Basil Markesinis KC FBA (1944-2023): A tribute by Professor Roy Goode

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 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.

Sir Roy Goode (Emeritus Professor of Law, Oxford, St John’s College)

28 April 2023

Reposted with kind permission. The original piece is available on the Oxford Law Faculty blog by clicking here.