Basil Markesinis KC FBA: A tribute

Text: Basil Markesinis KC FBA 1944-2023 on background of Law Faculty logo

With the death of Sir Basil (Vassili) Markesinis, who sadly passed away at his home on 23 April aged 78 after a long illness, we have lost not only an outstanding scholar of international renown but a loyal colleague remarkable for his ability to build warm and enduring relationships between any law school where he held a Chair and leading law schools and jurists overseas.

Basil Markesinis

Basil was born of a Greek father and an English mother. His father was for a short time the Prime Minister of Greece and there was at one time some thought that Basil too would be elected to that high office but it never happened.

I first became acquainted with Basil in 1986, when I was able to tempt him to leave the beautiful gardens of Trinity College, Cambridge, to come to Queen Mary College in the Mile End Road in East London to take up the post of Denning Professor of Comparative Law in the Law Faculty’s Centre for Commercial Law Studies, of which he became Deputy Director. At that time I felt that comparative law was not given enough attention in UK law schools (a view later confirmed by Basil in his article “Comparative Law – A Subject in Search of an Audience” (1980) 53 MLR 1) but at QMC that was quickly rectified by Basil. He not only enjoyed an international reputation for his works in the fields of comparative law and tort law, he was also an inspirational teacher whose students flocked to his classes. He became a close friend and while at Queen Mary we engaged in a number of projects together to raise funds, successfully, for new posts. His international approach and wide range of connections fitted in well with the ethos of the CCLS. We were indeed kindred spirits. Basil had close links with the University of Texas at Austin, where he was Jamail Regents Professor and founded the Institute of Transnational Law, and also with the University of Leiden, where in 1988 he founded and became first Director of the Institute of Anglo-American Law. This was opened by the Prince of Wales. I was there and it was a great ceremony in a huge aula, where Basil stood at his lectern so high up that he was almost invisible – but not inaudible! He spoke many languages, often with a vigorous, not to say flamboyant, delivery, albeit with his own idiosyncratic pronunciation of German, perhaps influenced by his Greek origins. He was of the view that the study of other legal systems was not only enriching in itself but made the scholar aware of the distinctive characteristics of his own legal system.

When I came to Oxford in January 1990 I was keen to bring Basil here too but Oxford is a place where the mills of God grind slowly and Professor Jeffrey Jowell, Dean of the Law Faculty at University College London, moved in at the speed of light and secured him for UCL. We did eventually get him to Oxford in 1995 as the Clifford Chance Professor of European Law and later Professor of Comparative Law and founder and first Director of what became the Institute of European and Comparative Law. In this venture Basil again showed his amazing talent for fund-raising, negotiating at the highest level with the German and French governments to procure long-term funding of a deputy directorship and two visiting fellowships, sponsored with great generosity by those governments. Two years he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy. We had the benefit of his energy and scholarship for a further three years, after which he returned to UCL as Professor of Common and Civil Law to UCL, raising funds for the establishment of the Institute of Global Law, which he set up and chaired.

A stream of publications flowed from Basil’s pen: not only on law, with leading works on comparative law, English tort law (with Simon Deakin) and German contract law, but also, being a widely travelled and highly cultured man, books on art and its relationship with law. Among his many notable legal publications were Comparative Law in the Courtroom and Classroom; The German Law of Torts (with Hannes Unberath); The German Law of Contract (with Hannes Unberath and Angus Johnston); and Always on the Same Path: Essays on Foreign Law and Comparative Methodology. It is not widely known that the majority House of Lords decision in White v Jones [1995] 2 AC 207, in which a solicitor was held liable for loss caused to an intended beneficiary under a will through his failure to draw up the will in time, was in no small measure influenced by Basil’s work on German law refuting the argument that if such a claim were allowed it would open the floodgates to litigation and by his article “An Expanding Tort Law: The Price of a Rigid Contract Law” (1987) 103 LQR 354, in which he convincingly demonstrated that the remedy should lie in contract rather than tort. These works were extensively cited both in the Court of Appeal and in the House of Lords. But law was far from his only field of expertise. His prolific writings included The Legacy of Ancient Greek Drama to European Culture, Ancient Greek Poetry from Homer to Early Roman Times and Euripides in Macedon and Good and Evil in Art and Law as well as Good and Evil in Art and Law.

During Basil’s lifetime honours were showered upon him: honorary degrees from Cambridge, Gent, Oxford, Paris, Munich and Athens; Knight of the French Legion d’Honneur, later promoted to Officer and further raised to Commander; holder of the Knight Grand Cross of the Orders of Merit of France and Italy and Knight Commander of Germany and of the Greek Order of Honour; appointments as an honorary Queen’s Counsel (later King’s Counsel) and Bencher of Gray’s Inn; and subsequently knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in the Diplomatic and Overseas List for his services to comparative law and international legal relations. He also held Visiting Professorships at numerous European and American law schools, attracting large numbers of students to his lectures, as well as holding several Fellowships and membership of Academies of Arts and Sciences.

