Alexandra Harris

Professor Alexandra Harris

Alexandra Harris


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:

Examples of my work on place

Romantic Moderns, Thames & Hudson, 2010

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Harris-RM-cover-201x300.jpg

“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.” 

Weatherland, Thames & Hudson, 2015

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Harris-weather-cover-195x300.jpg

“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.

Time and Place, Little Toller, 2019

“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…”

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is LTB_301019_1-e1599175282797-246x300.jpg

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.

Ground Work: Writing on People and Places, ed. Tim Dee, Jonathan Cape, 2018

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Harris-Ground-Work-cover-196x300.jpg

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.

The Feel of Things, Caught by the River, 2020

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is wwwopac-1.ashx_-179x300.jpeg

“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.


Jessica Fay

Jessica Fay


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.


Sean Ketteringham

Sean Ketteringham

Research Associate, University of Birmingham
Postdoctoral Researcher, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds


I am the Research Associate for ‘Pioneers of Local Thinking, 1740-1820’, Arts of Place’s British Academy-funded project. Between October 2023 and May 2024 I will be contributing to all aspects of Arts of Place and helping Alex and Jessica shape our new programme of events. We are setting out to explore the creative minds of those artists and writers who revolutionised how place, locality, community, and the natural world were observed and understood in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century British culture.

My research interests are centred around artistic, architectural, and literary articulations of English national identity in relation to the terminal decline of the British Empire during the twentieth century. My doctoral research, completed at Oxford in 2022 under the supervision of Rebecca Beasley, explored these ideas through the cultural crucible of domestic space between 1910 and 1948. It spanned suburban developments, the picturesque, modernist homes, and architectural preservation. I’m currently turning this work into a monograph for Oxford University Press titled Architectures of Identity: English Modernism, Domesticity and Imperial Decline. My new project at the Henry Moore Institute, titled ‘Postwar Folk’, extends these concerns to the period after 1945 through an examination of the triangular bond between postwar sculpture, English folk art, and so-called ethnographic museum collections.

Thinking around deep time, heritage, place and locality is marbled throughout my research and I have regularly worked in the heritage sector and on research residencies including at the National Trust, the Twentieth Century Society, the John Latham Foundation (Flat Time House), Grizedale Arts, and the Charles Moore Foundation, Texas. Prior to my doctorate I received my BA in English at the University of Liverpool, and my MA in History of Art at the Courtauld Institute.

Ellen Addis

Ellen Addis

Arts of Place graduate assistant and PhD student in the Department of English Literature, University of Birmingham

I have often gravitated towards books that try to reflect a particular geography or environment and the feeling of that place through words and lengthy descriptions. I prefer this quiet literature where not much happens because they take you to the place, whether that be Roy Fisher describing the strangeness of the indeterminate West Midlands where I grew up, wedged between the power blocks of the North and South, or places I long to return to like the shores of Lake Huron, Ontario, in Alice Munro’s stories.

My collaborative PhD with Hay Festival focuses on the often-neglected academic question of how we read collectively today. I look towards the festival to create a detailed reflection on the new venues, communities, publication routes and reading experiences that digital spaces have enabled. My project provides the first in-depth academic history of Hay Festival and the evolution of its live events strategy, contributing to both the story of arts organisations in modern Britain and the emergence of literary festivals as an international phenomenon in an era transitioning to digital connectivity.

My own work on place emphasises the importance of the booktown of Hay-on-Wye and the landscape of the Brecon Beacons in making the festival what it is today. Currently, I am collecting the oral history accounts of key individuals at Hay Festival, recording the history of the organisation through their voices and experiences. I will be soon working with British Library and Hay Festival staff to reach back into the extensive archive and develop a digital exhibition, hosted by Hay Festival and timed to coincide with their 35th anniversary in 2023.

Fariha Shaikh

Fariha Shaikh

Fariha Shaikh

Lecturer in Victorian Literature, University of Birmingham

I specialise in empire and literary studies in the nineteenth century, and the idea of ‘place’ is crucial to my monograph Nineteenth-Century Settler Emigration in British Literature and Art (Edinburgh University Press, 2018). In it, I examine the relationship between place and mobility: as an increasing number of people moved away from Britain to the colonies in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, literature became one of the ways through which they sought to articulate a sense of place or home. Yet, the diaries, letters and novels that they wrote, and the periodicals they produced were not tethered to any one place, but instead circulated through the empire, gaining wide readerships not only in Britain, but in the colonies too. Nineteenth-Century Settler Emigration seeks to understand the ways in which these different genres construct an affect of place and a sense of belonging, but also the ways in which place travels through these mobile texts. The interconnected questions of texts, mobility and place, of course, play out in a number of different ways across the nineteenth-century British empire, and I am also interested in the ways in which imperial environments are variously constructed in genres as diverse as autobiography and memoir, travel writing, and adventure fiction.

