Arts of Place & Oxford Centre for Life-Writing Annual Lecture: Alexandra Walsham

‘Writing the Generations: Time, Place, and Family Memory in Early Modern England’

Wednesday 26 April, 5pm, The University of Birmingham

“England’s long Reformation was, in multiple respects, a family affair; and indeed, a family quarrel”

Our annual lecture, a collaboration between Arts of Place and OCLW, brings together thinking about place with some of the most exciting current work in the fields of biography and life-writing. Lives happen in places; places shape lives and have lives of their own.

We were delighted in 2023 to welcome one of the leading historians of our times: Alexandra Walsham, CBE, FBA, Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge. Her book The Reformation of the Landscape, well-thumbed on many Arts of Place bookshelves, shaped understandings of how the landscape was perceived in early modern Britain when layers of Pagan and Catholic belief and culture were written over by waves of Protestant reform. Alexandra’s new book, Generations, is out this spring, and brings a wealth of evidence from local and family archives to questions of generational identity, belief, sense of time and sense of place.

Listen to Alexandra’s extraordinary lecture below:

Read on for some highlights from the lecture.

“The generation, understood as both a social cohort and a biological unit, is a neglected site of life-writing and record-keeping. This lecture seeks to explore the significance of families of blood and faith in the preservation of the past and in the creation of legacies for posterity. By focusing on individuals and communities who derived their identities from a shared location in time, it offers a fresh perspective on the intersection between the arts of memory and the arts of place in early modern England.”

Alexandra sketches out a foundational question: what is a generation? In religious early modern England, she continues, generation “denoted origin and pedigree, community, history, chronology and eternity”. Generations were a way to plot genealogy and ancestry; they signalled “a place of abode in the fabric of time”, as well as being “singularly relevant to the story of Christianity”.

Treating the generation as a site of memory, Alexandra lecture leads us on a journey through a rich collection of ars memoriae, considering how personal texts and artefacts construct places in which the living come into contact with generations past. We are treated to the lineages traced in family bibles—personal transcriptions and scribbles demonstrative both of fecundity and decline. We are brought to engraved memorial objects; to heirlooms passed down or gone astray; and to graffiti scratched into walls. All demonstrate the exceptional biographical capacity of such objects, as well as illustrating the importance of the generation to early modern culture.

Alexandra leaves us with a poignant reminder of the strange lives of the objects and texts discussed, and invites us to consider their place within the histories of both a private and public England:

“Ironically, the presence of the manuscripts, books and objects discussed in local and national archives, libraries and museums, indicates the breaking of the generational chain that ensured their preservation down the centuries. However, it also represents their transformation into forms of public patrimony. This is sometimes a consequence of the fact that they have been detached from their original contexts, passed into the hands of collectors, and gradually shed their status as treasured possessions and talismans of genealogical memory. But sometimes it indexes the desire of individual families to find a more secure place of safekeeping, or to make these relics of their personal histories into the resources for the wider community. For all those discovered in dusty boxes, or rescued from attics festooned with dirty cobwebs, others have been lost or still remain in private hands”.

Image: William Brooke, 10th Baron Cobham and his Family, Master of the Countess of Warwick, 1567

Land and Labour in Literary History

Monday 6 March, UoB Arts Building 103 (Constance Naden Room)

with guest speaker Paddy Bullard

Arts of Place is delighted to welcome Paddy Bullard to Birmingham for discussion and reflections on the links between land and labour in literary history. In the 50th anniversary year of Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City, Paddy will reflect on why paying serious attention to rural life should still be central to understanding culture. 

Paddy is the editor of A History of English Georgic Writing, a major book about a ‘vital green force in literary history’, available now and online here (with library log-on). He has written widely on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literary culture, book history, and politics as well as working closely with the Museum of English Rural Life and developing pioneering projects on craft and manual skills.

There’ll be responses from UoB staff and students and open conversation over a glass of wine.

Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, AD 1803

Dorothy Wordsworth, 1803, edited by Carol Kyros Walker, Yale University Press, 1997

Recommended by Zara Castagna

Recollections is the account of a six week long tour of Scotland that Dorothy Wordsworth undertook with her brother William and with Samuel Taylor Coleridge in August and September 1803. Filled with entertaining reports of the 663-mile journey, hand-drawn maps of lakes and rivers, and occasional poems by William, the travelogue paints a detailed picture of the Scottish landscape and its people. Dorothy’s characteristically vivid landscape descriptions combine romantic and picturesque aesthetics. She allows the reader almost to step into the Scottish Highlands themselves and see what she saw. Apart from the changing Scottish landscape Dorothy repeatedly notes how the ’employments of the people are so immediately connected with the places where you find them’, thus encouraging the reader to think about the distinct connection between people and place that shapes their manners and customs.

