Professor Suzannah Lipscomb on an eventful year
PUBLISHED: 11:39 27 August 2019
Nicholas Dawkes Photography
The county’s historic riches helped to influence the flourishing career of Professor Suzannah Lipscomb. Claire Saul chats to the popular historian midway through an eventful year
Our enduring appetite for history is sated with visits to heritage hotspots in ever-increasing numbers, where clever methods of engagement educate and entertain us in equal measure. Factual and fictional reading matter and productions onscreen, talks and tours absorb minds of all ages and levels of enlightenment to understand, to empathise and to learn. Milestone celebrations and commemorations remind us who we were and contextualise who we are now.
Professor Suzannah Lipscomb - historian, author, broadcaster and award-winning academic - has become one of our most familiar portals to times past. With 15 television series to her credit, including the recent Channel Five series London: 2000 Years Revealed, her interests are wide-ranging but her particular passion is signified by her Twitter handle: @sixteenthCgirl.
A lifelong fascination for the Tudors is attributed to a Surrey childhood spent in close proximity to the location of two 16th century palaces. Only traces of evidence remain of the first, Nonsuch, one of the most magnificent buildings of the age, so named as there was 'none such' like it. The second, just a few miles away, was Hampton Court, which remains one of the most famous royal palaces of all.
"My earliest memories of Hampton Court Palace are of the grandeur of it all, especially the Great Hall," recalls Suzannah. "The cobblestones seem to feature in my memory and the maze too, of course - it was always about the maze when I was a child! And sitting out having picnics in the gardens with those extraordinary topiary trees out the back, towards the Long Water. Later on, when I worked at the palace as a research curator, I have one special memory of several of us staying late one Christmas and going down to the Great Hall with a drink, where we laid on the floor and looked up at the ceiling. It was just magical to have that special, night-time access to the palace."
From Nonsuch High School, Suzannah continued her studies at Epsom College, where she is now on the board of governors, a college she enthuses is "really going places". Academic brilliance at Oxford culminated with a DPhil. in History and fellowship of the Royal Historical Society. This year has delivered its own significant milestones, beginning with her promotion to Professor of History at the University of Roehampton, where she has taught for the past two years. Unsurprisingly, she champions the value of a humanities degree at a time when so much emphasis is placed on the study of vocational subjects. "People don't often understand the immense value of a degree in history for their career," she says. "In practice, it gives you a huge number of transferable skills, such as the ability to source and analyse large amounts of information and to think and write clearly. There is a disconnect; we need to help people understand how valuable a degree in history and those transferable skills are and not 'I can't do what I love because it's not going to get me a job'."
Aside from several appearances on the popular Insert Name Here BBC television panel show, this year has also seen publication of Suzannah's latest book, the scholarly and highly-praised The Voices of Nîmes: Women, Sex and Marriage in Reformation Languedoc. And there has recently been an historic milestone of her own; the arrival of her first child. Somehow, she has also found the time to move back to Surrey, where recent months have found her retracing those early steps at Nonsuch, filming for FutureLearn's six-week online course on the Tudors, a free offering developed by the University of Roehampton.
Meanwhile in Derbyshire's stunning National Trust property Hardwick Hall, a recent passion project has been extended due to popular demand. The innovative We are Bess exhibition highlights facets of the life of the remarkable Tudor countess Elizabeth Talbot, more familiarly known as Bess of Hardwick. Suzannah was creative director for the exhibition which revisits Bess' story through the prism of the life experiences of twenty modern women. Her story, Suzannah agrees, would be an intriguing topic for a television audience, although there are many competing ideas on her production wish list.
"There are all sorts of things I would like to do, including a series on the history of beauty - ideas about beauty tell us a lot about cultural values and also about the price, how being beautiful is achieved in terms of cost to humans, the environment, financially and all the rest of it," she says. "What we find attractive is so culturally conditioned; I think that is fascinating. I would also like to do a series on motherhood and pregnancy, especially now I have gone through it myself recently. It has made me think very differently about the reality of the experiences of women in the past, especially pre-1960s."
The 16th century, says Suzannah, is her playground. With several history tours in the pipeline, her next book commission - a 21st century perspective on Henry VIII's six queens - to progress, her academic commitments, talks and more to entice us, this historic playtime is one we'll hopefully be enjoying for a long while yet.
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