For all his successes Basil exemplified the words of Jesus: “A prophet is not without honour except in his own country…” It is fair to say that except at QMC Basil never received during his lifetime any adequate appreciation of his enormous contribution to his Faculty and his University. In part this may have been due to the fact that, in the Greek tradition, he was not a team player but a loner, devoted to his own projects; and with his mischievous sense of humour he could also be waspish about those of whom he disapproved. For whatever reason, his colleagues and his University rarely, if ever acknowledged their huge indebtedness to him. Even so, he remained ebullient and active throughout his life until illness overtook him. He died on 23 April 2023 after being nursed for years by his devoted wife Eugenie, who gave him unceasing support throughout their married life and frequently offered warm hospitality to his friends and visitors from abroad. He also leaves two children of their marriage, a son, Spyros, and a daughter, Julietta. We shall mourn his passing.

A fuller appreciation will in due course appear in the British Academy’s Memoirs.

Roy Goode

28 April 2023

Addendum by Stefan Enchelmaier, 28 April 2023

Basil Markesinis shaking hands with another man

I came to the Centre of Advanced Study of European and Comparative Law (soon the IECL) in the summer of 1997. The Centre had begun its work the previous year. To emphasise its European and comparative dimension, it had one French and one German deputy director. I was ‘sent’ to Oxford by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). The French deputy directors were all senior academics, only one of whom (Otto Pfersmann) took up residence in Oxford. They also changed more often. I was on my first academic post, moved to Oxford, and had only the one office in the Institute, then on the ground floor of the St Cross Building. So it came that I saw Basil very regularly during the three years before he moved on to UCL, and that I worked with him closely. Basil always let me get on with my teaching, and offered much good advice on research. It was he who awakened my interest in comparative law. This interest came to fruition in my Munich habilitation on the Anglo-German comparative law of intangibles. Basil also consulted me on most decisions regarding the Institute. (He did well not always to heed my suggestions.) In academic matters, too, we had wide-ranging discussions. He was never shy to share his doubts and his questions, and was genuinely interested in my point of view. It was through Basil that I got to teach for two summers at the University of Texas at Austin, and through him that I met many interesting and impressive people like the late Lord Goff of Chieveley. In those three years, I saw a caring side of Basil’s that was less widely known in Oxford. Basil created institutions and gave inspiration that will ensure his work and his personality will live on.

Remembering Basil Markesinis by Guido Alpa, 1 May 2023

It is difficult for those who for so many decades had the good fortune to frequent first as a colleague and then as a friend a person so rich in vitality and cultural curiosity as Sir Basil Markesinis - Basil, for all of us - to recall in one page his rich personality, extraordinary culture and merits - truly great - as a writer and lecturer. It is also difficult to overcome the first moments of hesitation, as memories mingle with emotions and deep sorrow at his passing a few days ago. Nevertheless, it is nice to share with readers how he always impressed us with his intelligence and character. I had met him in Montpellier, in 1975, during a conference organised on La protection judiciaire et extrajudiciaire du consommateur; with his perfect French - which Basil mastered like many other languages - he gave a wonderful lecture, so much so that I approached him, a little hesitantly, to congratulate him and to apologise because I, as the Italian speaker, had been able to say very little on the subject, as consumer protection policy was practically unknown in my country at that time. So we began to exchange information, data, writings. I invited him to Genoa, where I was teaching private law at the time, to give a lecture and then I accompanied him to Portofino, which he wanted to visit. From that moment on we became great friends, and Basil introduced me to his charming wife, Ms. Eugenie; their family would be enriched by two children, and I began to frequent them when Basil in Oxford had become director of the Institute for European and Comparative Law, which he transformed into a world reference not only for comparative law but also for European and global law. We also spent holidays with other friends in the South of France and wrote a number of essays together. A first was on the right to privacy, which had already taken root in Italy and was still struggling to be recognised in England. Another was  on techniques of compensation for personal injury for damage to physical integrity, in a course of research comparing European models, demonstrating how distant the legal systems were in this sector at the time. I also introduced his method into Italian legal culture, in the course of several meetings organised by various universities: his works - in particular his studies on torts and on the comparison with German law, in which he also availed himself of the help of another brilliant author, Tony Weir, at Cambridge - became well known to Italian scholars. So much so that the Italian translation of his book entitled Il metodo della comparazione. Il retaggio del passato e le sfide del futuro (Giuffré, Milan, 2004) edited by Nello Pasquini and Vanna Levi achieved great success. But I would be doing him an injustice if I reduced Basil's field of research to the area of law: he was a refined connoisseur of classical art, both Greek and Roman, which he knew how to appreciate because of his knowledge of ancient Greek and Latin, and Italian and French art of the Renaissance and later periods. I had been struck by his devotion to Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Nicolas Poussin, whose arcane phrase Et in Arcadia ego, and tomb preserved in the basilica of S. Lorenzo in Lucina, he made me discover during one of his visits to La Sapienza, when I had by then changed my academic seat. I remember his happiness when he received the highest Italian honour from the President of the Republic and when he was received with pomp and circumstance by the Rector of Sapienza. Basil was a convinced pro-European, but he was not in favour, as I remain, of drafting a European civil code. Rather, he thought that through what he called 'gradual convergence' the European legal systems would, for cultural, social and above all economic reasons, come closer together naturally, so to speak, without the need to intervene from above with imposing instruments. He was in favour of a pragmatic culture, which is formed on the interpretation and application of rules (legislative or deriving from case law) and therefore sought to bring together worlds that are often far apart, such as academics, judges and lawyers. The meeting we organised with him and Nello Pasquini between House of Lords judges and members of the Italian Bar Council on the principles of jurist deontology was an extraordinary success.