Welcome Drinks and Research Exchange

Monday 3 October 2022, 5pm, UoB Arts Building 224

A chance to get together as the academic year begins.

Whether you’re a regular Arts of Place contributor or new to Birmingham and interested in finding out more, please do come along for this special in-person version of our ‘Monday Conversation’ series. Lucy Shaw (History of Art) and Jon Stevens (English) will be among those giving brief talks about their current work. No booking required: just drop in between 5 and 6 to share your place-related interests, meet other researchers, and enjoy a drink. 

Trees of History

An evening of readings and discussion in the Barber Gallery, inspired by the exhibition Taking Root, with Flora Kay, Gillian Wright, Tom Kaye, Alexandra Harris and Jessica Fay

Tuesday 5th July 2022, 5.45pm – 7.30pm, Barber Institute of Fine Arts.

In response to the arboreal work of artists from Gaspard Dughet to JMW Turner, this event considered some of the writers who shaped ideas about trees in seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth-century Britain. Their powerful imaginative responses illuminate the past and give us new perspectives on the present. After a welcoming drink and tour of the prints on display, we considered the work of tree-thinkers including John Evelyn, who advocated tree planting in the 1660s, and William Cowper, who thought a single oak tree was fit subject for poetic biography.

All levels and abilities are welcome. This talk, is open to anyone 18+ and will be held at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. Limited spaces, so booking is essential.

Speakers: Flora Kay is Learning and Engagement Manager at the Barber Institute Gillian Wright is the author, most recently, of The Restoration Transposed: Poetry, Place and History, 1660-1700. Jessica Fay is a scholar of Romanticism and currently writing about relations between poetry and Dutch painting. Tom Kaye is writing a doctoral thesis on forestry in American literature. Alexandra Harris is the author of Weatherland, Time and Place, and is finishing a book on rural history and local feeling.

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

The Place of the Churchyard

Monday Conversation, 30 May 2022, 5-6pm, online.

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.

We met for a discussion of exciting new research on churchyards, history and poetry. Ruth Abbott (Cambridge) took 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) offered a new reading of Robert Blair’s The Grave as a piece of land work.  

James Metcalf: ‘This ado in Earthing up a Carcase’: Robert Blair’s The Grave (1743) & Eighteenth-Century Churchyard Georgic

“The churchyard is a place where it is impossible to forget the body. It is a place where bodies continually press upon the consciousness of the solitary figure wandering its enclosure, however abstracted their thoughts might aspire to be in contemplating the afterlife.”

James Metcalf works to rethink the eighteenth-century school of poets and thinkers often known as the Graveyard poets, refocusing our emphasis from graveyard to churchyard based on the study of particular places filled with physical and imaginative resonances. The burial site thus becomes part of a wider landscape in the long eighteenth century. James’ talk for Arts of Place offers an exciting glimpse into his upcoming book, Written in the Country Churchyard: Place and Poetics 1720-1820, where James examines how the georgic is a particularly useful mode for thinking about the poetry of the churchyard. 

Ruth Abbott: Churchyard and other Common Places in Thomas Gray’s Antiquarian Scholarship

Ruth Abbott works on the particularly challenging questions of how people make notes and organise their ideas; has recently worked to edit an online edition of Thomas Gray’s Commonplace Book; and is editing an exciting multi-disciplinary volume about Gray composed from a myriad of scholarly perspectives. In this talk, Ruth thinks about churchyards as common places in the mid eighteenth century. She moves backwards from Wordsworth’s writing on epitaphs, which are defined as 

“not a proud writing shut up for the studious: it is exposed to all […] it is concerning all, and for all”.

For Ruth, Wordsworth articulates a particular way of thinking about churchyards that appears to originate, in some part, in Gray. Bringing his Antiquarian scholarship into conversation with Elegy, she provides an enlightening reading of the common place of the churchyard in poetry and beyond. She highlights how eighteenth-century antiquarian research frequently depended on common access to sites such as churchyards as it did the sharing of textual resources, suggesting that such processes of historical, poetic, and place “openness” were as important to Gray as they were to Wordsworth when he was musing fifty years later on the epitaph. 

Daisy Hay: Stories of Romantic Birmingham

Arts of Place and Oxford Centre for Life-Writing Annual Lecture: Joseph Priestley, Joseph Johnson, Ruins and Riots

Tuesday 3 May 2022, 5.30pm, the University of Birmingham

We were delighted for Daisy Hay (University of Exeter) to give the second OCLW and Arts of Place Annual Lecture. Daisy’s book, Dinner with Joseph Johnson, is an extraordinary account of writing, publishing, and friendship in a revolutionary age — and Birmingham is central to the story. 

“The crowd ran riot through Birmingham, and its surrounding towns and villages, for four days. Four dissenting chapels were damaged or destroyed, along with twenty-seven private houses”.

