On Place Value

Monday Conversation 7 February 2022, 6-7pm online.

Why do we value the land? Is it for agriculture and the production of food? For harbouring rich biodiversity? Or for the beauty of the landscape and the opportunity for recreation? These long-debated questions and interests gained urgency at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, but what role can literature and the arts play in determining the answers?

We had two exciting speakers joining us for a discussion of Place Value:

Dr Christopher Donaldson (Lancaster University) reflects on the racial politics inherent in representations of the British countryside, focusing on the English Lake District

Dr Pippa Marland (University of Bristol) considers the emergence of a ‘new georgic’ in farm writing of the twenty-first century.

Fire and Ochre: Films by Julie Brook

Artist Julie Brook pictured near her home on Skye (Jane Barlow/TSPL).

Over this past summer, Alexandra Harris talked with our Artist-in-Residence Julie Brook about her motivation, her materials, and her methods. Brook is a British artist who creates large scale sculpture. She uses a variety of natural materials and incorporates photography and film to combine wild terrains with classical formalism. Drawing from, with, and in the landscape, Brook has lived and worked in the Orkney Islands, on Jura and Mingulay, and in the Libyan desert. She currently lives on the Isle of Skye. She often travels wide and far for her work, using what she finds in particular landscapes to create new forms and works within those spaces.

In this post we showcase two sections of the conversation, focusing on Brook’s ‘Firestacks’ and ‘Japan’. These, and a further section of the conversation, ‘Labour’, will be screened in-person at the University of Birmingham on 22 November at 5pm. Please do join us if you can. Register here. Come and see Julie’s spectacular images on the big screen! We’ll be making the swish new Teaching and Learning building as much like a cinema as possible…


Firestack, Julie Brook. Jura, West coast of Scotland.

In the early nineties, Brook moved to the remote island of Jura on the west coast of Scotland to paint and draw. Living beneath a natural stone arch, the solitude became part of her art which she then translated into her ‘Firestacks’ series, a body of work which uses rocks to build cairns on the shore, and wood to set fires in them. Eventually, as the tide comes in, the stacks topple and Brook captures the whole transient process on film.

In this video, Brook and Harris explore the rock cairns that Brook now builds every season in the same place; they discuss the process of documenting how each day and each season affects the firestacks differently. 

Firestacks: Julie Brook in conversation

“I first conceived of this work really as the beginning of my sculptural work as well. I was living in a natural arch, I was collecting my water, I was making a fire everyday to cook on. After doing functional building in the arch to make it habitable, I wanted to use those skills and that sensibility to make work.”

Julie Brook


Ascending, Julie Brook. Kanagaso, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan.

The second video concerns Brook’s project in Japan, entitled ‘Ascending’. ‘Ascending’ is a 2019 sculptural response to the ancient working quarry of Kanagaso in the Ishikawa Prefecture. Working on a huge scale in the space of the quarry itself, Brook used the material nature of the stone to give ‘Ascending’ its weight, mass, colour and sound. 

In the video, Brook and Harris discuss how Brook’s artistic work within spaces reaches out to the surrounding landscapes, highlighting their own sculptural likeness and giving new life to the space.

Japan: Julie Brook in conversation

“I couldn’t compete with the cliff but I wanted the work to be about the cliff… I wanted the steps to feel like they’d always been there, that they’d simply grown up overnight. It was almost like I was revealing them rather than making them… It’s the whole experience of the environment and the way in which you can ascend the piece to experience that natural amphitheatre that quarries often create, whereby, you change your sense of scale by being able to walk on it.”

Julie Brook

Ellen Addis

Ellen Addis

Arts of Place graduate assistant and PhD student in the Department of English Literature, University of Birmingham


I have often gravitated towards books that try to reflect a particular geography or environment and the feeling of that place through words and lengthy descriptions. I prefer this quiet literature where not much happens because they take you to the place, whether that be Roy Fisher describing the strangeness of the indeterminate West Midlands where I grew up, wedged between the power blocks of the North and South, or places I long to return to like the shores of Lake Huron, Ontario, in Alice Munro’s stories.

My collaborative PhD with Hay Festival focuses on the often-neglected academic question of how we read collectively today. I look towards the festival to create a detailed reflection on the new venues, communities, publication routes and reading experiences that digital spaces have enabled. My project provides the first in-depth academic history of Hay Festival and the evolution of its live events strategy, contributing to both the story of arts organisations in modern Britain and the emergence of literary festivals as an international phenomenon in an era transitioning to digital connectivity.

My own work on place emphasises the importance of the booktown of Hay-on-Wye and the landscape of the Brecon Beacons in making the festival what it is today. Currently, I am collecting the oral history accounts of key individuals at Hay Festival, recording the history of the organisation through their voices and experiences. I will be soon working with British Library and Hay Festival staff to reach back into the extensive archive and develop a digital exhibition, hosted by Hay Festival and timed to coincide with their 35th anniversary in 2023.

On the Black Hill

Bruce Chatwin, 1982.

Recommended by Ellen Addis.

Set in the border regions of Herefordshire, in England, and Radnorshire, in Wales, the story follows two identical twin brothers and their lives on a farm called ‘The Vision’. Never leaving home, sleeping in the same bed, and working the rural soil, On the Black Hill tells the beautiful but quietly sad tale of the brothers’ unique bond to each other which is as strong as their tie to the land.

