On Epistolarity (and Materiality)

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In the midst of several archival visits and reviewing the primary literature for my thesis, these last few weeks have been absorbed by meditations upon the epistolary form. As eighteenth century-ists and historians, we are well accustomed to working with collections of familial letters, yet our reflections upon them (myself included) are more often than not limited to their elucidating potential for our own topics of enquiry. Nevertheless, it is crucial to remember that letter-writing is and was a discrete literary form as well as a physical and material object, embroiled in narratives of transportation, gift culture and subsequent conservation by the recipient. Accordingly, I was particularly struck by the considered approach adopted by Temma Berg’s work on “The Lydia Clerke Collection”, a series of letters addressed to, but predominantly not written by, Lady Lydia Clerke. Berg published the letters in her 2006 book, The Lives and Letters of an Eighteenth-Century Circle of Acquaintance, a text which is remarkable for its sensitive and innovative approach to its material. Berg’s follow-up article ‘Truly Yours: Arranging a Letter Collection’ (Eighteenth-Century Life, 35:1 (Winter, 2011), pp. 29-50) describes in detail the reasons for Berg’s relatively radical editorial decisions – including the text’s lack of footnotes and decision to group individual series of letters in the form of novels, with titles such as ‘The History of Lydia Clerke, Written by Others‘.

What I found particularly striking were Berg’s thoughts upon wanting to preserve the original order in which she had found the letters when collating her source material:

“Ideally, to preserve the arbitrariness of their sequence, I would have liked to publish the Lydia Clerke letters as I found them: a sheaf of letters stacked in a box and arranged alphabetically by sender, so that readers would have the pleasures and frustrations of organising letters to their own satisfaction (as I had). But would I be able to find a publisher who would agree to published my book as letters in a box?” (Berg, 2011, p. 38)

Though ultimately Berg decided upon a traditional book format to ‘stress the novelistic qualities of the letters’, I find Berg’s attention to the materiality of her sources vastly compelling. Berg’s desire to preserve the trace of the archival hand, and to reproduce the experience of holding, shuffling through, and reading the letters first-hand, only emphasises how important the material qualities of these objects should be to our readings of them today, not only as literary sources for contemporary correspondence on an array of topics, but as the physical objects of a shared relationship between two or more people.

Whilst visiting the Denbighshire Record Office two weeks ago, I was looking through the correspondence between Sarah Ponsonby and her close friend and neighbour Mrs. Parker of Sweeney Hall, when I noticed that the so-called ‘Ladies of Llangollen’ used specially commissioned seals which read ‘Plas Newydd’, the name of their cottage in which they enacted their remarkable form of rural retirement.


Letter from Sarah Ponsonby to Mrs. Parker. DD/LL, Denbighshire Record Office, Ruthin.

It struck me that the the seal was essential to the whole performance of the letter – which employed nomenclature and labelling as a means by which to designate the letter as part of what Nicole Reynolds has called the ‘cottage industry‘ of Plas Newydd, a thriving network of material, social and intellectual production. However, if I had only paid attention to the contents of the letter, the nitty gritty job of deciding whether its contents told me anything ‘useful’, I may not have even noticed the seal’s existence, and as such, my whole reading of the object would have been different.

Such meditations are obviously limited by the nature of cultural history, which can require us, magpie-like, to pluck as many corroborating resources as we can find from relevant source material. Furthermore, my own background as an art historian predisposes me towards the material and the visual, more so than contemporaries in related historical disciplines. Nevertheless, I feel increased attention to the intersections between epistolarity and materiality can only shed light upon a genre of primary material upon which we rely so heavily, yet seem to use and understand in only a few senses.



Programme for the Travel and the Country House Conference

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View towards the fireplace in the Chinese Room at Erddig, Wrexham, Wales

Chinoiserie Room, Erdigg House (Image via National Trust)

The preliminary programme for the upcoming conference, Travel and the country house: places, cultures and practices has just been released. I will be speaking about ‘Domestic tourism, the country house, and the making of respectability in the travel journals of Caroline Lybbe Powys’, in the second session of the second day. This research is taken from a chapter of my doctoral thesis which situates Powys’s analyses of material objects in relation to country house visiting and domestic tourism.

