Cotman, Aubrey, and the Neglected Places 

with guest speaker Prof. Peter Davidson (Oxford)

Monday 27 November, UoB Arts Building, Room G20 and on zoom (please register here for the link)

For the first research seminar of our new project ‘Pioneers of Local Thinking, 1740-1820’, we will welcome Prof. Peter Davidson to Birmingham for a discussion of John Sell Cotman, John Aubrey, and representations of neglected or marginal places spanning the late seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries. Tracing a rich and rangy seam of placethinking, Peter will discuss Aubrey’s drawings of his own house (made in 1670 when he knew that he would have to leave it), 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 will 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.  After his talk, Peter will join Alexandra Harris in conversation followed by a Q&A. 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). This will be a hybrid event taking place in the UoB Arts Building, Room G20. To join the event online, please register here.   Image: John Sell Cotman, Mousehold Heath, Norwich, 1810

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. 

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. 

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.

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.