Richard Holmes (biographer)

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Richard Holmes
Richard Holmes.JPG
Born (1945-11-05) 5 November 1945 (age 72)
Occupation Author, academic
Alma mater Churchill College, Cambridge

Richard Gordon Heath Holmes, OBE, FRSL, FBA (born 5 November 1945) is a British author and academic best known for his biographical studies of major figures of British and French Romanticism.


Richard Gordon Heath Holmes was born on 5 November 1945,[1] in London. He was educated at Downside School, Somerset and Churchill College, Cambridge.[2] He is a Fellow of The Royal Society of Literature and a Fellow of the British Academy. He was professor of Biographical Studies at the University of East Anglia from 2001–2007 and has honorary doctorates from the University of East London, University of Kingston and the Tavistock Institute. In 1992 he was appointed an officer of the Order of the British Empire. He lives in London and Norfolk with his wife, British novelist Rose Tremain.

Literary biography

Holmes's major works of Romantic biography include: Shelley: The Pursuit which won him the Somerset Maugham Award in 1974; Coleridge: Early Visions, which won him the 1989 Whitbread Book of the Year Prize (now the Costa Book Awards); Coleridge: Darker Reflections, the second and final volume of his Coleridge biography which won the Duff Cooper Prize and the Heinemann Award; and Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage, concerning the friendship between eighteenth-century British literary figures Samuel Johnson and Richard Savage, which won the James Tait Black Prize.

Holmes is also the author of two studies of European biography. Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer is a highly acclaimed volume of memoirs and personal reflections on the biographer's art and Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer collects his shorter pieces, including an early, groundbreaking essay on Thomas Chatterton and an introductory account of the lives and works of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin.

He is editor of the Harper Perennial series Classic Biographies, launched in 2004.

His 2005 monograph on biography and portraiture for the National Portrait Gallery, Insights: The Romantic Poets and their Circle, was unusual in that it included scientists alongside literary writers. He has also written many drama-documentaries for BBC Radio, most recently The Frankenstein Experiment (2002), and A Cloud in a Paper Bag (2007) about 18th century balloon mania.

October 2008 saw his first major work of biography in over a decade, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, published by HarperPress. In it he explores the scientific ferment that swept across Britain at the end of 18th century. Holmes proposes a radical vision of science before Charles Darwin, exploring the earliest ideas of deep time and deep space, the creative rivalry with the French scientific establishment, and the startling impact of discovery on great writers and poets such as Mary Shelley, Coleridge, Byron and Keats. The book received wide review coverage (see below), was featured on BBC Radio 4's Book of the Week [3] and became a bestseller.[4]

In Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air (2013), Richard Holmes approaches the history of ballooning by presenting biographies of French, English, and American balloonists.[5] The personalities and experiences of those involved are varied and surprising. Balloons were used successfully to send information out of besieged Paris in 1870, and unsuccessfully to fly to the North Pole in the 1890s, to name only two examples. In Holmes' history of ballooning, science meets showmanship and both literary flights and actual adventures capture the imagination.[4]


External video
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Falling Upwards: An Interview with Richard Holmes on YouTube, Chemical Heritage Foundation
Richard Holmes and Romantic Science in the Age of Wonder on YouTube, Chemical Heritage Foundation

Classic Biographies Series (HarperPerennial) edited by Richard Holmes


  1. ^ "Holmes, Richard Gordon Heath", Who's Who (online edition, Oxford University Press, December 2017). Retrieved 18 June 2018.
  2. ^ Richard Holmes, Retrieved on 7 August 2009.
  3. ^ "The Age of Wonder". Book of the week. Episode 5. London. 20 October 2008. BBC Radio. BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 7 August 2009. 
  4. ^ a b Elie, Paul (15 November 2013). "Upper Atmospherics 'Falling Upwards,' by Richard Holmes". The New York Times. Retrieved 6 December 2013. 
  5. ^ Holmes, Richard. Falling upwards : how we took to the air. London: HarperPress. ISBN 978-0-00-738692-5. 
  6. ^ Above bibliographic detail taken from a copy of Dr Johnson and Mr Savage first published in 1993
  7. ^ Downing, Ben (January 5, 2001). "Bookmarks (Rev. of Sidetracks)". Wall Street Journal. 237 (4): W8. ISSN 0099-9660. Archived from the original on July 17, 2017 – via EBSCOhost. 
  8. ^ Hitchings, Henry (July 10, 2000). "Poetic craving (Book Review)". New Statesman. 129 (4494): 58. ISSN 1364-7431 – via EBSCOhost. 
  9. ^ Spurling, Hilary (December 3, 2000). "True Romance". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. 
  • Renders, Hans and de Haan, Binne, ‘Richard Holmes : A biographer-historian par excellence. Uncovering the roots and methodology of the modern field work of a romantic and humanistic Biographer’, Les Grandes figures historiques dans les lettres et les arts [en ligne], n° 6bis (2017), URL:, p. 38-53.

External links

  • Review of Falling Upwards at the Oxonian Review
  • Transcript of interview with Ramona Koval, The Book Show, ABC Radio National.
  • Richard Holmes page at HarperCollins
  • The British Academy
  • Richard Holmes author page and article archive from The New York Review of Books
  • Richard Holmes as guest on The Infinitie Monkey Cage, BBC Radio 4 broadcast, "Science Museum," 23 July 2013

The Age of Wonder press coverage

  • Richard Holmes interview with the Radiolab
  • Review in the Independent, September 26, 2008
  • The Times review, September 26, 2008
  • "Following his footsteps" Interview in the Guardian, Saturday September 27, 2008
  • Review in the Daily Telegraph, September 29, 2008
  • Spectator review, October 15, 2008
  • New York Times review, July 8, 2009
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