I had no hill [the previous paragraph had talked of his enthusiasm for Puck of Pook's Hill], but I did have the Thames. It was not the upstream river that the poets in my Palgrave claimed burbled betwixt mossy banks. ... It was the low, gull-swept estuary, the marriage bed of salt and fresh water, stretching as far as I could see from my northern Essex bank, toward a thin black horizon on the other side. That would be Kent, the sinister enemy who always seemed to beat us in the County Cricket Championship. ...Schama won a scholarship to Haberdashers' Aske's and went on to Christ's College, Cambridge, reading history under J. H. Plumb and graduating with a Starred First in 1966.
He worked for short periods as a lecturer in history at Cambridge, where he became a Fellow and Director of Studies in History, and at Oxford where he was made a Fellow of Brasenose College in 1976, specialising in the French Revolution. At this time, Schama wrote his first book, Patriots and Liberators, which won the Wolfson History Prize. The book was originally intended as a study of the French Revolution, but as published in 1977, it focused on the effect of the Patriot revolution in The Netherlands, and its aftermath.
Citizens (1989), written at speed to a publisher's commission, finally saw the publication of his long-awaited study of the French revolution, and won the 1990 NCR Book Award. Citizens was very well-received and sold admirably. Its view that the violence of the Terror was inherent from the start of the Revolution, however, has received serious criticism.
In 1991, he published Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations), a relatively slender work which was nevertheless of great importance. It looked at two widely reported deaths a hundred years apart, that of General James Wolfe -- and the famous painting by Benjamin West -- and that of (by murder) George Parkman, brother of the better known Francis Parkman. Schama mooted some possible (invented) connections between the two cases, exploring the historian's inability "ever to reconstruct a dead world in its completeness however thorough or revealing the documentation," and speculatively bridging "the teasing gap separating a lived event and its subsequent narration." Not all readers absorbed the nuance of the title: it received a greatly mixed critical and academic reception. (Australia's Keith Windschuttle, in his The Killing of History, took particular exception to the book's overt fictionalizing). It, apparently, sold poorly, but it is highly valued by some.
Schama's Landscape and Memory (1995) focussed on the relationship between physical environment and folk memory, separating the components of landscape as wood, water and rock, enmeshed in the cultural consciousness of collective "memory" that are embodied in myths, which Schama finds to be expressed outwardly in ceremony and text. While in many ways even more personal and idiosyncratic than Dead Certainties, roaming through widening circles of digressions, this book was also more traditionally structured and better-defined in its approach. While many reviews remained decidedly mixed, the book was a definite commercial success and won numerous prizes.
Appropriately, many of the plaudits came from the art world rather than from traditional academia. This was borne out when Schama became art critic for The New Yorker in 1995. He held the position for three years, dovetailing his regular column with professorial duties at Columbia University; a selection of his best essays on art for the magazine, chosen by Schama himself, was published in 2005 under the title Hang Ups. During this time, Schama also produced a lavishly illustrated Rembrandt's Eyes, another critical and commercial success. Despite the focus of the book's title, it contrasts the biographies of Rembrandt van Rijn and Peter Paul Rubens.
In 2001 Schama received the CBE. In 2003 he signed a lucrative new contract with the BBC and HarperCollins to produce three new books and two accompanying TV series. Worth £3 million (around $5.3m), it represents the biggest advance deal ever for a TV historian. The first result of the deal was a book and TV show entitled Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution, dealing in particular with the proclamation issued during the Revolutionary War by Lord Dunmore offering slaves from rebel plantations freedom in return for service to the crown.
In 2006 the BBC broadcast a new TV series, Simon Schama's Power of Art which, with an accompanying book, was presented and written by Schama. It marks a return to art history for him, treating eight artists through eight key works (Caravaggio's Michelangelo Caravaggio 018.jpg, Bernini's Ecstasy of St Theresa, Rembrandt's Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis, Jacques-Louis David's Death_of_Marat_by_David.jpg, J. M. W. Turner's The Slave Ship, Vincent van Gogh, Picasso's Guernica, and Mark Rothko). It was also shown on PBS in the United States.
In 2006 on the BBC, Schama debated with Vivienne Westwood the morality of Israel's actions in the Israel-Lebanon war. He was however critical of Israel's bombing of Lebanese city centres on the grounds that the "is ultimately not going to help its own attempt to get rid of a mini-army like Hezbollah that's devoted to its own destruction.