Please contact jon.stobart@northampton.ac.uk for further details and booking.

Travel and the country house: places, cultures and practices 

Northampton, 15-16th September 2014-06-20

Draft Programme

Monday 15th September
10.00-10.40 Registration and coffee

10.40-10.45 Welcome and introduction

10.45-11.45 Keynote: ‘The Italian Grand Tour and the 18th century country house’, Roey Sweet (University
of Leicester)

11.45-13.00 Session 1: The practicalities and pleasures of travel

‘Visiting London for business and pleasure in the years 1599-1623: on the road (and the
Thames) with William Cavendish, 1st. Earl of Cavendish’ – Peter Edwards (Independent

‘Travelling for Pleasure – carriages and the country house’ – Lizzy Jamieson  (Independent Scholar)

‘Wintering in the “shires”: Foxhunting and travel’ – Mandy de Belin (University of

13.00-14.00 Lunch

14.00-15.45 Session 2: European travel, networks and influences

‘The Grand Tour and Episcopal domesticity: the case of Martin Benson, Bishop of
Gloucester (1735-52)’ – Michael Ashby (University of Cambridge)

‘“Antiquity mad”: the Earl Bishop and the translation of continental style in an Irish context’ – Rebecca Campion (National University of Ireland at Maynooth)

‘Centre and periphery: the world brought to the ironmasters “mansions”‘ – Marie Steinrud
(Stockholm University)

‘The English Rothschild family and their country houses: a distinctive style’ – Nicola

15.45-16.15 Tea & coffee

16.15-18.00 Session 3: Views of England from overseas travellers

‘The English country house as (proto) museum: Dutch travel accounts explored (1677-1750)’ – Hanneke Ronnes (University of Amsterdam)

‘“… enjoying country life to the full – only the English know how to do that!”: Appreciation of the British country house by Hungarian aristocratic travellers’ – Kristof Fatsar (Corvinus University of Budapest)

‘Stourhead: all roads lead to Rome – and back again’– John Harrison (Open University)

‘A Dutch view on the English Country House and landscape garden’ – Helen Bremer
(University of Leiden)

18.30-19.30 Reception

19.30 Dinner Tuesday 16th September

9.30-10.45 Session 4: The mobile house

‘Manors, towns and spas. A household on the move in the late 18th century Sweden’ –
Goran Ulvang (University of Uppsala)

‘The travels of an aristocratic family in the early 19th century: the Braybrookes of Audley
End, Essex’ – Andrew Hann (English Heritage)

‘Moving households – problems, choices and new possibilities facing the country-house
family in the 1820s and 1830s’ – Pamela Sambrook (Independent Scholar)

10.45-11.15 Tea and coffee

11.15-1.00 Session 5: Travel, tourism and guides

‘Domestic tourism, the country house, and the making of respectability in the travel
journals of Caroline Lybbe Powys’ – Freya Gowrley (University of Edinburgh)

‘Country house visiting and improvement at Herriard House in Hampshire, 1794-1821’ –
Nicky Pink (Independent Scholar)

‘Arthur Young’s Tours: architecture, painting, sculpture, and the art of adorning
grounds’ – Caroline Anderson (The Courtauld Institute of Art)

‘The representation of the country house in individual books and guides 1720-1845’ –
Paula Riddy (University of Sussex)

1.00-2.00 Lunch

2.00-3.00 Keynote 2: title: Prof Margot Finn (UCL)

3.00-4.15 Session 6: Looking beyond Europe

‘Travel to the East- and West-Indies and Groningen country house culture in the 18th
Century’ – Yme Kuiper (University of Groningen)