There have been other moments of encounter, in recent times, after his retirement, but I prefer to remember the happy moments when his salacious jokes and witticisms brought among us the joy conveyed by his generous intelligence, his culture, his sensitivity.

Professor Sir Basil Markesinis KC, FBA: A Personal Tribute by Nello Pasquini

Basil Markesinis

Basil Markesinis was a friend and these are my personal memories. His colleagues, Sir Roy Goode and Guido Alpa, have described his great academic achievements in the field of Comparative Law and I was pleased to read the message to the staff and students of the Faculty of Law of Oxford University by the dean, Mindy Chen-Wishart, describing him as a giant of legal scholarship.

A very complex character he was highly intelligent and had a vast European culture. He could be formal and was respectful of tradition but he was also able to connect with people of very different backgrounds because of his extraordinary sensitivity; this is one of the reasons he was such a good teacher. He was also a very successful manager of and fundraiser for the several academic institutions he founded in this country, in Holland and the United States and one of the very few academics to hold chairs in both Europe and America.

I met him in 1990 at University College London where he had the chair of European Private Law and wanted to establish an Erasmus Programme with Italy. He asked Professor Guido Alpa if he knew somebody who could teach Italian Law and my name was suggested; at the time I was working as a solicitor in an English firm. When Basil moved to Oxford as Clifford Chance Professor of European Law and set up the Centre of European and Comparative Law (now Institute of European and Comparative Law) he invited me to join the Centre with the title of Teaching Fellow. My role at the Institute was to teach an introduction to Italian Private and Constitutional Law in Italian to students who would go on to study in Italy for one year. Basil asked me to help from time to time in the organisation of some events of the Institute. In this short piece I would like to remember just two of these events.

In 1998 Basil asked me to join him, four Law Lords (including the Senior Law Lord Robert Goff) and a judge of the Court of Appeal on a trip to Siena to sign the agreement between the University of Oxford and the University of Siena for a student exchange. We then travelled to Rome at the invitation of Professor Alpa where we were received at the Palazzo del Quirinale by the President of the Italian Republic Oscar Luigi Scalfaro and at Palazzo Chigi by the Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi. It was a very successful trip not only from an academic point of view, it was also very enjoyable.

One of the highlights of this trip was the visit suggested by his wife Eugenie to the Garden of Ninfa near Sermoneta. Unfortunately the garden created in 1921 by Gelasio Caetani was closed to the public the only day we were able to go, but the president of the Fondazione Caetani offered to open it just for us. Ninfa is one of the most beautiful gardens I have ever visited; it was May and all the roses were in bloom. A couple of Austrians at the entrance did not know the garden was closed that day and seeing us entering it they asked me if they could join us. I was of course very happy to let them come with us. As I was walking with one of the Law Lords, approaching them from behind, we heard them reciting a poem. When they saw us they stopped but the Law Lord knew this poem of Goethe by heart and was able to continue it. The Austrians were stunned and I realised in that moment and in that place I was proud to be a European. In my opinion this episode encapsulates everything Basil was striving for in his life: mixing people and cultures in the expectation of a better understanding between them.

In 2001 Basil organised a lecture to be given by the Lord Chancellor, Baron Irvine of Lairg, in Rome at the Accademia dei Lincei at Palazzo Corsini and asked for my help in organising the day. The lecture about the constitutional changes in the United Kingdom was given in the morning, followed by lunch given by the Marchese and Marchesa Sacchetti at Palazzo Sacchetti in Via Giulia. In the afternoon there was a reception at the magnificent Villa Farnesina and in the evening we had dinner at the Circolo della Caccia. At the end of the dinner there were a few speeches, the last one given by the Senior Partner of Clifford Chance. He said, very simply: “After this day I know what to answer if my daughter asks me: ‘Daddy, what is Paradise?’ ”.

Amongst the many honours he received from various European states was the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Italy of which he was particularly proud, as he considered Italy his second (or third) motherland. His family was originally from the Republic of Venice wherethe name was spelled ‘Marchesini’.

It was a great privilege to know Basil Markesinis; my life has been enriched in so many ways.