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Professor John Osborne

In Memoriam John Osborne (1938-2024)

Colleagues and former students will be saddened to hear of the passing of Professor John Osborne, Chair of German at the University of Warwick from 1979 until his retirement in 2002.

John Osborne was born on December 31, 1938, in Lincoln, England. He graduated from Swansea University in 1962 and received his PhD from Cambridge in 1966. In 1995 the University of Wales, Swansea awarded him a Doctor of Letters.

John’s first post was at the University of Southampton from 1965-1968, from where he moved to the University of Sussex (1968-1979) and then took up a personal Chair at the University of Warwick 1979 where he was Dean of the Faculty of Arts from 1998-2001.

He was twice a Research Fellow at the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Germany (1972-1973 and 1976-77). He was a member of the Translators Association, of the Fontane Gesellschaft and of the English Goethe Society which awarded him the Goethe essay prize in 1968; from 1970 he served on its council.

John was a world-renowned scholar and expert on German Realism and Naturalism. He published eight monographs, among them studies on J.M.R Lenz (1975), on the Meiningen Court Theatre (1988) and C.F. Meyer (1994), as well as the first study of Theodor Fontane’s Franco-Prussian war diaries, Theodor Fontane: Vor den Romanen. Krieg und Kunst (1999). His 1971 monograph The Naturalist Drama in Germany remains the definitive work in English on the German Naturalist movement. Of his many translations, the most famous is probably that of Walter Benjamin’s The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1985).

Quiet, gentle and unassuming, John was a calm and considerate man and possessed of an acute and dry sense of humour. As a colleague and Head of Dept, John’s leadership was marked by precision and a high degree of perfectionism, evidenced by his response to the German Dept being awarded 23 out of 24 possible points at the first Teaching Quality Assessment in 1996, the second highest score of all UK German Depts. Far from celebrating his Department's success, John scolded himself for, as he put it, ‘taking his eye off the ball’ in allowing the loss of that single, precious point.

John was a dedicated teacher and much admired by his students. His commitment to teaching and good relations with his students was epitomised by his regular attendance at the German Department's annual Easter School at Schloss Dhaun, a five-day event which, in addition to an intense programme of lectures and seminars, also featured extra-curricular activities such as long guided walks in the Hunsrück and skittles competitions at the local pub.

John passed away on 2 March at his home in Grünwald near Munich in Germany. He is survived by his wife Janet and his children, Helen, Josephine, Mary, Luke, their spouses and ten grandchildren.

Memories of John

When I first met Prof. Osborne, I was rather in awe of him, but he soon set me at ease with his calm nature and dry wit during tutorials . His door was always open, he was always easy to approach, he was a great listener and he was someone who genuinely cared about the development of his students. Over a quarter century on, I still have fond memories of John and the conversations we shared when I was a student in the department. SchloB Dhaun was a genuine eye opener into the more jovial side of his character. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room when we all played “Ducky Fuzz” one evening, and I’m sure my friends will read this and smile at the memory. It was truly sad to hear of his passing. My thoughts are with his family and his loved ones. He was a great tutor, a talented academic, but more importantly, he was someone who left a positive and lasting impression on those who had the fortune to meet him during their lives.

Giles O’Halloran 27/03/2024

I approached my first year with some trepidation- I knew I was looking forward to some aspects of the course, chiefly modern German history and culture, but I was daunted by the Writer, Nation State course taught by John. I was worried about how to access appreciation for that period of German culture and whether I would find it engaging to study. I needn’t have worried, John drew on references from right across the world of literature, art and theology to inspire and enliven tutorials and lectures. He left me with a lasting appreciation for German Romanticism as well as some strong lessons for how to energise and lead a disparate bunch of sometimes reluctant students. I think of him often. I frequently travel to Germany on business and where I can I visit museums and galleries where the occasional exhibit will remind me of John and how much of a part of creating that love for German culture he was. John was a full of decency and kindness in our tutorials, he expected high academic standards but he invested much of his own time in helping us to achieve them (or in my case at least to get a bit closer to high standards). His academic credentials were evident for all to see but he wore them very lightly and there was no trace of arrogance in his interactions with us humble undergraduates. My deepest sympathies to John's family.

Will Battle 28/03/2024

Ah that’s so sad but such a good age. I always think of him when I see Perfume by Patrick Susskind, he was always so encouraging even when we were completely clueless!

Mair Hughes (Williams) 16/04/2024

As a Warwick student during the 1990s, I have very fond memories indeed of John. He had an infectious enthusiasm, was truly passionate about language and literature, and his translation classes were a real highlight for me and the others in his class. He was a generous academic who warmly welcomed us as students, making our time in the German department enriching and truly memorable.

Adam Slade 16/04/2024

Professor John is so strong in my memory as someone who believed in me and my academic potential when I felt like an imposter. I remember him being alarmed that we didn’t recognise a biblical reference, and suggesting we all read the bible before the next seminar the following week! When I graduated he told me that I was his favourite, along with Rachel. I think he was a fan of regional accents and “levelling up” before that was a thing. I will think about more moments I’m sure.

Claire Taylor (Black) 16/04/2024

What an impressive man he was. Such talents are utterly wasted on the youth but has to be one of, if not the, most intelligent human being I ever met. I’ll never forget our first tutorial when he had you or someone else reading something in French and the sheer look of disappointment at us that we weren’t all fluent in that language too.

Ross Collett 16/04/2024

I remember John as an excellent Head of Department during my time as a Lektorin at Warwick University from 1996 to 2002. His exceptional kindness and thoughtfulness were demonstrated just after he had retired to Strasbourg (because England was "too parochial") and I had moved to the South of England with my husband. When John found out that we had been approved to adopt our little baby boy Benjamin, he sent us, from France, a beautiful wooden train with each carriage a letter of our son’s name - a fantastic gift that was very treasured and stayed on Ben’s shelf until long after he could spell his name.

Petra Whatmore 16/04/2024

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