Arts of Place/Oxford Center for Life Writing, Weinrebe Lecture 2024

Fiona Stafford

‘Time and Tide: Lives and Landscapes’

Tuesday 18 June, 5pm, University of Birmingham, Alan Walters Building G11 (directions below). With drinks, conversation and book signing after the lecture. Tickets are free and all are welcome but please register here.

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 are delighted this year to welcome Fiona Stafford, FBA, Professor of English at the University of Oxford, scholar of Romantic literature, and author of bestselling books on our relationships to the natural world and our local surroundings.

Landscapes, seascapes, skyscapes – seemingly empty spaces often turn out to be full of life and hidden lives.  A solitary walk is a chance to listen to waves or leaves, to catch sight of birds and wildlife, to sense the people who once lived and worked there.  Writing the long, long life of landscape means attending to what seems odd or out of place, to unexpected openings into the past.  A bridge from nowhere to nowhere, an old oak in a birchwood, a red squirrel, a half-submerged church, an echoing sea cave, or an enigmatic placename – cracks in the present, opening the way into other times and other lives.’ 

Do come and hear Fiona talk about the research for her acclaimed new book Time and Tide: The Long, Long Life of Landscape.

‘Poetic and profound, Time and Tide is wise, considered and full of surprises’  – Observer

Shot through with tender delights and unexpected revelations’ RICHARD HOLMES

Directions to the lecture. The Alan Walters building is close to the North Gate of the University’s Edgbaston campus. You can download a PDF campus map (it’s building R29) or use the interactive map here. G11 is on the ground floor, and there’s a large foyer area with seating and work space if you get there early.

More to see. There’s lots to see around the Edgbaston campus. You may like to visit the beautiful Winterbourne House and Gardens or follow the Public Sculpture Trail around the university grounds and buildings.

Pioneers of Local Thinking, 1740-1820

Arts of Place is excited to introduce our new project…

‘Pioneers of Local Thinking, 1740-1820’ is a two-year project supported by the British Academy. Over the course of the 2023-24 academic year, we will present a series of seminars to consider how a range of artists and writers – from William Cowper to William Green of Ambleside, and from the Smiths of Chichester to George Crabbe – departed from eighteenth-century conventions of literary and pictorial representation. Together, they reimagined how art and literature can shape, and be shaped by, local identity and the environment.

George Smith (1714–1776), A Winter Landscape, c.1770, Yale Center for British Art

The project aims to provide new insights into the growth of localism in poetry and painting in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. We will investigate some of the ways in which Dutch and Flemish aesthetics influenced those working in provincial areas of Great Britain. Asking how European culture permeated British towns and villages, we’ll look at the precedents set by Rubens, Rembrandt, van Ruisdael, and Hobbema (amongst others), and how these contributed to the development of new forms and artistic methods in culturally and geographically peripheral parts of Britain.

Taking an interdisciplinary, comparative, and collaborative approach, we will work between text, image, geography, natural history, and the social and philosophical changes of the Romantic period. We want to consider the importance of this cultural history of localism as we experience a resurgence of regionality today, through governmental policy, in environmental activism, through experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a burgeoning new school of nature writing. What do the place-writers and artists working today make of their Romantic roots?

We hope many of you will join us to think through this subject and share your insight and experience. 

 

John Sell Cotman (1782-1842), Ruined House, 1807-1810, Yale Center for British Art

“To the Lakes!”: Local artistic perspectives

with guest speaker Jeff Cowton MBE, Principal Curator & Head of Learning at the Wordsworth Trust

Monday 20 May, 5pm, UoB Arts Building, Room G20 and on zoom (please register here for the link) with Jessica Fay in response and conversation.

The Lake District attracted outside tourists and artists from around 1750 onwards. However, their experiences were partly shaped by the writers and artists local to the area. Join us as Jeff Cowton focuses on the writers and artists resident in what is now Cumbria during the late eighteenth century, their challenge to pictorial conventions surrounding landscape, and their engagement with the emergent tourism industry. 
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William Green (1760-1823), View of Windermere and Belle Isle, pencil and watercolour, Eton College

‘Seeds, to our eye invisible’:

The Botany Beneath George Crabbe’s Poetry 

with guest speaker Dr James Bainbridge (Liverpool)

Monday 22 January, with Jessica Fay in response and conversation.

