“Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap…”

The Place of the Churchyard

Monday Conversation 21 March 2022, 5-6pm online. Register here.

The meanings and resonances of churchyards are multiple and deep. They are a sanctuary of peace at the centre of the community; a focus for local history; a place for prayer, mourning and memorialization. In the eighteenth century they inspired a group of poets looking for new ways to connect with the land and with the past.

Join us for a discussion of exciting new research on churchyards, history and poetry. Ruth Abbott (Cambridge) will take us beyond and behind Thomas Gray’s Elegy, introducing the poet’s unpublished Commonplace-Book notes on historical graveyards, tombs, and sepulchres. James Metcalf (King’s) will offer a new reading of Robert Blair’s The Grave as a piece of land work.  

The Natural History of Oxfordshire

Robert Plot, 1677

Recommended by Martin Stott

Robert Plot’s Natural History of Oxfordshire examines and describes the flora, fauna, palaeontology, geology, and landscape of the county; it includes a large map, which Plot claims is more comprehensive than those of ’Saxton, Speed &c’, as well as describing unusual features of the area. Controversy about the origin of fossils was growing at the time, and Plot engages with the subject in some detail. He believed that experimentation was essential in understanding the natural world and gives a rational, evidence-based description of the objects and phenomena he comes across, including the first known picture of a dinosaur bone, Plate VIII, which he incorrectly concludes to be the bone of a giant. The impact of the book was immediate and far reaching, and he was elected to the Royal Society on the basis of its publication. It may also have confirmed Elias Ashmole in his belief that Oxford was the appropriate place for his collection. He persuaded the University authorities both to accept the collection and provide a fine building in which to house it. Plot went on to become the first Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in 1683.

The Making of the English Landscape

W.G. Hoskins, 1955.

Recommended by Martin Stott

I discovered this book as a teenager while studying for A levels in geography and geology. It opened my eyes to the landscape of my childhood, the north Oxfordshire Cotswolds, and gave me the tools to explore what became with its publication a new discipline: landscape history.  Through it, over a distance of a few miles, it was possible to chart centuries of England’s history by close observation of the landscape. Hoskins’ attention to the significance of ancient hedgerows, water meadows, green lanes, copses, and deserted medieval villages challenged the received wisdom that contemporary landscapes had  been shaped largely by the great eighteenth-century landowners and their technologies. The Making of the English Landscape is not so much about the geography, local history, or landscape archaeology of a particular place, but rather the intellectual underpinning of a way of seeing, interpreting, and integrating the interaction between human activity – sometimes over millennia – and the landscape of every place.  Its publication almost 70 years ago was revolutionary, and its impact on our understanding of the English landscape remains profound.

Border Country

Raymond Williams, 1960.

Recommended by Martin Stott

Border Country was Raymond Williams’ first published novel and the first of a trilogy – a project to restore the consciousness to working class communities who were shaped by cultural, social, political, and economic forces beyond themselves, but to which they responded with individual dignity and collective creativity. The 1926 General Strike, which plays a significant part in the narrative, exemplifies both the collective action and individual responses that the book explores. Williams was born in 1921 and brought up in the Welsh village of Pandy, just north of Abergavenny, right on the border with England. Borders were to become one of Williams’ defining subjects; borders of space and time, of class, and in personal relationships. Border Country, sometimes described as the greatest Welsh novel, is a world in one book, an intimate history of twentieth-century working-class lives. It has a lot to say about place without ever being parochial or dogmatic, a book powered by love, deep connection and hope.

Alexandra Harris

Professor Alexandra Harris

Alexandra Harris

 

Professorial Fellow in English at the University of Birmingham.

I remember feeling very eccentric in GCSE English lessons when friends complained about all the descriptions in Far From the Madding Crowd and wanted to skip ahead to the plot. The descriptions were the plot I thought. I was hazy about the order of human events, but the fern-grown hollow, the dangerous clover field, the ridge against the sky on which an occasional small figure would appear moving steadily on an unknown journey – all this was more real to me than the room I sat in. I was learning to read rooms as well though, and not only those ancient and easily romanticised ones I already cared about but bungalow paradises, city hotels, and the portacabin next to the astro-turf where those first encounters with life-changing literature unfolded. Twenty-five years later I’m very glad to help bring together, in the Arts of Place network, a wealth of people who are thinking in careful, imaginative, informed and questioning ways about our surroundings.