Isabel Galleymore

Isabel Galleymore

Isabel Galleymore

Lecturer in Creative Writing, University of Birmingham

My research focuses on contemporary literature and ecocriticism and the recent popularity in ‘place writing’ forms a crucial chapter in my monograph Teaching Environmental Writing: Ecocritical Pedagogy and Poetics (Bloomsbury Academic, 2020). Here, I explore the recent phenomenon of the environmental writing course (a specialized form of the creative writing course) offered at UK and US universities, which, in many, if not all, cases, includes an element of place-based pedagogy. Indeed, it is now possible for students to undertake an MA dedicated to ‘Place Writing’ at several institutions including Manchester Metropolitan University. My research investigates the influences behind this pedagogy: the canon of environmental literature, which includes David Henry Thoreau’s Walden; the recent boom of British ‘new nature writing’ first articulated by Jason Cowley; and the history of place-based education that arose with the environmental movement in the 1960s. My investigation looks at how university courses today frequently aim to foster in their students’ writing a reverent approach to local place, and I compare this to contemporary ecocritical perspectives that often critique such an approach. Ursula Heise’s influential argument in Sense of Place, Sense of Planet (2008) articulates the necessary challenge of engaging globally. Drawing on her theory of ‘eco-cosmopolitanism’ and Juliana Spahr’s poetics of communality, I suggest ways of developing current pedagogical emphasis on intimate connections with local environments by cultivating awareness of place in the context of global ecological relations.


Hannah Christopher

Hannah Christopher

Alumna, BA English Literature, University of Birmingham

I am interested in the ways in which personal experiences in local places are microcosms of universal human experience. The early nineteenth-century writer Thomas Noble touches on this in the preface to his 1808 poem Blackheath, anticipating that readers will think his subject ‘entirely local’ and therefore not of interest to ‘the public in general’. Yet, he writes, ‘my subject is not local; it is as pervasive as Nature’. Less than three miles away from where Noble found his muse in the environs of Blackheath is an unnamed scrap of common ground which has always been known to me as The Place. The term ‘place’ will conjure up different environments in every mind, but in suburban London, my brother and I ascribed the term to this open wild field, unique in its position overlooking the city. It sits above the snaking maze of textured concrete, painted walls and brown brick. It satisfied my sense of what Constance Padwick, editor of the diaries of Victorian painter and missionary Lilias Trotter, describes as ‘space hunger’; a yearning and dreaming for the skyline beyond the ‘man-stifled town’. Landscapes have the power to fill us with an almost physical sense of awe, something well established in research about Wordsworth and his contemporaries, but which seems equally important in the recent boom in nature writing in the twenty-first century, amid an urban and digital environment.

I am also interested in how place informs literary creation, and how literary creation then informs place again. I planned a poetry guided walk around Winterbourne Gardens and was involved in the curation and running of the Canal and River Trust’s first floating exhibition entitled Journeys. The exhibition reframed the industrial story of the Birmingham canals, uncovering personal, hidden histories of canals as places of art, recreation, community and wellbeing.

I am currently working on a group of poems provisionally titled Reflections of Glory engaging with local place as a source of parable which points the created to the creator.

Thomas Kaye

Thomas Kaye

PhD Student (Leverhulme Trust Doctoral Scholar), Department of English and Forest Edge, BIFoR.

My research delves into the woodlands and forests of contemporary fiction where these ancient biotic spaces radiate with warping pressure. I am especially interested in how modern authors reimagine mythic and folkloric roots, twisting them into contemporary tales that lead to the blending of the human and the more-than-human through contact with trees. I am developing a thesis that examines the affect of trees, how they metamorphose both the human and the text – I am exploring this symbiosis as an imaginative rewilding.

Currently I am researching our often imperceptible, yet ever present, reciprocal respiration with trees. The dual meaning of respire – to breathe and to recover – lends itself to a discussion of texts that confound vegetal and bodily processes all the while engaging in a recovery. To select texts that are themselves a form of renewal makes them analogous to the woodland space they engage with and create – for woods are self-renewing. I hypothesise that forests and woodlands respire in our art. They aid the recovery and retelling of tales that in return provide a respite for our rapidly depleted woodlands.

My research covers the writings of Richard Powers, Annie Proulx, Daisy Johnson, and Sarah Hall. I also hope to engage with sculpture, particularly the work of David Nash.  

Zara Castagna

Zara Castagna

PhD student in English Literature

My research focuses on Dorothy Wordsworth and her circle, approximately from 1787 to 1830. I have wider interests in Romantic period writing and initially encountered Dorothy’s work through her particular way of describing landscapes and her use of the picturesque. Being also interested in life-writing, I now focus Dorothy’s letters, specifically on the way she uses the letter to draw people from different places together and maintain friendships across large distances. I want to explore how these primarily epistolary relationships influenced and shaped Dorothy’s perception of place and that, in turn, her other writings.

Hattie Walters

Hattie Walters

PhD Candidate, Department of English Literature, University of Birmingham

My work discusses interactions between the garden and literary and visual cultures in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, with an emphasis on the materialisation of lived and local histories through garden work.

From Gertrude Jekyll, Mary Watts, and Ford Madox Ford, to the Sitwells, Dora Carrington, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Vita Sackville-West, I am fascinated by how an individual’s gardening influences (and interferes) with their artistic practices—and how they engage with an artistically mediated understanding of rural countryside.

I look to unpick how gardens, broadly defined, can be exploited not just as an inseparable stimulus for a figure’s art but molded to provide a personal interrogation into history, frequently one localised and set on invigorating an ideal of the rural working class. The study of modern garden cultures enables the isolation and examination of the material interventions of artistic cultures into rural life, from the reclamation of historic houses, to the beautification of derelict cottages, and the cultivation of horticultural “quaintness”, or a pre-existing sense of “charm”.

I am particularly interested in tracking a personal kind of garden history: revelations amongst runner beans, for instance, or biographically endowed potato plants; the design of terracotta pots in a declaration of family heritage; formative readings in orchards; or queer country cottage retreats.