J S (Sandy) Cunningham

Posted by pt91 at Sep 22, 2015 04:50 PM |

We have learnt, with great regret, on the death of J S (Sandy) Cunningham, Emeritus Professor of English.

J S (Sandy) Cunningham, eighteenth century scholar, poet and Professor of English at Leicester between 1975 and 1989 died at his home in North Yorkshire after a brief illness on 13th September.  One of the founding members of the English Department at the University of York, he was appointed to a newly created third chair in English at Leicester in 1975, joining Arthur Humphreys and Philip Collins.  He began his academic career at Durham.

A charismatic and idiosyncratic lecturer he delighted undergraduate and wider audiences alike by his unstuffy style and his capacity to surprise as well as at times to baffle by his approach to a seemingly straightforward topic. The title of his inaugural lecture, ‘Of Giants and Eggshells’ signalled what was to follow.  His last lecture, on Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, was mischievously delivered from behind a table on which he had placed a china horse looking into a mirror.

His determinedly unprofessorial manner drew young lecturers to him, both at Leicester and elsewhere, and he exerted a profound influence on the careers of several of the next generation of professors of English.  This influence was both intellectual and personal. He had a brilliant and instructive mind but was completely without 'side': amusing and relaxed with his younger colleagues, one of whom recalls watching 'Botham's Ashes' with him during lunchtime in the SCR. When the match reached a crucial point at which both should have returned to their offices, Prof. Cunningham thought nothing of designating this an historical moment which should not be missed, and both stayed on during the afternoon to witness the victory. In this relaxed atmosphere, problems, his own and his young colleagues', could be discussed frankly and in complete confidence. He became a friend to all, supportive and sympathetic, not merely a senior manager whose job it was to 'listen'. A kind and inspiring man to whom the study of literature was both a profession and a passion, he would devote many hours to reading his colleagues' work before publication, offering acute and helpful commentary. One of the sadnesses of his life was that he fell foul of the brief edict requiring  compulsory retirement at sixty.  He moved to Wensleydale, an area he had loved since childhood, where he lived for more than twenty years with his second wife, Eithne Henson .

His books included editions and studies of Pope, Johnson, William Collins, and Marlowe, the last a departure from his preferred intellectual home in the eighteenth century.  Outside the world of academic English studies he was well known as a poet, publishing his first volume, The Powers that Be, in 1969. He continuing to write and publish steadily throughout his retirement, and brought out a second collection, Tidings, in 2008.  A third volume, Soundings, was published in 2014, in his 86th year.

Sandy, as he was known to all, was not an instinctive administrator or a committee man, but he brought his own brand of informal academic management and fair mindedness to the headship of the department, which he undertook for successive terms, as well as serving on the board of Leicester University Press.

Professor Joanne Shattock, Professor Martin Stannard and Professor Gordon Campbell

There is to be a celebration of Prof Cunningham's life at Wensley Church, North Yorkshire, at 2.30 on 28th September.  The family do not want flowers, but donations to Oxfam would be welcome.

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