Trees of History

Tuesday 5th July 5.45pm – 7.30pm, Barber Institute of Fine Arts. The £3 ticket includes a drink. BOOK HERE

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

In response to the arboreal work of artists from Gaspard Dughet to JMW Turner, this event will consider 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’ll consider 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. Please register here for the zoom link.

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 Ruth Abbott (Cambridge) will take us beyond and behind Thomas Gray’s Elegy, introducing the poet’s unpublished Commonplace-Book notes on historical graveyards, tombs, and sepulchres.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.  

Daisy Hay: Stories of Romantic Birmingham

Joseph Priestley, Joseph Johnson, Ruins and Riots

Arts of Place and Oxford Centre for Life-Writing Annual Lecture

Tuesday 3 May, 5.30pm GMT
University of Birmingham, Arts Building Lecture Room 3 (R16 on this campus map). Lecture followed by drinks reception.

Please register here.

We are delighted that Daisy Hay (University of Exeter) will give the second OCLW and Arts of Place Annual Lecture. Daisy’s new 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. 

If you’re new to Birmingham, or haven’t visited the campus before, you’ll find there’s lots to explore so you might want to make an afternoon of it. Trains from New Street stop at ‘University’ station, bringing you right to the gate (walk straight in past the Paolozzi sculpture). Stroll through the park-like ‘Green Heart’ and explore the collections at the Barber Art Gallery (open until 5 on Tuesdays). In the Arts Building, you’ll find Peter Lanyon’s fine mural from 1963 – and signs to the lecture room.

Songs of Spring

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

With Bethan Roberts and Francesca MacKenney

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.

Bethan’s talk is called ‘Sweet harbinger(s) of spring’: Placing the cuckoo and nightingale in poetry‘, and it will consider the traditional poetic rivals the nightingale and cuckoo. Bethan will think 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’.

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

Francesca’s talk will explore ‘Birdsong in the Poetry of John Clare‘.

Watch a recording of Francesca’s and Bethan’s talks here: Songs of Spring

On Place Value

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

Paul Nash, ‘Thirlmere’, 1914.

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 have 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.

All welcome!

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…

Firestacks

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

Japan

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

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.

Edward Thomas: Out of Place

Monday Conversation, 19 April 2021, with Andrew Hodgson and Ralph Pite

“He handles the name Adelstrop as if he’s jiggling a key in a lock, expecting it to open up a feeling of connectedness”

Dr Andrew Hodgson (Birmingham) argued that, though Thomas is firmly associated with certain kinds of English landscape, his relationship to places is often deeply unsettled. Andrew read poems including Adelstrop and The Ash Grove as the work of a poet ‘out of place’, restlessly seeking forms for disconnection and doubt.

Professor Ralph Pite (Bristol) explored Thomas’s ‘terrestrial’ and ‘extra-terrestrial’ qualities – and the unpredictable relationship between them. Thomas emerged as a radical thinker, interested in non-proprietorial ways of belonging to the land.

“Thomas leads the conversation from a fanciful dream of escape, to disillusionment and world weariness, and after that pleasure in the everyday and he becomes therefore as perplexing a figure as the woman he meets…”


A Month in the Country

Hermione Lee reflects on the particular qualities and settings of J.L. Carr’s classic novel

 

“No book evokes so well as this the long vistas of that high ridge of North Yorkshire between Thirsk and Sutton Bank”

 

Joseph Lloyd Carr (1912-1994), better known as Jim, was a writer of laconic English humour, quiet precision, deep moral feeling, close knowledge of landscapes, buildings and history, and an interest in the heroism of obscure, unsuccessful, unprivileged people. Between 1963 and 1992 he wrote eight short novels. He was also a teacher and headmaster, a writer for children, an antiquarian, and an idiosyncratic publisher of pocket books, under the sign of the Quince Tree Press. His friend and admirer Penelope Fitzgerald said of him: “Carr is by no means a lavish writer, but he has the magic touch to re-enter the imagined past”.

