he was quick to spot a charlatan and to recognize honesty. The same insight lit up his lectures and his scholarship.
On a visit to Venice last May, I went to Humfrey’s favourite restaurant, Da Remigio, where we had enjoyed so many celebrations over the past forty years. Upon entering, the proprietor, Pino, rushed up to tell me that Humfrey had dined there the week before. The broad smile on Pino’s face spoke volumes for the enduring affection for Humfrey amongst those who knew him in Venice. Like so many in Venice and at Warwick, I will miss his wisdom, his wit and his kindness.
Humfrey was a generous man, in many ways, but especially with his time and attention. He made a point of getting to know everyone around him - students, academics, support staff - taking a genuine interest in whoever they were and whatever they were doing. He collected anecdotes, and loved to share the funniest with everyone he knew. I recall one afternoon in my office hearing Humfrey's booming voice from the other end of the long corridor regaling a colleague with a particularly witty story, and then hearing the same story repeated three more times as he made his way down the corridor and bumped into more people he wanted to share it with. Yet hearing his tale for the fifth time after he reached my office did not lesson its humour in the slightest, and is testament to how warm and engaging Humfrey always was. It is that enthusiasm and generosity of spirit that will be my enduring memory of Humfrey, and that corridors will no longer echo with his familiar greeting of "Dear Boy!" is of profound sadness.
It's been wonderful reading such incredibly vivid portraits of Humfrey, mixed with a great sense of sadness that all this outpouring has come through his too early demise. As someone with the great privilege of having been both taught by him (not least in autumn 1975, as part of an early Venice group I think Humfrey particularly cherished) and later as a history department colleague, I'd like to add in just a couple of further reminiscences.
The first, a true Humfrey howler, or more precisely what I remember from a 2nd year basic II undergraduate seminar, actually just in week two : Hollywood film: a blood and mud-bespattered officer makes it to the court of Cardinal Richeleu, dismounts exhausted from his horse and wades in puffing and panting through serried ranks of soldiers, clerics, and what-not, in search of the eminence grice....finally, finally falling at the feet of the great man, gasping "Cardinal Richelieu, Cardinal Richelieu, the 30 years war has just begun" (!!!)
You've guessed what I remember from the subject in question. But if Humfrey always was a laugh, and vastly, generously benign to his students, even where that was sometimes tinged with the sense he was 'doing' for the plebs (which yes, we forgave!) there was another serious side to the man which perhaps my good ex-colleagues have been too coy to utter. The full blast of it came when he offered his farewell speech those few years back at an end of term staff party. He got up and then delivered the most thoroughly pulverising, blistering, coruscating attack, not to say evisceration of the present regime in academic affairs. Humfrey of course, bless him, was utterly ancien regime and politically me and him, like many of those colleagues and students who adored him, were a million miles apart. But Humfrey knew a rat when he smelt one. The whole RAE-REF edifice, the new dispensation which began to waft in, in the late 1990s, was just the sort of thing which was bound to wreck the dynamic, self-willed autonomy yet diversity of that vastly collegial Warwick history department of now twenty, thirty and forty years back. Humfrey knew that he was a beached whale in this mercilessly monochrome, utterly bland environment. And it's true, we'll never see the likes of him again, precisely because there is no right place for Humfreys' in the academy anymore. That possibility has been stifled, suffocated and utterly denied by the grey suits and managers who think they know best. Humfrey always had a suspicion, I remember of middle managers, going right back to the 1970s. It was the same impossibility of the new regime which led me to leave Warwick at the beginning of the new millennium, only to naively discover that the virus had taken over UK university plc. lock, stock and barrel. Unlike me, Humfrey held on and held his tongue til that last moment before he finally, publicly let rip. I for one would like to salute that speech as equally I will cherish a great teacher and colleague who like that other lovely, sadly departed scholar, Martin Lowry before him, remains a powerful memory of what a university once upon a time, could be....
I usually met Humfrey in the downstairs bar of the Warwick Arts Centre (in its last incarnation but ten or so); the beer was better than the food and his conversation was far more nourishing and enjoyable than either. Once he had dispatched The Times crossword, we would discuss music and theatre, Classics and Shakespeare, occasionally even historiography, constantly travel, and frequently Proust - he used to aver that A la recherche was an easier read in the original. I was honoured and charmed to meet members of his family on several occasions. My last sight of him was on the day of his final dismantling of books and papers from his office - too long ago. He was sad to leave, but happy in looking forward to future work upholding the factual basis of history writing. As a former member of a department trading in, and on, theatricality and fictions, I was always very touched and encouraged by his loyal and continuing friendship.
Rowland Cotterill (Music History and English, 1971-1997)
I was shocked and saddened by Humfrey’s death. He was a legend to generations of students and indeed to his colleagues, a larger than life personality in the best sense of the term. I never heard in his booming voice a hint of petulance or rancour, though his ready wit could excoriate the absurdities which arise in any system or bureaucratic structure. His good humour and positive spirit radiated through the Department and were very important in making it the pleasant place to work in it was, far removed from the poisonous atmosphere that by all accounts can take hold in some quarters of academia. This is all the more notable in that his general outlook on politics and related matters was quite different from that of the bulk of his colleagues. We owe him a collective debt for his tolerance and forbearance. I experienced his gusto and zest for life many times over the years. I remember in particular a dinner in the Randolph in Leamington, a favourite haunt of his at the time, where he regularly repaired for a good meal and bottle of wine at the end of the working day, and another with Suzy on a Florence pavement when we learnt we would all be in Italy that Easter-time. I was glad to have lunch with him too at the University when he was all packed up on the eve of his withdrawal to Manchester. There was something indomitable about Humfrey which makes his sudden passing hard to take on board. Yet it is this very quality which will live on in my memory and I am sure that of others for the duration.