‘Appuldurcombe House and the ‘Museum Worsleyanum’: Sir Richard Worsley’s forgotten
collection’ – Abigail Coppins (Independent Scholar)

‘Diaries, decoration and design: the Courtauld’s travels and the effects on Eltham
Palac’‟ – Annie Kemkaran-Smith (English Heritage)

4.15-4.30 Closing comments and discussion

Conference: Travel and the Country House – Places, Cultures and Practices

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screen-shot-2014-04-30-at-8-56-07-pmI will be presenting a paper entitled ‘Domestic tourism, the country house, and the making of respectability in the travel journals of Caroline Lybbe Powys’ at the upcoming University of Northampton conference, Travel and the Country House: Places, Cultures, and Practices, 15-16 September 2014. I have attached the CFP for reference.

Travel and the Country House: Places, Cultures, and Practices

University of Northampton, 15–16 September 2014

Proposals due by 19 May 2014

Keynote speakers include Roey Sweet (University of Leicester) and Margot Finn (UCL).

Travel has long played a vital role in shaping the country house, opening up horizons and exposing both house and owner to a variety of external influences. Travel impacted upon values, tastes, material culture and money, and helped to articulate the flow of ideas, information, goods and capital. The importance of the Grand Tour and Empire to the country house has long been recognised, but domestic tourism and travel for more mundane purposes—to visit family or friends, engage in political life or go to town—were also significant. In this conference, we wish to explore a wide range of travel experiences and consider how these impacted on the country house. How were travel choices made and how were impacts articulated? How did new influences mesh with existing tastes and goods? What impact did its status as a place to visit have upon the country house? And how do we communicate the importance of travel to those visiting country houses today?

We invite papers on all aspects of travel and the country house, but would especially welcome those which focus on:
• Geographies of travel: the Grand Tour, colonies and empire, and domestic and everyday travel
• The view from abroad: foreign visitors to British country houses
• Royal progresses and prodigy houses
• Travelling for business and pleasure: court and parliament; tours and spas
• Travel and material culture: how different places were brought into the country house through objects
• Travel and taste: the impact of travel on architecture, collecting, design and
• Visiting the country house: receiving guests and staying with friends or family
• The practicalities of travel: stables, coaches and horses; trains, ships and boats; servants and guides; accommodation, meals and sleeping
• Travel and publishing: journals, guidebooks and maps
• Travel as a theme in country house interpretation/presentation today

Conference Report – Historical Perspectives on Loss, Grief and Pain

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Historical Perspectives on Loss, Grief and Pain

University of Edinburgh
School of History, Classics and Archaeology
Friday 23 May 2014, 9.00 – 5.00pm, Meadows Lecture Theatre,
Doorway 4, Old Medical School, Teviot Place, EH8 9AG

Today’s one-day workshop on Historical Perspectives on Loss, Grief and Pain constitutes one of a number of recent conferences, publications and projects which seek to interrogate historical manifestations of emotion. Like many such projects, a significant proportion of the papers presented as part of Historical Perspectives specifically dealt with the relation of that emotion to material culture. In the wake of last year’s provocative conference Emotional Objects: Touching Emotions in Europe, 1600-1900as well as the recent Ashgate edited collection on Women and the Material Culture of Death (eds. Maureen Daly Goggin & Beth Fowkes Tobin), this workshop similarly championed an approach to the ‘social life of things’ in which an object’s emotional qualities are treated as paramount. The conference aimed to broach the various departments encompassed by the University of Edinburgh’s school of History, Classics and Archaeology (HCA), bringing together scholars from a number of disciplines including history, history of art, English literature, classical art, and archaeology.