Daisy returned us first to Joseph Priestley, Unitarian intellectual dissenter; to Birmingham in the midst of industrial transformation; and to the night of July the 14th, 1791 and the beginning of the Birmingham riots, where Birmingham dissenters, Priestly among them, paid a high price for clashing with church and state:

“The Priestleys bundled into the chaise with nothing but the clothes they stood in, leaving their grown-up sons to defend the house. They drove to the house of their friend and fellow dissenter William Russell who lived a mile away. From Russell’s windows they could see the meeting house was on fire, and as they struggled to comprehend what they were seeing news arrived that the crowd had arrived at Fair-hill, and that the crowd was threatening to destroy Russell’s house too, so they got back into the chaise and were driven on another mile to the Hawkes’ at Moseley Green. Hawkes’ house was on higher ground and from his windows Priestley could see Fair-hill in the distance […] hearing shouts of exaltation as the crowds arrived at his house and his defences gave way. Priestley’s sons had extinguished all the hearth fires before they made their own escape, so the crowd had to make do with weapons and fists as they set about destroying Priestley’s home. […] In their rage they destroyed all of Priestley’s scientific apparatus, as well as his manuscripts and his library, which was completely invaluable. They ransacked the cellars and drank themselves into a further frenzy, before finally setting fire to the ruins. For the whole of the next day, July the 15th, the rioters roamed the city, destroying the houses of dissenters at will.”

Daisy speaks on the consequences of these incendiary riots. The circle around Johnson and Priestley deliberate upon the politics of dissent; publicise the manipulations of state; and lead us through ruins literary and allegorical.

The ruins of Birmingham stand for the realisation of a dissenting nightmare, a long-anticipated physical substantiation of state aggression. But they also stand as symbols of unity: between different contemporary dissenting groups, and between the present, and a socially remembered and recorded past of dissenting unity and persecution.

We are finally brought to consider the potentials of the safe harbour of friendship for fostering intellectual freedom: a potential manifested in Johnson’s dining room at 72 St Paul’s Churchyard, London. Rather than just a place of refuge, Johnson’s sanctuary becomes emblematic of a new kind of home: a “capacious, generous space from which people could come and go” and from which cultural movements could be born.

Listen to Daisy’s wonderful lecture below:

One print published in Johnson’s 1792 The Riot’s of Birmingham, July 1791, illustrating the ruin of Russell’s Showell Green house.

Images:

Robert Dent, ‘Destruction of Old Meeting Chapel’, in Old and New Birmingham (1879); William Ellis, ‘The House of William Russell Esq. Showell Green’, from The Riots at Birmingham, July 1791‘, published by Joseph Johnson in 1792.

Songs of Spring

With Bethan Roberts and Francesca MacKenney

Monday Conversation 25 April 2022, 5-6pm online.

Bethan Roberts is the author of Charlotte Smith and the Sonnet (Liverpool University Press, 2019) and her new book Nightingale has recently been published in Reaktion’s ‘animal’ series.

Francesca MacKenney is the author of Birdsong, Speech, and Poetry: The Art of Composition in the Long Nineteenth Century (2022). The book explores what poetry can do and say in comparison with birdsong and music.

Sweet harbinger(s) of spring’: Placing the cuckoo and nightingale in poetry – Bethan Roberts

“In prose nature writing about birds, specific place is nearly always specified in geographical terms, while bird poems almost wholly leave this out. Poets do however often specify place in equivalent notes and journals. [Within the poems], geographical location is taken out as poets distil the essence of spring hearing, which acts as a kind of poetic double access that transcends geography”.

Bethan’s talk, “an obsessive pursuit of place in poems about cuckoos and nightingales”, begins with an attention to the migratory patterns and the local and national habitats of both birds, looking to underpin the poetic topographies of birdsong and their far-reaching literary connotations. Bethan considers the traditional poetic rivals the nightingale and cuckoo, and thinks about the significance of place and its different meanings in poems on these spring migrants, from matters of habitat and distribution to poetic feeling and beloved “pleasant places'”.

Listen to Bethan’s talk below:

Birdsong in the Poetry of John Clare – Francesca Mackenney

“Whenever we attempt to translate the sounds of birds into our own words and phrases we are always in danger of descending into anthropomorphism and absurdity; of making birds sound ludicrously like ourselves”. 

Francesca’s research is influenced by interdisciplinary approaches and draws together and compares the different ways in which scientists, musicians, and poets have tried to understand the mystery of birdsong. Her talk reflects on the difficulty of interpreting, and translating bird song through a range of historical mediums, and dwells on the development of the sonogram and the poetry of John Clare alike to consider how our representations match up to the complexity of birdsong. “Birdsong tests the limits of language”, Francesca argues, questioning how poetry can respond to such an ‘irrevocable otherness” as the call of the nightingale. 

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.