Humfrey was one of the first people I met upon joining the department as a very wet-behind-the-ears PhD student. He was warm, courteous, and asserted that ‘New College men should always stick together’ upon finding I had studied at the University of Toronto college of that name – which really helped me start to feel at home in a very new environment. I really got to know him when working on the European World Textbook project, to which Humfrey contributed several chapters. Not long after its publication, the book was briefly at the top of an Amazon sales list for early modern textbooks. When our paths crossed in the Library shortly afterwards he asked if we were still in first place. I had to tell him that, unfortunately, our book had been usurped by a volume on the French Revolution. He looked me sadly in the eyes, gave a small shake of the head, and said: ‘Don’t feel badly, dear boy, sex always wins out’. A truer lesson in publishing I have yet to learn. He has my gratitude always.
Era l’estate del 2001 quando ebbi la mia interview con Humfrey, ero un po’ agitata, si trattava di fare un colloquio per diventare coordinatrice del Warwick in Venice Programme. L’appuntamento era al Caffè Florian a mezzogiorno, niente male come luogo. Prima di iniziare a parlare , anzi conversare, bisognava scegliere la consumazione e lì il mio primo imbarazzo. Erano le 12 e per un veneziano l’ora giusta per l’aperitivo, mi domandai se fosse il caso e decisi di chiedere un bicchiere di vino e chissà forse questa scelta, che sarà sicuramente piaciuta a Humfrey, mi aiutò a superare il colloquio!
E’ stato un privilegio aver lavorato fianco a fianco con Humfrey tutti questi anni e da lui ho imparato subito fin dal primo giorno quanto gli studenti fossero al primo posto nella sua giornata e così cercavo anche io di seguirlo nel mio lavoro quotidiano. Mi ritengo tuttora fortunata di far parte dell’Università di Warwick e di Warwick in Venice in particolare. Di Humfrey ricordo il suo piacere nel passeggiare in via Garibaldi dove amava stare durante il trimestre, il suo ritrovare i vecchi amici veneziani, il bar, il posto dove fare le fotocopie e tutti lo ricordavano sempre con molta simpatia e ammirazione. Ho avuto il piacere di averlo a casa a cena dove sempre ci allietava con racconti e aneddoti.
Sento la sua mancanza soprattutto ora poiché era solito, dopo il suo pensionamento, passare una bella settimana a Venezia e quando suonava il telefono di casa una sera di ottobre sapevo che era Humfrey che mi comunicava le sue date e iniziava a pianificare le sue cene con me , mio marito e altri amici in comune.
Mancherai a tutti noi, ciao Humfrey.
Ps: ho volutamente scritto in italiano senza chiedere l’aiuto per la traduzione per ricordare Humfrey anche in questa lingua che lui amava e parlava così bene.
I have terrific and fond memories of Humfrey, as will many generations of Warwick graduates, particularly those on the Venice stream. I arrived as a naive undergraduate at the height of Tony Blair’s pomp, when things could allegedly only get better and political correctness reigned supreme – so how refreshing and entertaining it was to be taught by such an obvious High Tory as Humfrey Butters. Given an ironic gift of a mousemat printed with Blair's face, Humfrey used it as a cushion on his much-abused office chair, such that his “Russia-sized” backside was always in contact with the beloved prime minister’s visage. In a time of health mania, he chain-smoked relentlessly before seminars, such that students would enter to a fug of smoke, while frequently regaling us with stories of excessive grappa-quaffing in Venice. His scathing wit was never directed at us, but was often used for educative purposes. I cannot forget one particular rant against the phrase that something had “exacerbated the Pope”, or the way he would preface explanations of why some medieval or early modern figures had done such-and-such a charitable thing, by dismissing the obvious alternative hypothesis: “It wasn’t because they were GUARDIAN readers!”
It’s tremendously sad to hear that Humfrey enjoyed such an unjustly short retirement. But as many of my former teachers have testified, Humfrey lived his life to the fullest. I can’t help thinking that he would have happily traded off a few dull years in a retirement home at the end for the pleasures of table, bottle and fag packet that he had enjoyed with such gusto. Humfrey was, as others have said, larger than life in every way, and left a lasting impression on everyone he met. With Martin Lowry, also sadly departed, he inspired many generations of students with his passion for medieval and early modern history, bringing the past vividly to life without indulging a single anachronism. He and Martin were great eccentrics of the kind that are no longer tolerated in the sterilised modern academy. I feel immensely fortunate and privileged to have had Humfrey in my life as a student.
Lee Jones (Warwick, 1999-2003)
I am so very sad to hear of the death of Humfrey Butters, he was a wonderful teacher and such an amusing intellect. I well remember a lecture of his on Spain in which he declared “one must never forget the importance of shit in history”, I never have!
He was a lovely man who will be missed but more than that, remembered well.
Sheena Chapman (Alumna and former Seminar Tutor for History of Russia)