The Biographer’s Contract

Presented by Professor Frances Spalding CBE

16 September 2010
5 pm - 8 pm
Free event
02 6262 1271

Read the lecture: The Biographer’s Contract (482KB)

Frances Spalding is a biographer, art historian and critic. She began as an historian of twentieth-century British art and her study of Roger Fry led on to her first major biography, Vanessa Bell, the sister of Virginia Woolf. She went on to write British Art since 1900 and lives of the artists John Minton, Duncan Grant and Gwen Raverat, the grand-daughter of Charles Darwin, as well as a critical biography of the poet Stevie Smith. Her most recent biography John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: Lives in Art not only traced the lives and achievement of these two figures but also made a significant contribution to cultural history. In 2005 the National Portrait Gallery, London, published a new edition of her The Bloomsbury Group in their ‘Insights’ series and she recently acted as a consultant to David Dimbleby’s television series Seven Ages of Britain. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Art and she received a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2005. She currently teaches at Newcastle University where she is Professor of Art History.


Biography is becoming dangerously popular. Nowadays it is often the option of choice among young academics working within the Humanities. It also attracts many as-yet-unpublished authors who might formerly have tried their hand at the novel. Hermione Lee recently remarked: ‘No major – or, increasingly, minor – figure in any field, now goes unbiographized.’ The aim of this lecture is not to discuss the attractions of biography but its inherent tensions and the questions that need to be confronted if the written life is to satisfy, enrich, inform and inspire.

How, for instance, does a biographer marry factual accuracy withinnovation?  Is the search for a pattern at the expense of contingencies? What kinds of selfhood are on display in the presentation of identity? How does one reconcile the private individual with the performative nature of public life? And should biographers imitate Boswell and promise ‘veracity’ about themselves as well as their subjects? What is our responsibility to a past which in some ways remains open, not completed, while we write about it in the present and for the future? Is there a place in biography for postmodernist indeterminacy? Such questions can make biographers nervously aware that they are contracted to their subjects in more ways than are defined by the legal agreement between publisher and author.

Rarely is this larger contract discussed overtly. All too often it rests on unspoken assumptions, or remains unanalysed and remains buried within the narrative. In looking at what is often overlooked, we can register more clearly the complexities and diversity within this genre. The biographer’s contract can take many forms. It may be similar to an assassin’s contract and give rise to shock, voyeurism and titillation; at the other extreme, it may harbour the kind of dutifulness that curtails enquiry and upholds the status quo. Is there such a thing as an ideal biographer’s contract? Or does it change its terms according to the task in hand? Should it remain less of a contract and more of a gentleman’s agreement, resting primarily on a degree of trust? And whom does it serve? These questions take us closer to the aims and purposes of biography, while also reminding us of what biography can give, as well as what it can, and sometimes must, withhold.

Frances Spalding

Professor Frances Spalding, CBE delivers the Seymour Biography Lecture 2010 ‘The Biographer’s Contract’

Frances Spalding

Professor Frances Spalding – signing books following the Seymour Biography Lecture 2010