A portrait of the economic historian, R H Tawney, hangs on the 5th floor of Sardinia House. His association with the School lasted nearly 50 years from his arrival in 1913 to his death in 1962, writes LSE Archivist Sue Donnelly.

1950 marked the 70th birthday of Richard Henry Tawney (1880-1962), economic historian and social critic, whose connection with LSE began in 1913 when he was appointed Director of the Ratan Tata Foundation. To celebrate the event LSE and other friends and admirers of Tawney contributed towards a portrait of Tawney to be displayed in the School. Contributions came from the Hugh Gaitskell, then Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Conservative politician R A Butler and the philosopher Karl Popper.

Portrait of R H Tawney

Portrait of R H Tawney by Claude Rogers

Tawney was born in India and when the family returned to England he was educated at Rugby School and Balliol College, Oxford, where he met William Beveridge. Tawney obtained a second class degree and he was described as having a chaotic mind. After Oxford Tawney went to work at the university settlement in Whitechapel, Toynbee Hall, alongside his friend Beveridge and through this work he began his lifelong interest in adult education and in 1905 joined the executive committee of the Worker’s Educational Association (WEA). Tawney moved to Manchester and began his first classes in Lancashire and north Staffordshire teaching the economic history of the eighteenth century. In 1909 he married Annette Beveridge, William Beveridge’s younger sister.

In 1913 Tawney was appointed Director of the Ratan Tata Foundation established in association with LSE to promote the study and alleviation of poverty. In November 1914 he resigned and joined the 22nd Manchester Regiment and was severely wounded at Fricourt on 1 July 1916. After recovering he served as a member of the Ministry of Reconstruction’s adult education committee and campaigned for the extension of secondary education for all.

In 1920 he joined LSE’s staff and was promoted to Reader in 1923 and Professor in 1931. In 1926 he was a founder of the Economic History Society and edited in Economic History Review from 1927-1934. Religion and the Rise of Capitalism was published in 1926. Alongside his historical works Tawney published a number of influential critiques on the contemporary world from The Acquisitive Society in 1921 to Equality in 1965.

During the Second World War Tawney spent 1941-1942 in the British Embassy in Washington DC as labour attaché. Officially Tawney retired from LSE in 1949 but he continued to be active in the School and began to write a biography of Sidney Webb which was never finished.

Tawney was notoriously shabby and untidy – his desk always covered in papers and books, but he was also inspired great affection – his 80th birthday was marked by a dinner at the House of Commons and at his memorial service in 1962 the leader of the Labour Party Hugh Gaitskell described Tawney as “the best man I have ever known”.

Tawney's speech at the presentation of the portrait, typed with written amends

Tawney’s speech at the presentation of the portrait

Tawney’s portrait was produced by Claude Rogers (1907-1979) who painted several academics during his career including J B S Haldane for UCL, Dame Janet Vaughan , Principal of Somerville College, Oxford and Professor P J Moir, Professor of Clinical Surgery at Leeds University.

Rogers was born in London and studied as the Slade School of Fine Art. His first commission was a portrait of the baronet Sir Clive Coates and he exhibited work with the London Group in 1930 and 1931. In 1937 he opened a school of drawing and painting at 12 Fitzroy Street which later moved to Euston Road alongside William Coldstream and Victor Passmore. The Slade School was known as the Euston Road School and its main discipline was the observation of nature. In 1942 Rogers joined the Royal Engineers but a nervous breakdown in 1943 led to his discharge from the army. From 1949 he taught at the Slade School of Fine Art and in 1951 was one of 50 painters who contributed to the Art’s Council’s Festival of Britain exhibition. Throughout his life his career his portraits were accompanied by work on landscapes and still life.

Rogers was commissioned to paint Tawney in 1950 and the final portrait depicts Tawney sitting in an armchair reading and taking notes. The untidiness of his working environment is hinted at in the jumble of papers and books on the bookcase behind him. The date when the portrait was unveiled is unclear but it may have been on his 70th birthday on 30 November 1950. Tawney’s thank you speech began “This is all very embarrassing” – he carried on:

When I heard of the very kind intention to present us with a portrait my first feeling was one of gratitude to those who had been so good as to suggest it, my next that it was bad enough to be obliged to live with oneself, without also having before one’s eyes a permanent reminder of so unpleasant a companion. Thanks to Mr. Roger’s , the operation which he performed with a tact and grace no less exquisite than his art, was less shattering than I had anticipated, and the result more pleasing than I deserve. I and my wife can only express my warmest thanks to him for thinking it worth his while to spend his time converting an unpromising subject into a work of art, to which I shall endeavour to live up.

Tawney used this speech as an opportunity to review his career and the development of the School. He spoke affectionately of LSE as a young institution working in new disciplines and free from formality “it is agreeable to belong to an institution which does not inherit institutions, but makes them”.

Today Tawney’s portrait hangs in the Department of Economic History which was his intellectual home for so many years.

Contributed by Sue Donnelly (LSE Archivist)

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