The first panel, which addressed themes of ‘Wartime Loss’, was chaired by Dr. Anna Groundwater of the University of Edinburgh’s History department and began with Dr. Thomas Dixon’s (QMUL) paper on “The Incontinence of Arthur Koestler: Warfare, Death and Tears in the Twentieth Century“. Dixon, who has worked extensively on the culture of tears as an intellectual, social and historical complex took his paper from a forthcoming project entitled ‘Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears’, which examines crying in Britain from the fifteenth century to the present day. In his paper, Dixon described the birth of the stereotypical British emotional response, the ‘stiff upper-lip’, locating this within the intellectual contexts of the post-war period. The celebration of this stoical response could be traced back to Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals of 1872, in which Darwin set out what Dixon called ‘a heirarchy of weepiness’, which emphasised the propensity for weeping shared by monkeys, infants, women and the insane. Significantly, it was Darwin’s dictum of ‘English men rarely cry’ that seems to epitomise the position adopted towards weeping through the following century, which witnessed the flourishing of stoical emotional response in the face of the two World Wars. As Dixon noted, indulging in crying became increasingly identified with the German enemy, with newspaper reports carrying stories of weeping German soldiers, and news of Hitler’s own propensity for displays of emotion, a position that contrasted starkly with the British tendency towards the ‘stiff upper-lip’. Women were also encouraged to adopt a markedly stoic approach to loss during this period, and figures like Edith Cavell – a nurse arrested and executed by the German army for her role in the escape of over 200 Allied soldiers – were championed for their emotional strength in the face of adversity. However, Dixon argued that perhaps tears weren’t repressed during this period, but simply relocated to more appropriate venues, such as the cinema. Citing a number of charming responses to a 1950’s Mass Observation survey, Dixon noted that around 40% of men and 50% of women admitted to crying in the cinema in the post-war years, and highlighted the prominent role of ‘weepy’ movies such as Mrs. Miniver (1942) in the popular imagination of this time.


Still from Mrs. Miniver (1942), featuring Teresa Wright with Greer Garson

Nevertheless, public displays of emotion were still frowned upon, with crying sometimes equated with the state of incontinence – viewed as another shameful, involuntary leaking of bodily fluid. Dixon argued that this equivalency colluded with the attitude of the ‘stiff upper-lip’ to suggest that there was something deeply embarrassing, or even disgusting, with crying in public. This point of view was adopted by the writer Arthur Koestler, who like Darwin, categorised tears with examples which reflected his not only his contempt for weeping, but his latent misogyny.

The second paper of the panel, “Loss and Grief in Wartime Britain: ‘Unruly Emotions’ in the People’s War, 1939-1945“, was presented by Dr. Lucy Noakes of the University of Brighton’s History department. Like Dixon’s paper, Noakes focused on the appropriateness and legitimacy of tears during the war period, here examining civilian responses to wartime loss. In her evocative paper, Noakes recounted the story of a funeral of children and teachers from a school bombed during the Second World War, in reaction to which there was an intensive collective outpouring of emotion. Contemporary media outlets reported both mothers trying to jump into the graves to be with their children, as well as their subsequent sedation by on-hand medical staff. Whilst such heartbreak was widely experienced in wartime Britain, Noakes noted that it was rarely reported, as a stoical response to the tragedies of war was seen as central to the success of the war effort. Noakes also identified the legislation brought in to regulate funerals around this time – limiting ostentation, discouraging the use of horse-drawn carriages and encouraging the hearse to take the most direct route to the venue – as central examples of this adoption of outward stoicism in the support of the war. Most provocatively however, Noakes highlighted the issues with locating emotions historically, asking do we as historians have access to authentic emotions, and which sources – mass observance versus contemporary theorists – are more useful in writing its history?

The final paper of this panel, “Staging the Grieving Process: An analysis of Pina Bausch’s 1980: Ein Stück von Pina Bausch” was presented by Lucy Weir of the University of Glasgow’s History of Art department. Unlike the contexts discussed by the previous papers, 1980 constitutes the celebration of unrestrained emotional expression, and was the first piece choreographed by Bausch following the death of her husband. Weir argued that through certain proscenium devices, such as Bausch’s signature use of organic materials, the audience of 1980 was confronted with a shared emotional experience which reflected Bausch’s personal grief as well as the the idea of loss as performed by the dancers, a heightened emotional state in which the viewer also participates. Weir suggested that through the sensorial experience encouraged by Bausch’s use of natural elements such as freshly cut grass, carnations and compacted peat, the fourth wall between performance and audience was broken, facilitating complicit emotional exchange and the creation of a shared commemorative space.