 

Botany was a key interest of the poet George Crabbe. “Give me a wild, wide Fen, in a foggy day,” he wrote, “and every botanist [is] an Adam who explores and names the creatures he meets with.” Between the publication of The Newspaper in 1785 and the 1807 Poems, much of his writing focused on the production of new botanical works. But this was a period of great change for English botany, and whilst Crabbe made use of competing Systems to arrange the natural world as he observed it, he was also drawn to the disorderly fringes of the science – things that were difficult to classify.

In January 2024, James Bainbridge joined us to examine the ways botany shaped Crabbe’s poetry, from the minuteness of detail in his description, to the study of distinction between individual subjects. James is a Lecturer in English at the University of Liverpool. He teaches and researches in eighteenth and twentieth-century literature with a particular interest in the influence of theology and natural sciences on the literature of the long-eighteenth century. He is currently writing a biography of the poet A.S.J. Tessimond and publishes regularly on Crabbe.

Watch the recording of this talk below and read on for some highlights.

 

 

Why do so few people read Crabbe today? By way of introduction, James explained why this is not a new question. Though he counted Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Walter Scott, Ivan Turgunev, Leo Tolstoy, George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell amongst his admirers, Crabb quickly fell out of favour in the 19th century:

“What the novel does in the nineteenth century takes its seeds in what Crabbe is doing in poetry, and partly because he was writing in poetry, he quickly went out of fashion”

Against, Virginia Woolf’s alignment of Crabbe with weeds, James suggested that

“On the whole, Crabbe tends to describe the mallow and the bugloss, not because he thinks of them as weeds, but rather because he thinks of them as native species. That word native is used extensively in his writing to think about place, to think about people, to think about plants. These plants aren’t described by their not belonging, but rather the reverse. Crabbe is drawn to them because they belong to the specific places he describes.”

Discussing  The Borough (1810), James presented an astonishing case for how Crabbe deployed a taxonomical arrangement to articulate similarities and differences, order and disorder, amongst his characters, places, and environments:

“The emphasis on locality in these works indicates an almost proto-ecological interest in nature which appears even more prominent in a work he proposed to write on trefoils. In this he declared an ambition to give ‘a narration of the progressive Vegetation of the spot it grows on, etc. etc. etc’; the emphasis clearly placed on the way that habitats change through successions of plant life.”

James ultimately argued that in The Borough

“Crabbe show the relationship between botany and place. There is offered a particular bed that fits the seed. He considers how over time a place may change due to the succession of plants which dwell there. And it is this level of narrative which he felt was lacking from simple taxonomic arrangement, and why in both his botany and poetry he moved towards a more ecological approach. Crabbe botanical interests, far from being mere adornments to the poetry, are integral to his narrative and thematic development. His descriptions of plants and landscapes are not just backdrop but they are interwoven with the human stories that he tells.”

 

                                                                               

Cotman, Aubrey, and the Neglected Places 

with guest speaker Prof. Peter Davidson (Oxford)

Monday 27 November

In November 2023, for the first research seminar of our new project ‘Pioneers of Local Thinking, 1740-1820’, we welcomed Prof. Peter Davidson to Birmingham for a discussion of John Sell Cotman and John Aubrey. Peter is Senior Research Fellow in Renaissance and Baroque Studies and Curator of the Campion Hall Collection in Oxford. He has authored monographs on the verse of Richard Fanshawe and Robert Southwell, as well a trio of acclaimed texts on landscape art: The Idea of North (2005), Distance and Memory (2013) and a cultural history of twilight The Last of the Light (2015).

Tracing a rich and rangy seam of placethinking, Peter discussed Aubrey’s drawings of his own house (made in 1670 prior to his permanent departure from the area), particularly his set of views of undramatic slopes and ends of fields. These are places which carry the same all-but-secret autobiographical meaning as the views of underbrush and shadowed streams which John Sell Cotman made in the course of his northern tour in 1805. Peter cast back through these English expressions of place to the wider context of Dutch paintings of ordinary time in ordinary corners, and forward to consider their qualities in relation to Wordsworthian romanticism. 

Watch the recording of this talk below and read on for a summary.

We were the lucky passengers on Peter’s breath-taking journey through the English countryside, to Aberdeen, then Leiden and the Low Countries, followed by a foray into the Claudian scenes of the Grand tour, and a return to Aubery’s locality in the home counties. Through these composite views Peter shared his account of

“how we see landscape starting through that curious bringing together of north and south”.

