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The University of Southampton

Research project to chronicle life of oil magnate ‘Mr Five Percent’

Published: 15 October 2012

The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation has awarded the University of Southampton £300, 000 to research and write the biography of its founder. Calouste Gulbenkian (1869-1955) was a businessman, art collector and philanthropist whose crucial role in the oil industry helped to create such modern industry names as Shell and Total.

The University’s Dr Jonathan Conlin, who will write the biography – supported by a post-doctoral research assistant – says: “Calouste Gulbenkian’s business interests were global, his collecting of art and his philanthropic vision were equally ambitious in scope. Yet little has been written about his life to date. Creating this biography will require extensive research and travel, making this a particularly exciting and challenging opportunity.”

Calouste Gulbenkian was a talented diplomatist and businessman who worked closely with the British, French, American, Iranian and Iraqi governments – helping to shape the Middle East and its oil industries in the first half of the 20th century. He attracted the nickname of ‘Mr Five Percent’ for the five percent share of Iraqi oil production he secured in the early 1900s. He also held a passion for art and assembled an eclectic and unique collection, now totalling over 6,000 pieces, influenced by his travels and personal taste.

In the latter part of his life, Gulbenkian lived in Portugal, where upon his death he endowed the charity that bears his name. Today the Gulbenkian Foundation is one of the world’s most important philanthropic institutions, which has sponsored innovative projects in the arts, education, and social policy for over 50-years.

Dr Jonathan Conlin is to write his biography
Calouste Gulbenkian

The project to write a biography of Gulbenkian is an ambitious one as the reach of his commercial and diplomatic activities extended from Mexico and Venezuela to Iran and Russia.

Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation President, Artur Santos Silva, comments: “We are pleased that a scholar of Dr Conlin’s distinction will be undertaking this important work and we are offering him our full cooperation and full access to our founder’s papers.”

Martin Essayan, the great grandson of Calouste Gulbenkian and trustee of the Foundation, says: “Much of what has been written about Calouste Gulbenkian has been anecdotal and he is often referred to as a “mystery” and yet there are extensive archives available and much interest in him. There is a real need for a work of serious scholarship accessible to the general reader.”

The award has been welcomed by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Southampton Professor Don Nutbeam: “I am delighted that the University will be working with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation on the biography of this key figure in the history of the oil industry. I hope this project will give us the opportunity to forge new, strong links with the Foundation for the future.”

The three-year project will begin in February 2013 and it’s hoped the book will be published by 2019, in time for the 150th anniversary of Calouste Gulbenkian’s birth.

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