“The link between his love of geography and his humanity is so appropriate to an understanding of the outstanding person that was Jay Appleton”

Stephen Williams (Geography and History, 1969)

In our Key Figures on Campus series we ask alumni to share some of their memories of key members of staff who influenced them as students, and to undertake a bit of research to find out more about some of the untold stories behind important figures in the University’s history, whose impact on their students has not been forgotten.

In this article Stephen Williams (Geography and History, 1969), remembers Professor Jay Appleton, whose 1975 work The Experience of Landscape proposed the prospect-refuge theory of human aesthetics. The theory states that taste in art is “an acquired preference for particular methods of satisfying inborn desires”. The two desires are for opportunity (prospect) and safety (refuge). Tracing these two desires gives us a means of understanding successful and enduring aesthetics, and the ability to predict the same.

I feel extremely privileged to have attended Hull University between 1966 and 1969 to take a Joint Honours degree in Geography and History, as it was undoubtedly three of the best years of my life. I also feel hugely fortunate to have been assigned Professor Jay Appleton as my personal tutor, as he was a person that undoubtedly influenced those he met, due not only to his academic prowess but also due to his great aura of positivity and humanity.

In those days Hull was known as the ‘friendly university’ and perhaps as evidence of this, every student was not only assigned academic tutors but also a ‘personal tutor’. These were there to discuss any personal issues that one might have as an undergraduate, probably away from home for the first time.

As such, I became doubly blessed, at having Jay Appleton as both an academic lecturer and as a personal tutor. At our first meeting, on my second day at Hull I was expecting a meeting similar to one with my Grammar School Headmaster where I would be told ‘what was what’, ‘what was expected’ and a finger to be wagged at any potential errant behaviour. How wrong I was, as I met this welcoming, gentle mannered man with smiling eyes, that made me feel ever so comfortable and gave me a feeling that I was in the company of someone quite special. He was impressive, positive, empathetic and above all human. His approach was to encourage one to be oneself and to enjoy one’s privileged time at university and he emphasised that this was far wider than just the academic.

It was the first of our prescribed, once a term, meetings and I have to admit that whilst I never needed the personal tutor system for any perceived problems, it was always something I looked forward to as a pleasure.  In retrospect I realised that he had a profound influence on me, but at the time did not have the maturity or perception to recognise that. He was undoubtedly a wise man, a gentle man, a kind man and as I was to later observe, a man that was in harmony with the landscapes in which he walked and of which he knew so much.

Jay Appleton was born in Headingly, Leeds to a Church of England clergyman but spent his early years living in Norfolk. Both of those facts will seem highly appropriate to anyone who knew him. He attended Shrewsbury School and graduated from Oxford University in 1940 and during WW2 worked on bomb disposal with the Royal Engineers, due to him declaring himself as a conscientious objector. Those facts also resonate…..intelligence, sense of duty, bravery but above all a sense of humanity. 

His association with Hull commenced in the early 1950’s, just before University College, Hull gained its royal charter and became the 14th university in England. He joined the teaching staff of the geography department and was to remain a revered member of this until his retirement, over 30 years later, when he had reached Professorial status. His speciality was historical geography and this was to become by far, my favourite specialisation, due to his academic prowess and the way he brought it to life. He was able to explain the logic behind the decisions and actions of our ancestors on virtually every facet of the way they lived in a vital and engaging manner. His particular interests were the geography of transport and the whole concept of landscape, which he saw as the backcloth to human activity. In 1975 he published the profound ‘Experience of Landscape’ which developed his prospect-refuge theory and concluded that our preferences in types of landscape were logical, owed much to our biological conditioning and led to an aesthetic sensibility.  This theory is still used today in landscape design, architecture and art history.

The link between his love of geography and his humanity is so appropriate to an understanding of the outstanding person that was Jay Appleton. From my limited personal experience, I remember small incidents that summed up his positive personality, that made him so warm and so unique. On a field trip to Shrewsbury, he had heard that the football team I supported were playing nearby at Birmingham, in a FA Cup semi-final for the first time in many years and he went out of his way to encourage me to skip a day’s geography in order to go and see the match …..”you musn’t miss the opportunity”. That night when I returned and reported a positive result, he handed me a £20 note and told me to get everyone a drink ….it was so typical of him and so, so different from the vast majority of academics. 