Much of my research over the years has been concerned with the presence of the past, and especially the past as it appears in landscapes and buildings. I’m interested in reading as a form of conversation across time and space, and in the capacity of art to establish complex relationships with history’s voices, variously reviving and revising them. My first book Romantic Moderns (Thames & Hudson 2010; Guardian First Book Award, Somerset Maugham Award) argued that some of the most original work of the modernist period emerged not from wholesale rejection of inherited ideas and places, but in finding new forms that might stretch to include valued histories and new possibilities.

In Weatherland: Writers and Artists under English Skies (Thames & Hudson 2015; shortlisted for the Ondaatje Prize and adapted in 10 parts for Radio 4), I wrote a version of English literary history told in terms of the different weathers that have preoccupied writers and indeed whole cultural milieus at certain times. The book is in part an elegy for a climate we won’t know again, but more than that, and more importantly at the present time, it addresses the power and complexity of weather as it is experienced, as it is imagined, and as it is shaped by the arts.

For the past several years I’ve been working on a different kind of place-related project, one which has propelled me into a great deal of new thinking and learning. In The Rising Down, to be published by Faber, I concentrate on a few square miles of West Sussex, and investigate what this place has looked like to people over time. The method of close geographical focus has meant that, as I think my way through history, I don’t reach for the famed and canonical but try to work from the ground up: who was here? It’s made me appreciate the extraordinary and sometimes underestimated research done by local historians, and the new perspectives that emerge when we forge connections between international and local thinking.

Many of my essays and reviews can be accessed from links on my website: www.alexandraharris.co.uk

Examples of my work on place

Romantic Moderns, Thames & Hudson, 2010

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“Above all this is a book about art and place. Its protagonists are always out looking at England and they invite us to follow in their tracks … They were taking possession of the particular and local. And, like Chaucer, they were collecting stories along the way.” 

Weatherland, Thames & Hudson, 2015

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“So, by reading, I have tried to watch people watching the sky – and people feeling the cold and getting wet, and shielding their eyes from the sun. Virginia Woolf talked about biographers hanging up mirrors in odd corners to reflect their subjects in unexpected ways. I have tried to hang a mirror in the sky, and to watch the writers and artists who appear in it.

Time and Place, Little Toller, 2019

“I’m still imagining calendars: figures of the modern ‘labours of the months’ painted in blue on delft tiles, marks on a bedroom wall that tell the date from the moving square of light coming in at the window…”

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I worked with the arts and environment charity Common Ground, the publisher Little Toller, and contemporary artists to make a small book called Time and Place, published by Little Toller in 2019. This connects with a longer-term project of mine on the culture of the calendar, the seasons and the marking of time. I’m interested in all kinds of art that has played a role in creating days and months with character and association, making comprehensible shapes within the stream of time. Time and Place asks how time moves in particular localities. My text looks back at the history of local or site-specific calendars, and considers the many material forms they have taken.

Together, the University of Birmingham and Common Ground commissioned new calendrical work. Among the artists is the photographer Jem Southam. He traces intersections of cosmic, human, and bird time as he watches, night after night, year after year at a bend of the River Exe, becoming so deeply part of the place and its ecology that he can see patterns that might be invisible to others.

Ground Work: Writing on People and Places, ed. Tim Dee, Jonathan Cape, 2018

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My essay ‘The Marsh and the Visitor’ is about going home to the area of Sussex in which I grew up and realising how little I knew about it. It’s about the common quandary of being deeply attached to rural places while not belonging in them. It was the starting point for a concerted and sometimes overwhelming effort to learn some of the languages of the place and to bring to it something of my own.

The Feel of Things, Caught by the River, 2020

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“Item four pigs, item fourteen quarters of barley, item one dozen of napkins, item goods in the milkhouse: outside and inside, room by room, the items of lives are spelled out. In a great many cases this is the fullest account to survive of an individual’s existence. An account, literally: added up at the end.”

A commission from the superb Museum of English Rural Life in Reading prompted me to think about the objects listed in rural inventories. My response was published on the Caught by the River website, where you can also read poems by Melissa Harrison, commissioned for the same project.