On Aubrey’s book of drawings created with the use of a perspective machine in around 1669, Peter noted that they are ‘Place-time-weather specific, mostly dated as late April evenings’. This form of landscape, intensely personal responses to his immediate surroundings, appears as if from nowhere: the sources from which Aubrey could have learned this mode of representing landscape are limited to a very limited number of Dutch prints:

“he’s looking for a way of talking about the place and what it meant to him […] aesthetically there is no precedent”

Peter went on to describe how Aubrey suffered a ‘grievously interrupted education’ due to the Civil War, and he reads these drawings in light of Aubrey’s wistful longing for continuity and his intellectual preoccupation with archaeology, deep time and comparative anthropology, then in vogue amongst his Oxford circle.

Turning next to the dialogue-in-landscape between the landscapists of the Dutch Golden Age and the Norwich School of watercolourists, Peter’s unique way of seeing offers a stream of revelations: we catch Cotman red handed borrowing from Vermeer’s textural attention of brick, pointing, and the flaking render of buildings; we see a visual rhyme between Cotman’s Crambe Beck Bridge (1804) and the rhymical sunlit expanses of Gerrit Berckheyde’s The Golden Bend in the Heerengracht (1671); and we find John Crome joining ‘his master’ Hobbema in newfound uses of water to articulate the local specificity of light and shadow.

Peter ends on the absence of a conclusion. But through these endlessly allusive and deeply felt connections he comes full circle to his thesis of picturing place as an autobiographical tool. Looking with Cotman at a forgotten, formally irresolvable slip of land, On the Greta. he guides us to a moving understanding of how landscape gave shape, colour, and form to lives in the long eighteenth century.

 

 

Arts of Place/OCLW Annual Lecture 2023: 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.

Between the Kingdoms of Sleep and Waking

By Hannah Christopher (BA English Literature, University of Birmingham)

I am surprised to have woken up in the dark. In my mind, September feels like it should be clutching onto summer more than it has. My weather app informs me that the sun will rise whilst I am underground, screeching through the rabbit warren of tunnels that link London Bridge to Euston. Although I never usually rise with the sun, I want to see it this time and the thought of missing its first appearance is disappointing.

It is 6am but the tube is far from empty. Next to me there is a traveller with matching coral suitcases and opposite me a commuter with hair still swirled upwards by recent contact with a pillow. To my right, four lads are shouting and laughing at alarm clock volume, their drunk conversation is surreal and cyclical, sips of phrases pass between them, echoed and repeated. Some of us have slept, others will soon shut the curtains on the sunlight and sleep through the day. For now, we shuttle under the dark city together. I think about how strange the tube is, necessity or desire has united us to this mobile waiting room before we are called out to our real destinations. I think about trains, the infrastructure which supports these tunnels and our dependence on these technologies, mechanical and digital, which enable us to live between places, ignoring nature’s rhythms: long distances are contracted by transport, night and day blurred by electric light, hot and cold levelled by air conditioning, the internet dividing friends between embodied and online experiences. As I emerge from the tube station and turn into the rail station, I am strangely relieved that it was a cloudy sunrise, I feel I have missed nothing. I face away from the dawn and take a picture of the glowing underground sign instead.

Sunrise at Euston Station

My destination is the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester for the WomenTalkPlace symposium Talking Place. There are five panels throughout the day, aiming to facilitate conversations between contemporary place writers. The panels on place memoirs, novels, writing about places as magical experiences, and writing politically through landscape consider different writers’ methods and reasons for engaging with places in literary ways. Throughout the day, what came across most strongly, is that there are many ways to exist in a place; no approach to place is quite the same and many approaches combine seemingly opposite narratives of natural and digital, past and present, personal and geological, fiction and non-fiction.

Liptrot’s memoir responds to the complexity of navigating a digital and natural world simultaneously

In the first panel Amy Liptrot read from her Berlin memoir, The Instant. The chapter documents how she embarks on a series of excursions to traffic islands around Berlin with a new lover. The chapter drifts between romantic anecdotes of hands held and emails exchanged, before washing up on these traffic islands every so often; each island has a ‘mission report’, narrated like a Springwatch segment. The digital journey threads through the natural, a theme which runs throughout the book. Liptrot names the chapters after extended metaphors, many of them synthesising the technological and the natural: ‘a google maps tour of the heart’, ‘traffic islands’, ‘digital archaeology’. Liptrot’s memoir responds to the complexity of navigating a digital and natural world simultaneously which is reflected in the way that she writes.

