‘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
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.
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.
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
“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.”
“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.
“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…”
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
“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.
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.