 

Jessica Fay

Jessica Fay

 

Teaching Fellow in Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth-Century Literature, University of Birmingham

 

As a Wordsworthian, I am interested in the feelings and memories that become attached to specific places and how they are captured and communicated through literature. My first book,

Wordsworth’s Monastic Inheritance: Poetry, Place, and the Sense of Community (Oxford English Monographs; OUP, 2018), explores the poet’s extensive knowledge of the monastic history of the north of England which he imbibed from a series of eighteenth-century topographical studies and from numerous visits to the sites of ruins. Wordsworth’s interest in monastic history is not, therefore, strictly a matter of religious belief and practice; rather, it encompasses an appreciation for how the landscape was inhabited and shaped by his medieval forebears. Through his own intimate connection with that landscape, Wordsworth became part of a transhistorical community and shared in the quietude that had been observed at monastic sites for centuries. The book explores how this sense of place inflected the tone and style of the poetry Wordsworth produced between 1807 and 1822.

My second major project (funded by a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship) considered the collaborative exchange between Wordsworth and his friend, the amateur landscape artist, patron, and co-founder of the National Gallery, Sir George Beaumont.

My edition of The Collected Letters of Sir George and Lady Beaumont to the Wordsworth Family, 1803-1829 (Romantic Reconfigurations; LUP, 2021), reveals ways in which Beaumont’s neoclassical responses to landscape, on the one hand, and Wordsworth’s more local outlook, on the other, shaped one another as their friendship developed.

 

Tobacco and Feathers… The Art of Looking


Arts of Place is supporting an exciting evening’s conversation at Trinity College Oxford (Monday 8 November 6pm) and an online version with live discussion (Monday 15 November). BBC New Generation Thinkers Lauren Working and Lucy Powell discuss art, literature, and colonialism with art historian Stephanie Pratt. This event is part of the 2021 Being Human Festival.

The event at Trinity College is now fully booked, but please do register for the online version on Monday 15 November 6 – 7.15pm. A film of the panel talks and conversation will be screened, followed by live discussion with the online audience. Book here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/being-human-festival-transatlantic-tales-stories-of-feathers-and-smoke-tickets-179205748217?aff=erelpanelorg

Please note that unfortunately Alexandra Harris is unable to chair this event, but Lauren and Lucy will take her place in hosting the conversation.


How do you read a feather? How did tobacco, a plant cultivated by Indigenous peoples in the Americas, end up in the playhouses of Shakespeare’s London? How were transatlantic objects altered or incorporated into ‘new’ worlds?


From parrots to sunflowers to chilis, plants and animals from the Americas have reconfigured cultures across the world for over four centuries. This event will examine objects that crossed the Atlantic in the early modern period, illuminating their place in everything from still life paintings to botanic gardens to the writings of the seventeenth-century playwright Aphra Behn. Drawing on literature, art history, and Indigenous perspectives, Lauren Working, Lucy Powell and Stephanie Pratt will follow the journeys of feathers and tobacco to discuss the ongoing impact of colonialism and empire on society and culture in England.

A Sand County Almanac

Aldo Leopold, 1949.

Recommended by Tom Dobbins

A simply beautiful collection of stories and essays on land. Leopold has a wonderful knack of inspiring ecological stewardship through his intimate descriptions of place, while also managing to capture what it is to have an honest, evolving relationship with the world around us. His joyous month-by-month assessment of rural Wisconsin is backed up by sharp ecological critique, which continues to inspire a place-based management practice rooted in community and inhabitation.

The Mushroom at the End of the World

On the Possibility of Life In Capitalist Ruins

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing (Princeton University Press, 2015)

Recommended by Tom Dobbins


Whether at the scale of a building, a material or an ecology, viewing place through a non-human lens is a necessary act towards an empathetic management of its character. It makes space for under-represented qualities and characteristics to gain value, which in turn can expand what is deserving of protection, rehabilitation or praise. Anna Tsing’s observations of the world in relation to the matsutake mushroom are one fascinating example of this. The book exposes a web of hidden global narratives, sited across a series of forests, where place is read in the spaces between ecology, commodity and community.

Practical drawing with Julie Brook

To celebrate the end of the first year of Arts of Place, we were thrilled to welcome leading land artist Julie Brook to a summer residency with us. Brook registers the infinite drama of the four elements and measures time on multiple scales. She has worked over many years in Libya, Namibia, Japan and Scotland, learning from local communities about the materials of the earth.

Julie ran a free Drawing Workshop on 23 June, 2-5pm and there was no artistic experience required! This was drawing for writers and readers, a chance to explore form and emphasis in a different medium. We worked with charcoal and swapping the usual A4 paper of our working lives for the expansiveness of A1. Julie provided special charcoal and rubbers for those who participate which were sent to participants in the post. It was a treat of an afternoon.

Here are a couple of the participants’ wonderful drawings from the workshop:

Cover image: Firestack. Outer Hebrides, Autumn 2016