I met Jay and his delightful wife, Iris, whom he married in 1943, on several occasions after I graduated and it was always a great pleasure, as one was rewarded with that wonderful smile and a total positivity. It was typically of the kindness of Jay and the excellent John Franks of the Careers Service, that they once set up a surprise lunch of my old lecturers on a visit to the campus, which included another wonderful stalwart of Hull University, in Professor Howell Lloyd. He had been a young History lecturer in 1966 but was also to became a senior figure at Hull and I had the pleasure of meeting him again in 2019, when our course celebrated 50 years since graduation. He was as sharp as ever and it was a great pleasure to listen to his wisdom, as we had done, so many years before.

Jay Appleton retired in 1985, after spending his whole academic teaching career at Hull and it was a mark of his immense standing that a series of biennial Appleton lectures were established that still attract the highest calibre of speaker. In retirement he used his creative talent to write a number of poetry books, many focusing on his lifelong interest in landscape.  These included The Poetry of Habitat, The Cottingham Collection, A Love Affair with Landscape and Enter the Fat Lady. In his introduction to the latter he noted with his reflective gentle humour:

                  In my ninetieth year I can already hear the Fat Lady doing her breathing exercises 

                  and warming up with a few coloratura arpeggios offstage. I therefore thought it 

                 time to gather up some poetic bits and pieces so as to give the Fat Lady something

                 to sing about.

Jay died in 2015, aged 95 years old and was truly a hugely significant figure in the annals of Hull University. He was not only a revered academic, who was particularly known for his  prospect-refuge theory and his love of landscape but he was a very special human being, whose humanity and positivity shone out to all those privileged to have known him and been influenced by him.

One of his poems contained the lines that feel so appropriate 

The love of landscape was a sort of twine’

‘That bound your vision of the world to mine’


  1. I was at Hull 1966/69 (Maths) but never new Stephen and never came across Professor Appleton but thoroughly enjoyed reading Stephen’s article.

    It’s interesting how one individual can have a dramatic impact on the lives of others.

    I note Professor Appleton has died. I have decided that getting old is shit. I’m now of an age where people who are dying are no longer from my grandparents’/parents’ generation but from mine; this seems to be particularly true of the 1960’s pops stars many of whom performed on Saturday night in (as far as I recall) the refectory.

    I’m completely unaware of which lecturers in the Maths Dpt have survived many of whom were givers of their time freely to help clarify some complex issue (on my part the whole of Pure Maths !). I also don’t think that many from that era of Maths graduates are aware of the Alumni Association or if they are, feel disinclined to post which is a shame.

    Anyway thank you Stephen for your post.


    1. I too was taught by Jay, during my BA Geography 1979-82 at Hull. I thoroughly endorse all the kind words about him.

      I remember particularly the Geography of Landscape field trip to the South East, staying in Windsor Great Park in 1981. Fascinating insights into Stowe School and the landscapes of Capability Brown that I’ve never forgotten.

      He was absolutely one of the good guys!


  2. I remember a fellow student saying about him ‘If Geography was a country, Jay Appleton would be the ambassador’, a phrase that has stuck with me for over 50 years.


  3. Good to see the tribute to Jay Appleton. He was the supervisor for my research MA from 1962 to 1964. He enabled me to finish the research and obtain the MA within the two years because of his very clear advice that in all research projects it is vital to recognise that there is a time to stop researching and to start writing. There was, he said, a point in which turning over stones in search for more evidence was increasingly unproductive. A valuable piece of advice which I was to follow in my career.
    He was very supportive throughout my two years of working under his supervision. Our bond was perhaps closer as his father’s parish in Norfolk was only a few miles from my home town and we could reminisce about the Norfolk we knew. Some of his later poems in The Cottingham Collection (2001) reflected on Norfolk landscapes and places. We also shared a common interest in transport geography. I kept in touch with him after graduation and met him a number of times in his final home in Cottingham.
    The University of Hull press published his autobiography in 1994: How I Made the World

    Doug Watts MA 1964, PhD 1981


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