Philip James Ayres: 1944-2021

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It is with deep regret that the Academy informs you of the passing of Professor Philip Ayres FRHistS FAHA, a leading literary historian and one of Australia’s most renowned biographers. He was elected to the Academy in 1999 and was a member of the English Section.

Professor Ayres was born in South Australia on 28 July 1944 and attended Adelaide Boys’ High School and the University of Adelaide where he undertook his BA and PhD. His thesis was awarded the University’s prestigious Benham Prize in 1971 after which he took up a Lectureship at Monash University where he remained until his retirement in 2006. He held a range of positions whilst at Monash moving from Lecturer (1972-1979) to Senior Lecturer (1980-1993) to Associate Professor of English (1994-2006) and finally Professorial Fellow (2006-2021). He was a Visiting Professorial Fellow at Vassar College (1993) and Boston University (2001) in the United States.

Professor Ayres’ early work was in the Elizabethan and Jacobean period with editions of The Revenger’s Tragedy (1977), The English Roman Life by Anthony Munday (1980) and Ben Jonson’s political tragedy Sejanus (1990). It was as a biographer, however, that Ayres was best known, described by High Court Justice Dyson Heydon AC as “one of the best biographers this country has ever produced.”  Professor Ayres authored biographies of former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser; geologist and Antarctic explorer Sir Douglas Mawson; High Court Judge and diplomat Owen Dixon; former Archbishop of Sydney Patrick Francis Moran; and High Court Judge, former Governor-General of Australia and Academy Fellow the late Sir Ninian Stephen. He also wrote first-hand accounts of several conflict zones, having travelled with Malcolm Fraser in South Africa and Somalia and with the Hezb-i-Islami jihadists in Afghanistan.

In addition to providing us with these invaluable insights into Australia’s political and legal history, Professor Ayres continued to produce literary scholarship and was the author of Classical Culture and the Idea of Rome in Eighteenth-Century England (1997) and editor of Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury: Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1999). Prolific late into his career, he was the author of Private Encounters in the Public World (2019) and editor of The Washington Diaries of Owen Dixon 1942-1944 (2021).

Professor Ayres was a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society (London) and a recipient of the Centenary Medal in 2001 for contributions to literature. He was deputy chair of the Literature Board of the Australia Council from 2000-2002.

We extend our deepest sympathies to the Ayres family and friends and his colleagues at Monash and in the English Section. He was remembered in a recent tribute in The Age as “a gentleman and scholar who will be deeply missed and forever remembered by all who knew his love, affection, friendship and intellect.”

In memory of our Fellows

Our Fellows, current and those who have died, have contributed extensively to the rich Australian humanities community. When an Academy Fellow dies, we honour their impact by publishing an obituary by another Fellow who has had a long and close association with them.

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Acknowledgement of Country

The Australian Academy of the Humanities recognises Australia’s First Nations Peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of this land, and their continuous connection to country, community and culture.