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 Ruth Abbott (Cambridge) took us beyond and behind Thomas Gray’s Elegy, introducing the poet’s unpublished Commonplace-Book notes on historical graveyards, tombs, and sepulchres.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

On Place Value

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

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 had 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.

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


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?

Arts of Place supported an exciting evening’s conversation at Trinity College Oxford (Monday 8 November 2021) 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 was part of the 2021 Being Human Festival.

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.

Julie Brook: Arts of Place Artist-in-Residence

As part of our celebrations at the close of the first year of Arts of Place, we are delighted to welcome leading land artist Julie Brook as our Artist in Residence. Here, we look over Brook’s career and work.

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.

Artist Julie Brook, pictured near her home on Skye. PIC Jane Barlow/TSPL.

Brook travels to and dwells within remote regions, spending time inhabiting the landscape either alone or with local guides. These places are usually quite solitary and inhospitable, from caves in the Hebrides to Libyan deserts. From there she makes art that reconnects us with the natural world, in exciting ways, through sculpture and large-scale drawing. From 1989 Julie Brook has been living and working in remote landscapes in Scotland: Hoy, Orkney (1989); the west coast of Jura (1990-94); on the uninhabited island of Mingulay (1996-2011) in the Outer Hebrides. Recently she has been working in different parts of the desert: in Central and South West Libya (2008-09) travelling with Tuareg guides; Syria (2010); NW Namibia (2011-14) travelling with Himba-Herero guides; Aird Bheag, Hebrides and Komatsu, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan (2015-2022).

Pigment Drawing, poured. Otjize, NW Namibia.

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. While living alone and collecting water and fuel for drinking and cooking, Brook began to build artworks using materials found on the island. So became her Firestack series, where she used rocks to build cairns on the shore, and wood to set fires in them as the tide came in. Eventually, the stacks toppled, and Brook captured the whole process on film.

“Brook’s Firestacks are works that we feel could have been made at any time in the past 5000 years, but they have had their pertinence refreshed by the current focus we are putting on the environment. When the tide comes in her artwork has to make its own case against the elements, just as we, in the age of dawning climate change, might still have to.” – Jonathan McAloon for Elephant Art

Firestack, Autumn: Aird Bheag, outer Hebrides, 2015.

We are extremely excited to host Brook at Arts of Place this summer. On the afternoon of 23rd June, she will be running a practical drawing workshop for Arts of Place writers and readers. This free workshop will be a chance to explore form and emphasis in a different medium. You can read more about the workshop and reserve your place here.

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

 

William Cowper, Art and Afterlife

William Cowper lived in and around Olney in Buckinghamshire from 1768 to 1795. It was here that he wrote Olney Hymns (1779) (with John Newton), Poems (1782), The Task (1785), and his translations of Homer. The poet’s experience of his immediate surroundings, his close attention to the natural world, and the importance he attached to domestic life gave particular energy and vision to his poetry.

On 3rd and 4th of September 2021, Arts of Place members Andrew Hodgson and Will Bowers hosted a conference at The Olney Centre, focused on Cowper’s career in verse. The event included a visit to the Cowper and Newton Museum where attendees toured Cowper’s home and the beautiful garden in which he worked.

 

‘William Cowper’ by George Romney (1792)

A range of papers explored formal and stylistic elements of Cowper’s writing (Gregory Leadbetter discussed the ‘exploded couplets’ of the blank verse of The Task; Samuel Diener examined warring lyric and narrative impulses in ‘The Cast-away’; Jessica Fay looked at Cowper’s handling of movement and stillness in the closed stanzas of the Hymns). There were also papers focused on Cowper’s critical heritage (Tim Fulford traced an association of ideas about church-bells from Cowper to Coleridge and the Wedgwood family; Alexandra Harris explored Virginia Woolf’s appreciation of Cowper’s ‘white fire’, while Andrew Hodgson read Cowper’s fear and dread through Donald Davie). Meanwhile, Will Bowers offered a paper on Cowper’s conception of time, Andrew Newell introduced Cowper’s ‘exegetical poetics’, and Tess Somervell presented Cowper as a key poet of the anthropocene.

The highlight of the conference was Fiona Stafford’s lecture on ‘Cowper’s Hare Care’. Cowper owned a number of pet hares but alongside an exploration of his personal attachment to these characterful animals, Stafford showed that a close reading of Cowper’s poetry can open up the extended literary heritage of the hare — a heritage that stretches from John Gay to Seamus Heaney.

The conference also included an informal discussion of the value of teaching Cowper’s poetry at a time when many of his preoccupations have renewed pertinence in the classroom.

 

 

Featured image: ‘William Cowper’ by George Romney (1792), National Portrait Gallery

The conference was supported by the British Association for Romantic Studies, British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, and Queen Mary University of London

Listen to Alex Harris and Kate McLoughlin talking about Cowper’s poetry here.

The Lives of Naturalists

Richard Mabey on Gilbert White of Selborne, in conversation with Alexandra Harris

The Summer 2021 Weinrebe Lecture, presented as part of a new collaboration with the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing. Available to listen here now.

Portrait of Richard Mabey    Gilbert White: A biography of the author of The Natural History of Selborne: Amazon.co.uk: Mabey, Richard: 9781861978073: Books 

Richard Mabey, who celebrates his 80th birthday this year, has been bringing people closer to the natural world since his first books Food for Free and The Unofficial Countryside delighted readers with their subversive outings to the hedgerows in the early 1970s. He is on the side of the weeds that refuse to be tidied; he takes his cues from the playfulness and conviviality of swifts; he gives us all a ticket to join the exuberant ‘cabaret’ of plants.

In this conversation, Mabey reflects on his work as a biographer, and particularly on his long relationship with the great eighteenth-century naturalist Gilbert White of Selborne.

“White is talking about the possibility of birds being parallel citizens”

“I was able to find specific colonies of plants at the precise addresses where White had seen them”

Arts of Place is extremely grateful to OCLW for hosting and producing this lecture recording.

Related links:

The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing (OCLW)

Richard Mabey’s website

Gilbert White’s House

Expand your Mabey reading list with help from Profile Books: Happy 80th Richard Mabey

Pallant House Gallery explores artist’s responses to The Natural History of Selborne in Drawn to Nature.