The University of Southampton
HistoryPart of Humanities

Dr Jonathan Conlin BA Oxon MA PhD Cantab FRHistS FHA

Senior Lecturer - on research leave

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Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain underwent dramatic social, political, intellectual and cultural change. My teaching and research grapples with the legacy of this Georgian and Victorian ferment, a legacy which continues to shape not only Britain, but the world: from the free-market ideas of the moral philosopher Adam Smith to the theories of transmutation developed by Charles Darwin and his fellow evolutionists.

History is past politics, and politics present history.

I specialise in modern British cultural history, from the eighteenth century to the present. My three areas of interest are urban history, the history of evolutionary thought and the history of art museums/arts broadcasting. Alongside monographs and contributions to learned journals I also write for more mainstream audiences, as well as organizing study days and other events in collaboration with the British Film Institute, National Gallery and other museums and libraries. Much of my work has an Anglo-French perspective, seeking to correct the common view of Britain and France as "natural and necessary enemies." One recent book, Tales of Two Cities, presented a histoire croisée of Paris and London, and has since been translated into Japanese, Russian and Portuguese. My current research towards a biography of Calouste Gulbenkian (see "Research" tab) combines these interests with a new focus on the emergence of the oil industry.

Tales of Two Cities
Tales of Two Cities
The Nations Mantelpiece
The Nations Mantelpiece

My first book, The Nation's Mantelpiece, focussed on the history of the National Gallery, London. In addition to considering how the worlds of art, business and high politics interacted in the nineteenth and twentieth century this study considered the different ways in which historical change has been understood and represented. I became interested in how new theories of transmutation changed how Victorians perceived the historical past, and have since explored how ideas of evolutionary "development" influenced the thinking of statesmen, authors and historians, including William Gladstone, The Rev. Charles Kingsley and E. A. Freeman.

I have also explored a number of topics in Georgian and Victorian urban history, such as cemeteries, the urban night and the flaneur. In 2008 I organized "Vauxhall Revisited", a conference on pleasure gardens: suburban resorts that shaped how city life was understood and represented. Laurent Turcot of the Université de Trois Rivières and I have published an English edition of Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s 1780 manuscript "Parallel of Paris and London", a manifesto for a mutually beneficial, cross-Channel dialogue.

Evolution and the Victorians
Evolution and the Victorians

An opportunity to work on the 2007 BBC series Trade Roots (presented by Michael Buerk) gave me an insight into how the past is presented on radio. Since then I have researched the history of arts documentaries on television, in the UK and US.

Vauxhall Revisited
Vauxhall Revisited

Archival research into the making, meaning and reception of Kenneth Clark's Civilisation (1969) and John Berger's Ways of Seeing (1972) has led to a number of publications, as well as conferences, symposia and film seasons in London, York and Washington. Together with reviews and interviews in Sight & Sound, History Today and on the BBC's Today programme, these projects sought to inspire renewed public discussion of beauty, civilisation and other terms which have fallen into desuetude.

Critical Lives
Critical Lives





Research interests

In 2013, I began a five-year project looking at one of the most important figures in the history of oil: Calouste Gulbenkian (1869-1955), also known as "Mr Five Percent". Born into a family of Ottoman Armenian merchants in Istanbul, Gulbenkian spent much of his life in London and Paris before settling in Lisbon in 1942. Gulbenkian established the Turkish (later Iraq) Petroleum Company in 1912, and is often associated with the 1928 "Red Line Agreement", which saw the world's oil supermajors agree to collaborate within the confines of what had been the Ottoman Empire. Gulbenkian's personal holding of 5% of Middle East oil production derived from this agreement, which was renegotiated in 1948, after the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia. His success in securing and holding on to this famous five percent as empires faded, borders shifted and new nation-states emerged was testament to his skill as a negotiator.

I first began researching and writing about Gulbenkian's activities in 2002, focussing on his philanthropic vision as well as his collecting of European art. The current project is intended to produce what will hopefully be the definitive biography of Gulbenkian, in time for the 150th anniversary of his birth in 2019. Alongside TPC Gulbenkian also played an important role shaping the firms we know today as Shell and Total. A diplomat and financier as well as an "oil man" (a label he himself shunned) Gulbenkian's interests literally spanned the globe, from California to China. Yet the man himself kept a low-profile, preferring to broker deals out of the sight of the media.

This geographical extent, Gulbenkian's secretiveness and his polyglot correspondence (he wrote Armenian, Ottoman Turkish, French and English) present any would-be biographer with unusual challenges. I am grateful to have the support of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, based in Lisbon. Stewards of Gulbenkian's oil interests and art as well as his archives, in October 2014 the Foundation hosted an exhibition I curated on Gulbenkian's early life. "More than Mr Five Percent: The Early Life of Calouste Gulbenkian" provided the public with a chance to see some of the treasures I have uncovered in my work so far. Taken as a whole the project promises to shed new light on the emergence of the oil industry, the history of Britain, France and the United States' relationship with the Middle East, as well as on the life and career of a preeminent business architect.



Book Section(s)


On leave 2012 - 16

Areas where I can offer postgraduate supervision:


Modern British politics and culture; Victorian evolution and historiography; history of museums and arts broadcasting; history of the oil industry.

Current theses in progress include a study of the Southwark Mint, the largest of the late seventeenth-/early eighteenth-century London sanctuaries for debtors; the reputation and legacy of Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection; poses plastiques and "living pictures" (i.e. tableaux vivants) in Victorian music hall; libertarian conservatism in High Victorian Britain.



Dr Jonathan Conlin
History School of Humanities University of Southampton Southampton S017 1BF
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