Still from 1980

Calling 1980 a “memorial dance of death”, Weir also focused on the gestural indicators of emotion as performed as part of the piece, including the ritualised daubing of the dancer’s eyes, which she related to physical manifestations of schizophrenia.

The second panel of the day dealt with themes of ‘Familial Loss’, and included contributions from academics working in archaeology, history and English literature. Maureen Carroll’s (University of Sheffield) paper, “Responses to child death in the Roman Empire“, which discussed the material responses to the death of infants and young children within the Roman Empire. Citing the example of Pliny, who criticised the ‘parade’ of grief exhibited by a mourning father, as typical of the idea that the Romans did not mourn their children, Carroll noted that the material record tells a very different story, and examined objects such as sarcophagi, coins, and even the contents of excavated tombs, as supporting evidence. For example, the fact that parents commissioned expensive tombstones for their children suggests a certain amount care towards the deceased, whilst the contents of a number of burial sites indicates that infants had defined and important identities, even at such a young age. As such, Carroll’s paper constituted an important refutation of Plutarch’s claim that Roman law forbade citizens to mourn their infants, as established through consultation with a wide variety of material cultural sources.

The second paper of the panel was given by the University of St. Andrew’s Anindya Raychauduri, and was entitled “‘my other mother’: Narratives of the 1947 Indian/Pakistani partition, Separated Families and Mourning as Agency“. Raychauduri’s paper examined narratives of familial separation and loss as a result of the new geographical boundaries established by partition. Specifically, Raychauduri examined instances of women who remarried and moved between the countries, changing religion and often losing contact with the families they left behind. Of particular interest was what Raychauduri described as the appropriation of such trauma by the nation state, in which women became deified symbols of nationalised loss.

The final paper of the panel was given by Gian Marco Vidor, of the Center for the History of Emotions at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin. Entitled “The departure of an angel. Writing abut the loss of a child in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Italy‘, the paper examined what Vidor termed ‘In Memoriam’ publications, a collection of texts comprised of short biographies, obituaries and funerary information that were typically produced for upper-class men in late nineteenth Italy. Described by Vidor as ‘written monuments’ to the deceased, the Memoriam publications featured common hagiographic narratives recapitulated to describe the life of the lost child. According to Vidor, this subscription to a standard, highly sentimentalised model of death, perhaps reflects an attempt to make those deaths more palatable to the communities of which the deceased had been a part.

The third panel of the day addressed the relationship between loss and material culture, and examined a range of objects and ideas including Roman sarcophagi, butter dishes and the complex relationships between hoarders and their possessions. The first paper, given by Glenys Davies (University of Edinburgh), asked “How important was the expression of loss in the iconography of Roman sarcophagi?“, and subjected an array of sculptural objects to an in-depth visual and iconographical analysis in order to answer that same question. Davies highlighted the significance of a number of myths, such as the Rape of Persephone or the Death of Patroclus, to the designs of such sarcophagi. At this stage of the proceedings, I was struck by just how comfortable all the classicists who spoke were in using forms of material culture as historical evidence. Whilst I realise that this reliance on objects often arises due to a gap in the textual record, it was still impressive to see scholars so wholeheartedly embracing material culture as a way of locating and reconstructing historical perspectives on grief and loss.

The second paper of the panel was given by Jo Croft of Liverpool John Moores University, whose paper, entitled “‘The Dilapidation of the Box was Poignant’ (Denton Welch): Narratives of Accumulation and Loss (or what Hoarders can tell us about Feelings“, discussed contemporary conceptions of hoarders against the narratives constructed around emotional objects created by the British writer and painter, Denton Welch. Pinpointing a tragic event in Welch’s life, his cycling accident, as a turning point in his relationship with objects, Croft suggested that much of the artist’s work after this period was ‘a sensual retracting of his youth’, in which material culture figured prominently. Croft reads Welch’s letters describing the loss of the family silver, which was melted and destroyed, as synecdochic of the loss of his mother, noting how objects become the agents of his feelings in such narratives.