Later, in a panel discussing magic and connections, Jeff Young’s reading from Ghost Town took us through the streets of Liverpool, unlocking stories from the city’s past by exploring the marks on the landscape that stories have left behind. Young describes the visibility of the past in a present landscape, making this vibrant city simultaneously a kind of Ghost Town. His memoir combines layers of civic history as well as his own story; in doing so, he writes himself into this landscape. He receives emails from readers who identify with his story, saying things like ‘you have written my childhood’. There is a continual repositioning of whose story is the story of this aggregate place which spans both distance and time.

Another memoir writer, Nicola Chester, discussed her new book On Gallows Down as part of a panel about ‘belonging’. Chester’s book claims to be a ‘story of a life shaped by landscape’, yet as she spoke about her life, which she describes as being able to see ‘laid out’ in their chapters from atop a local hill, I felt that she was instead giving us a landscape shaped by her life. Chester’s narrativization of her personal life interwoven with the topography of West Berkshire goes on to shape our perceptions of this place, even as her life was shaped by the landscape initially. The individual and the landscape become synthesised and invite the reader into an active dialogue with place.

Throughout the day, there were a number of questions raised concerning the struggle of separating fiction and non-fiction in place writing. In the first panel, Amy Liptrot, Anna Fleming and Lily Dunn acknowledged, as non-fiction writers, that ‘memoir can slip precariously into fiction’. Later, Fleming addressed this indirectly as she spoke about the distance between herself and her work. Fleming used an illustration from Melissa Febos’ Body Work which describes memoir writing, not as an egotistical project, but as a process in which the self is made transparent for other people to inhabit. The self becomes detached from the work, simply a skin through which a reader can see the world from a different perspective, or an unfamiliar landscape with clarity. This distancing process steps onto the slippery slope between non-fiction and fiction. I also feel this tension as I write this blog post, emphasising some things and not others in an attempt to curate this day into a sort-of conclusive story, a kind of fiction itself. Yet, on the flip side, fiction writer Fiona Mozley, noted how her books were a kind of non-fiction, reflecting places and experiences in her life. She noted a similar feeling of vulnerable exposure that Liptrot felt in publishing her intimate memoir, The Instant. The relationship between writer, place and story is entangled, creating unique works which sit along a spectrum between fiction and non-fiction.

The relationship between writer, place and story is entangled, creating unique works which sit along a spectrum between fiction and non-fiction.

It was between the last two panels when I noticed a jazzed up literary notice by the door, ‘sleep and waking are two opposed kingdoms. Please be considerate and keep noise to a minimum.’ Perhaps this statement was true when night meant sleep and darkness and the waking kingdom was built anew each day with the dawn chorus, but our nights, more and more, take on their own luminosity and night life.

I thought back to the tube this morning and my shared journey joined with my unlikely travel companions, and the blurring of waking and sleeping kingdoms under artificial light — not opposing but operating simultaneously. As if sitting between kingdoms, like the crossed paths of unlikely travellers, the way writers complement landscape with digital spaces, overlay the past with the present, combine internal emotional life with geographical topography, and blend fiction with non-fiction in ways that are not oppositional but complementary, seems to speak into this current moment. Many of these writers’ responses to place are grounded in the natural place, the urban place, the digital place, the historic place etc., sometimes weaving a narrative from all of these at the same time, giving a richer and deepening experience of what it means to exist in a place in our time.

Sunset at Manchester Piccadilly Station

Table Talks

 On Monday 5th December at 5pm we went online with the table set for an intriguing Advent treat!
 
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Image: Claude Pratt, ‘Still Life of Newspaper, Pipe, Decanter, and Jar’ (1935, Birmingham Museums Trust)

 Dr Heber Rodrigues from the UK Centre for Excellence on Wine Research explored the cultural contexts of wine appreciation, and Dr Will Bowers (QMUL) introduced his new research on the dynamics of eighteenth-century dining circles!

Have a taste of the two talks below! First up, Heber introduces us to thinking about wine, place and terroir. Under the concept of terroir, Heber introduces, the place of wine is not only the place in which the vines are grown, but is also imbibed with the characteristics of their surrounding context—in all its complexity.

Will introduced us to the transformative place of the dining room at Holland House, an essential creative context for Romantic London, facilitating discussion and hospitality between British and European cultural and political figures. This room, Will argues, was a “literary and political space” that “gave coherence to the ramshackle organisation of the Whig party” alongside hosting literary salons at the heart of the definition of taste. It was above all a space of both literary and political opposition.

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.