Leeds University Library

Bonamy Dobrée (1891-1974)

Bonamy Dobrée

Professor of English Literature, 1936-1955

In 20 years as Professor of English Literature, Dobrée had a profound effect on the University's cultural life, above all by creating an outstanding School of English where his influence is still felt today. Many well-known individuals associated with the University, particularly writers, were originally brought to Leeds by the inspirational Dobrée.

Born into a banking family from the Channel Islands, Dobrée's Edwardian education prepared him for an army career, which he began in 1910. He resigned in 1913 to marry an artist, travelling with her around Italy and France (in a horse-drawn caravan) until the outbreak of World War I. He then re-enlisted, serving with distinction as a young major. His unusual combination of brisk military efficiency with an artistic temperament stayed central to his life.

After a brief period as a Cambridge student, private means allowed Dobrée to live as an independent scholar-critic from 1921 until the mid-1930s, specialising in 18th-century literature. He enjoyed an exotic interlude as an English professor in Cairo from 1926 to 1929. Dobreé seemed to know all of his literary contemporaries - his list of contacts included Pound, Lawrence, and the Bloomsbury Group - and he formed close friendships with TS Eliot and Herbert Read.

When Dobrée was appointed Professor at Leeds, his London friends were astonished by his move to the north, but he was totally committed to the role. Though distracted by another war - he was Colonel in charge of the Leeds Officers' Training Corps - he immersed himself in University life.

Under Dobrée's leadership, Leeds pioneered the academic study of both American and Commonwealth (postcolonial) literature in UK universities. He advocated the establishment of a Fine Art department, persuading his friend Peter Gregory to fund the groundbreaking Gregory Fellowships for poets and artists. Dobrée personally selected the poets with Eliot and Read. He brought poets Vernon Scannell, Jon Silkin and James Simmons to Leeds as unconventional students, mentored Richard Hoggart and appointed Geoffrey Hill as an exceptionally young lecturer. He encouraged them all until his death.

Dobrée's archive was given to the Library by his daughter Georgina in 1988. At its heart are hundreds of letters he received from his great contemporaries. The collection spans many decades - from before, during and after Dobrée's time at Leeds.