The final paper of this session, and unfortunately the last I was able to attend, was Megan Roberts’ (Bowdoin College) “Laclos’s Objects of Affection: Love, Loss and Material Culture in Revolutionary France“. Laclos, the author of the infamous Dangerous Liaisons, had been imprisoned during the French Revolution thanks to his aristocratic connections. Roberts’ paper reflected on this period of imprisonment, particularly focusing on how Laclos used objects in order to maintain affective ties with his wife and members of his family. Embracing the prototypical role of the man of feeling, Laclos embraced the objects sent to him by his children and wife as a way to combat his acute loneliness and isolation. In a particularly evocative example, Roberts cited Laclos’s loquacious response to receiving a pot of butter from his family, which prompted lengthy epistolary descriptions of how the butter helped Laclos to imagine he was eating with his family once more.

Ultimately, Roberts’ paper suggested that in times of desperation, people invest great potency in everyday objects or rituals, a sentiment that echoed many of the papers included within the workshop. Perhaps the most pressing issues raised by the collection of papers were the question of where do we locate historical emotion, and what sources should we use to access it; public versus private expressions of grief; the construction of pain as performative; and the importance of interdisciplinarity in historical practice.

Unfortunately I missed the final session of the day, however podcasts of the event will be available on the University of Edinburgh HCA website soon.

Book Review for West 86th

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My double review of Women and the Material Culture of Death, edited by Mauren Daly Goggin & Beth Fowkes Tobin and Hanneke Grootenboer’s Treasuring the Gaze: Intimate Vision in Eighteenth-Century Eye Miniatures recently went up on the West 86th website, and is available at this link.

Storify for Historical Perspectives on Loss, Grief, and Pain

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Storify of tweets from the conference, Historical Perspectives on Loss, Grief, and Pain hosted by the School of History, Classics and Archaeology of the University of Edinburgh, 23 May 2014, with a conference report to follow.

Exhibition Review – Turner: Travels, Light and Landscape

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photoInstallation view, ‘Turner: Travels, Light and Landscape’

Turner: Travels, Light and Landscape
Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight. 14 Februrary – 1 June 2014

Recently I was lucky enough to visit the Lady Lever Art Gallery’s ‘Turner: Travels, Light and Landscape’ exhibition, which runs until 1 June. Like all of the Lady Lever’s temporary exhibits, it is a carefully curated, compelling show which highlights some of JMW Turner’s most beautiful, yet under-discussed, works. Comprising more than thirty works from National Museums Liverpool’s own collection of works by Turner, the exhibition celebrates Turner’s prolific travels around continental Europe, charting its influence on his work. Whilst ultimately a small show, ‘Travels, Light and Landscape’ nevertheless sheds important light on rarely seen works by the artist, which are united by Turner’s delicate touch with light, colour and form. Of particular interest is the way the exhibition charts the artist’s stylistic evolution from his earlier, more conventionally topographical works, to the gauzy washes of transparent watercolour which we now associate with Turner’s mature style.

Perhaps more significantly, the exhibition coincides with the launch of National Museums Liverpool’s project Watermark: works on paper, which aims to publish the Museums’ collection of over 8000 works on paper online. Dating from the Medieval period to the present day, the online collection will showcase number of highly significant prints and drawings, and in its current form includes a set of Turner’s Liber Studiorum, a set of landscape prints published by the artist between 1807 and 1819. Following in the footsteps of many regional museums who are beginning to publish their collections online, I have no doubt that Watermark will become an essential resource for the completion of art historical research into works on paper.

For more information on the exhibition, see the Liverpool Museums blog.