His masterpiece, A Month in the Country, won the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1980, was short-listed for the Booker and was made into a film. Carr, an obstinate man, didn’t care that it was already Turgenev’s title – besides, the novella has a Turgenevian mood to it. It’s a story full of sadness and nostalgia, told by a shell-shocked war-veteran, Tom Birkin. In the “marvellous summer” of 1920, he has come, a wrecked survivor, with no money and a failed marriage, to a remote Yorkshire village, in order to uncover a huge medieval Day of Judgement painting on the wall of the village church, the work of an unknown medieval artist who increasingly infiltrates his mind. Down below, another war-veteran with a secret history, Mr Moon, is excavating a 14th century grave outside the church. They are “two of a kind”, both quietly dedicated to their specialised work, and both beneficiaries of the late old lady of the decaying manor-house, whose shrewd eye still seems to be overlooking their work. An obstructive, stiff-necked vicar, his fragile, beautiful wife, and the friendly, level-headed Yorkshire villagers (source of Carr’s typical humane, low-key comedy), become Birkin’s whole world that summer. 

It is a war-novel set in peace-time, full of the horror and unspeakable fear of war-memories, which can’t be spoken about. It’s a love story of great poignancy about a missed chance, and it’s a memory of an irrecoverable past, of “blue remembered hills” that can’t be found again. “If I’d stayed there”, the sad narrator asks himself, “would I always have been happy? No, I suppose not. People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvellous thing around each corner fades.  It is now or never, we must snatch at happiness as it flies”.

Above all, the novel is filled to the brim with a particular English place and time. Carr said he drew the village and its setting from his childhood in the North Riding, the church from Northamptonshire (where he spent most of his adult life), the churchyard from Norfolk and the vicarage from London: “All’s grist that comes to the mill”. Oxgodby, the name of the village, certainly echoes “Osgodby”, a village near where he went to school. And the novel brings us a vanished English country life in deep sunshine – haymaking, sleeping outdoors, Sunday School, rabbit pies, scythes, “ditches and roadside deep in grass, poppies, cuckoo pint, trees heavy with leaf, orchards bulging over hedge briars”. No book evokes so well as this the long vistas of that high ridge of North Yorkshire between Thirsk and Sutton Bank. “Day after day, mist rose from the meadow as the sky lightened and hedges, barns and woods took shape until, at last, the long curving back of the hills lifted away from the Plain. It was a sort of stage-magic – “Now you don’t see; indeed, there is nothing to see. Now look!” Day after day it was like that….”  “As it lightened, a vast and magnificent landscape unfolded. I turned away; it was immensely satisfying.”  

 

Hermione Lee was president of Wolfson College, Oxford from 2008 to 2017 and founding director of the Oxford Centre for Life Writing. Her books include Edith Wharton (2006), Penelope Fitzgerald (2013), and Tom Stoppard (2020). 

 

A World on the Table: Still Life Paintings and their Global Stories

Monday Conversation, 30 November 2020, with Lauren Working and Lucy Powell.

Jan Davidsz de Heem, Still Life with Parrot, c. 1655, Creative Commons.

Still life paintings from the seventeenth century present sumptuous arrangements of fruit, flowers, vegetables, silverware, and often animals or birds as well. They may be ‘still’, displayed for our visual enjoyment, but the subjects have been gathered from around the world. These pictures tell stories of travel, colonialism, displacement, power, and desire.

Our two speakers took us on an imaginative transcultural journey, bringing questions of locality, placelessness, and globalism to bear on scenes of feasting and beauty.

 

 

“We get tulips with pumpkins, maize with English strawberries, peonies with chillies…”

Lauren Working (Postdoctoral Fellow on the TIDE project, University of Oxford) gave a dazzling visual tour of the genre’s excesses and extremes, pausing in the queasy hinterlands between plenty and too much. Bringing an historian’s expertise to paintings by Dutch and English artists, she explored the tastes, networks, and trade routes, the invisible maps and webs of connection, that lie behind the shining objects assembled before us.

Lucy Powell (Leverhulme Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Oxford) looked closely at paintings of exotic birds by Jakob Bogdani, showing how closely they relate to still life and how much they have to tell us about cultures of collecting and displaying species brought to Britain from across the globe.

Our short clips will give you a taste, and a recording of the whole session is available below.