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Charles Ian Donaldson (1935–2020)

by Colin Steele

Ian Donaldson, 1990

Ian Donaldson, 1990

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-330

Charles Ian Edward Donaldson was born in Melbourne on 6 May 1935. He was educated at Melbourne Grammar School; he completed his Bachelor of Arts (Honours 1 English Language and Literature) at the University of Melbourne in 1957, teaching briefly in 1958 in the English Department at Melbourne.

Ian completed a second Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts at the University of Oxford, graduating in 1964. He was tutorial Fellow in English at Wadham College from 1962 to 1969, CUF Lecturer in English at Oxford from 1963 to 1969, and Chair of the Oxford English Faculty in 1968–69.

In 1969 he was appointed as Professor of English at ANU, and in 1974 was appointed founding Director of the University’s newly established Humanities Research Centre (HRC), a position he held until 1991, when he was appointed Regius Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature at the University of Edinburgh.

In 1995 he was appointed Grace 1 Professor of English at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of King’s College, becoming in 2001 the founding Director of Cambridge’s new Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH). He returned to the HRC as Director in 2004, a position he held until 2007 when he returned to Melbourne as an Honorary Professorial Fellow in the School of Culture and Communication.

Ian also taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara; Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge; Cornell University; the Folger Shakespeare Library; and the University of Melbourne.

Ian was a Fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and Fellow and Past President of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. He was elected to the Academy in 1975 and served as Vice-President 1980–02 and again 2005–07. He was President of the Academy 2007–09 and Immediate Past President 2010–12. He is Emeritus Professor and Honorary DUniv at ANU, and Honorary DLitt of the University of Melbourne, where he was also a Fellow of Trinity College.

Ian was of the world’s leading Ben Jonson scholars and an international authority in the field of early modern English literary studies. His books include The World Upside-Down: Comedy From Jonson to Fielding (1970), Ben Jonson: Poems (1975), The Rapes of Lucretia: A Myth and its Transformations (1982), Ben Jonson (1985), Jonson’s Magic Houses: Essays in Interpretation (1997), and Ben Jonson: A Life (2011).

He was a general editor, with David Bevington and Martin Butler, of The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson, published as print edition in seven volumes in 2012, and as an electronic edition (of roughly four times that size) in 2013. The editions, which include over 500 contextual documents, 80 essays, several hundred images, details of stage performances, and a cross-linked bibliography of over 7,000 items, were acclaimed ‘a monumental feat in Jonson scholarship’.

Ian’s innovative and enterprising leadership of the HRC up to 1991 is fully documented in Glen St John Barclay and Caroline Turner’s book The Humanities Research Centre: A History of the First 30 Years (ANU E Press, 2004).

The HRC began in the Childers Street prefabs before moving into the A.D. Hope building. Its history fully evokes the stimulating academic and social environment that Ian, along with his colleagues such as Mary Theo, Graeme Clarke and James Grieve, provided over the years. The many high-profile academic visitors to the HRC, particularly from overseas, are tribute to Ian’s reputation.

Many of the visitors reflected on how Ian and his colleagues made them feel welcome in Canberra. One noted Oxford scholar told me in the 1980s that he only came to Canberra because Ian had promised him that he could have a note on his door saying ‘Do Not Disturb for Three Months’— needless to say Ian soon charmed him out of the study.

Graeme Clarke comments in the Barclay and Turner book that Ian was extremely ‘adroit’ in dealing with the ‘Byzantine machinations of university bureaucracy’, which Ian needed as the HRC ricocheted between the administration of the Faculty of Arts and the Research School of Social Sciences and the ever-changing nature of ANU centres and units on campus. 

During his first directorship of the HRC, Ian helped to organise more than 80 international interdisciplinary conferences, working often in collaboration with the Australian National Gallery, the National Library of Australia, the Australian Academy of the Humanities, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and other institutions throughout Australasia. Under his leadership, the HRC acquired a substantial international reputation and became the model for subsequent humanities centres overseas.

Ian continued this collaboration in his second term within the context of supporting and advancing the cause of the humanities as widely as possible. As a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, Ian led two major Australian Research Council Learned Academies Special Projects: ‘Promoting Scholarly Writing in the Public Sphere’ (2005), which aimed to encourage scholars in the humanities to acquire the skills to write accessibly for non-experts; and ‘The Humanities in Australian Life since 1968’ (2009), which resulted in a significant publication entitled Taking Stock: The Humanities in Australian Life since 1968 (2012).

He chaired a number of colloquia held by the Academy, including a highly successful symposium on ‘Philanthropy and the Humanities’ (2007), and the Colloquium of Australian Tertiary Language Teachers, ‘Beyond the Crisis: Revitalising Languages in Australian Universities’ (2009). Ian thus made an extraordinary contribution as a researcher, a teacher and an academic leader in Australia and in the UK.

Ian’s first marriage in March 1962 was to Tamsin Procter (1939–2014) and they had two children, Benjamin and Sadie. His second marriage in 1991 was to noted arts scholar, curator and critic Dr Grazia Gunn, who with Ben and Sadie survive him.

Peter Robb once wrote in The Monthly, Ian ‘is a scholar and a gentleman, maybe one of the last’. The Australian Academy of the Humanities concluded its obituary with Ben Jonson’s comment on Shakespeare, which certainly applied to Ian: ‘He was not of an age, but for all time!’ 

* Thanks to the Australian Academy of the Humanities, whose Vale provided substantial details for this obituary.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Colin Steele, 'Donaldson, Charles Ian (1935–2020)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 21 July 2024.

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