The cover of Bruce Chatwin's On the Black Hill.

Julie Brook: Arts of Place Artist-in-Residence

As part of our celebrations at the close of the first year of Arts of Place, we are delighted to welcome leading land artist Julie Brook as our Artist in Residence. Here, we look over Brook’s career and work.

Brook is a British artist who creates large scale sculpture. She uses a variety of natural materials and incorporates photography and film to combine wild terrains with classical formalism. Drawing from, with, and in the landscape, Brook has lived and worked in the Orkney Islands, on Jura and Mingulay, and in the Libyan desert. She currently lives on the Isle of Skye.

Artist Julie Brook, pictured near her home on Skye. PIC Jane Barlow/TSPL.

Brook travels to and dwells within remote regions, spending time inhabiting the landscape either alone or with local guides. These places are usually quite solitary and inhospitable, from caves in the Hebrides to Libyan deserts. From there she makes art that reconnects us with the natural world, in exciting ways, through sculpture and large-scale drawing. From 1989 Julie Brook has been living and working in remote landscapes in Scotland: Hoy, Orkney (1989); the west coast of Jura (1990-94); on the uninhabited island of Mingulay (1996-2011) in the Outer Hebrides. Recently she has been working in different parts of the desert: in Central and South West Libya (2008-09) travelling with Tuareg guides; Syria (2010); NW Namibia (2011-14) travelling with Himba-Herero guides; Aird Bheag, Hebrides and Komatsu, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan (2015-2022).

Pigment Drawing, poured. Otjize, NW Namibia.

In the early nineties, Brook moved to the remote island of Jura on the west coast of Scotland to paint and draw. Living beneath a natural stone arch, the solitude became part of her art. While living alone and collecting water and fuel for drinking and cooking, Brook began to build artworks using materials found on the island. So became her Firestack series, where she used rocks to build cairns on the shore, and wood to set fires in them as the tide came in. Eventually, the stacks toppled, and Brook captured the whole process on film.

“Brook’s Firestacks are works that we feel could have been made at any time in the past 5000 years, but they have had their pertinence refreshed by the current focus we are putting on the environment. When the tide comes in her artwork has to make its own case against the elements, just as we, in the age of dawning climate change, might still have to.” – Jonathan McAloon for Elephant Art

Firestack, Autumn: Aird Bheag, outer Hebrides, 2015.

We are extremely excited to host Brook at Arts of Place this summer. On the afternoon of 23rd June, she will be running a practical drawing workshop for Arts of Place writers and readers. This free workshop will be a chance to explore form and emphasis in a different medium. You can read more about the workshop and reserve your place here.

James Metcalf

James Metcalf

Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century Literature, King’s College London


Often called the ‘graveyard school’, but more specifically focussed on the churchyard, the poets I work on begin their poems with a strong attachment to place. As the centre of British rural life for centuries, the material place of the country churchyard kept the ancestral dead at the foundation of a local, living community. It was also a prominent symbolic space in the cultural imaginary, defining the inherited, intergenerational relationship between the living and the dead. During the eighteenth century, the country churchyard’s significance was continually reaffirmed in poems that were attentive to both its physical landscape and its emblematic position at the intersection of nature, history, death, and the sacred.

My book project, provisionally entitled Written in the Country Churchyard: Place and Poetics, 1720–1820, refocuses critical debate on poems by Thomas Parnell, Edward Young, Robert Blair, and Thomas Gray, but also an expanded range of texts including poems by Elizabeth Carter, William Cowper, Charlotte Smith, William Wordsworth, and John Clare. I use the country churchyard topos inhabited by these poems to examine how this place was not a formulaic backdrop for melancholy mood-pieces, but a central site for their contemplative poetics. My project also includes a special issue of the European Journal of Life Writing (2020) with an essay on the dramatic revisions to ‘graveyard school’ formulations of the dead, place, and community in Charlotte Smith’s ‘Sonnet XLIV. Written in a Church-Yard at Middleton in Sussex’ (1789) and a forthcoming chapter on Elizabeth Carter’s ‘Ode to Melancholy’ (1739), interrogating the role of the churchyard in Carter’s negotiation of ideas of active sociability and contemplative solitude.

This work is constellated around eighteenth-century preoccupations with the body and its relationship to the phenomenal environment, drawing on themes including landscape and the earth, the body and labour, and self-reflexive attention to the procedures of poetic making that cross the boundaries of physical and cognitive dwelling in a simultaneously real and imagined place. These ideas continue to animate my research, including a new project on eighteenth-century poetry and the objects unearthed, collected, and interpreted in contexts of geology, natural history, and antiquarianism. I am exploring how materials such as fossils, bones, fragments of rock strata, and made artefacts were ‘unearthly’ in a layered sense: extracted from the earth, they also stimulated both estrangement and excitement in their unknown origin, composition, and relation to the history of the earth. At the centre of geohistorical inquiry, these unearthly objects were also a source of imaginative vitality for poets in this period. I am reading their work to investigate how these materials test the limits of literary representation and compel new forms of thinking and writing about the nonhuman—an issue made urgent and compelling in our Anthropocene epoch.