Who’s Who: Biography and Biographer


Adrian Tinniswood, Freelance author and historian

17 February 2014


Adrian Tinniswood is a full-time writer, born in Derby, who now lives near Bath. He studied English and Philosophy as an undergraduate, acted as a National Trust consultant, and has lectured at universities in Britain and the U.S.A. As a published author, his main interest is the 17th century, reflected in three of his most recent titles.  They are on the Great Fire of London in 1666, the story of the Verney family (subtitled ‘A true Story of love, War and Madness in Seventeenth Century England’) and His Invention Most Fertile: A life of Christopher Wren.

In his entertaining talk, Adrian conveyed with great humour what he called ‘ the intense and often dysfunctional relationship’ he forms with his subject.  He advised anyone contemplating writing a biography to ‘choose your subject wisely’. Above all, he said ‘make sure you have got some good source material.’ His first love was and remains architecture, first as an observer and historian (e.g. in his first job, at Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire, run by the National Trust) and then as a writer about great architects and designers, such as Robert Adam, Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren.

He described how his initial interest in Wren grew into an obsession, and how he is still in awe of the cerebral Wren, who was 5 feet tall, and lived to be 91, a remarkable age for the time. Yet for all that, Adrian felt that he still did not fully know Wren. He described how Wren’s first wife Mary developed scurvy in 1649, a complaint which created bad side-effects, including numbness in the fingers. Her illness did not respond to any of the diets or (to us) horrifying medical treatments of the time and she died early in 1950. Next, he told us about the astonishing archive of 100,000 family papers relating to the Verney family, who lived at Compton Verney in Warwickshire; this is a treasure-trove indeed. He said that working on this material, which included 30,000 private letters, had been a joy, and that he had come to know the Verney family better than his own.

Finally, Adrian spoke about A.J.A. Symons’ well-known The Quest for Corvo, which is a very idiosyncratic study of the eccentric Frederick Rolfe, Baron Corvo, author of Hadrian VII. This remarkable biography, he felt, is as much about Symons himself as it is about Corvo. Adrian insisted that biography was real, and that it makes life. The more material there is to work on, the harder the research becomes. There is, he said, a need to know something, but not necessarily a need to say or state it every time. Adrian’s other books include: Historic Houses of the National Trust; Country Houses from the Air: Life in the English Country Cottage; Travels with Pevsner ; and Architecture and Ambition from Ancient Rome to Modern Paris.

Dr Robert Blackburn, former Principal Lecturer in Music, School of Music and Performing Arts, Bath Spa University