Find out who has acted as chair and chief executive officer of the British Council, and read about some influential personalities in the British Council’s history.
Our founder, Sir Reginald Rex Leeper
Sir Reginald ('Rex') Leeper is recognised as the founder of the British Council.
Leeper was born in Australia in 1888. He entered the British Foreign Office in 1920. In 1929, he joined the News Department, which was responsible for information work overseas.
Convinced of the importance of what he termed 'cultural propaganda' in promoting Britain, he persuaded Foreign Office colleagues to fund this work. In 1931, Leeper arranged lecture tours and book donations to nearly 30 countries and in 1933 contributed to the setting up of a Cultural Relations Committee - with the Board of Education and the Department of Overseas Trade. This led to the foundation of the British Council in 1934.
Leeper continued to promote the British Council within the Foreign Office until 1938, when he was appointed to head the Political Intelligence Department.
After his retirement in 1948 until his death in 1968, Leeper held the honorary position of Vice President of the British Council and continued to take an interest in its work and development.
2010 to date - Sir Vernon Ellis
2004 to 2009 - Lord (Neil) Kinnock of Bedwellty
1998 to 2004 - Baroness Helena Kennedy
1992 to 1998 - Sir Martin Jacomb
1985 to 1992 - Sir David Orr
1977 to 1984 - Sir Charles Troughton
1972 to 1976 - Lord Ballantrae
1971 to 1972 - Sir Leslie Rowan
1968 to 1971 - Lord Fulton
1959 to 1967 - Lord Bridges
1955 to 1959 - Sir David Kelly
1946 to 1955 - Sir Ronald Adam
1941 to 1945 - Sir Malcolm Robertson
1937 to 1941 - Lord Lloyd
1934 to 1937 - Lord Tyrrell
2007 to date - Martin Davidson
1999 to 2007 - Sir David Green
1998 to 1999 - David Drewry
1992 to 1998 - Sir John Hanson
1987 to 1992 - Sir Richard Francis
1980 to 1987 - Sir John Burgh
1972 to 1980 - Sir John Llewellyn
1968 to 1972 - Sir John Henniker-Major
1954 to 1968 - Sir Paul Sinker
1947 to 1954 - Ronald Adam
Nancy Parkinson joined the British Council in 1939. The chairman at the time, Lord Lloyd, asked her to set up the new Resident Foreigners Division, which organised educational and cultural facilities for refugees and allied forces based in Britain during the Second World War. This led to the setting up of a network of Allied Centres and regional offices throughout the United Kingdom.
After the War, she expanded the work of the division - renamed Home Division - to cater for the increasing number of overseas visitors and students coming to the UK.
In 1965 she was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George - the first woman to receive this honour.
She retired from the British Council in 1968, and died in 1974.
Lilian Somerville joined the British Council in 1941 working first as a teacher, and then as organiser of art exhibitions on behalf of the allied governments, who wanted to show the work of their nationals in the UK.
In 1947 she became director of the Fine Arts Department and held that post until her retirement in 1970.
Lilian Sommerville was hugely influential in promoting British contemporary art abroad. Her choice of then little-known artists such as Henry Moore to exhibit at the Venice Biennale did much to raise their profile in the UK and internationally.
Another of her legacies is our collection of contemporary works of art, which has toured the world, bringing British art to new audiences.
Harry Harvey Wood
Harry Harvey Wood was appointed to the British Council in 1939 to run the Allied Centres in Scotland.
After the War, when Rudolph Bing was planning a new international cultural festival to be held in the UK and was looking for a city to host it, Harvey Wood persuaded him to hold it in Edinburgh - and so the Edinburgh Festival was born in 1947. Harvey Wood remained closely involved with the festival for a number of years as chair of its Programme Committee.
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