In the second of my IASH Twitter Takeover ‘favourite collages’ posts, I want to talk about something that you might not think about as being a collage at all – two commonplace books made c.1885 by Ellen Warter, the granddaughter of the Romantic poet Robert Southey, now held at the Centre for Research Collections at the University of Edinburgh.
Page from the commonplace book of Ellen Warter, granddaughter of Robert Southey, Coll-1559, Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh.
A popular practice since classical antiquity, the production of commonplace books involved the compilation of excerpted texts from a broad array of writers on a variety of topics. Like traditional paper collage, then, they are collections of materials from a range of different sources, reformulated into a new object. Despite this compiled and composite nature, commonplace books are rarely conceived of in relation to collage. Instead, they tend to be discussed more as records of reading practices, knowledge exchange, and education.
Yet Ellen Warter’s commonplace books tell a more complex story than this.Warter devoted over 300 pages of her volumes to the lives and literature of the Brontë family, who were the objects of her sustained estimation, affection, and documentation. This specific emphasis upon the Brontës relates Warter’s albums to a specific type of album-making: namely, the production of volumes dedicated to literary celebrities, a practice enacted throughout the nineteenth century. Beyond this fascination with the Brontës however, the practice of commonplacing was firmly intertwined with Warter’s own family history. As the granddaughter of Robert Southey, she was part of a family whose own commonplacing and album-making spanned several generations. Warter’s grandfather, aunts, mother, and father all made, or contributed to the production of, composite volumes, a literary inheritance that places Warter’s own productions within a longer history and set of material practices. Crucially, such practices were also enacted within the broader Romantic circle, with Southey contributing to the volumes of his friends’ daughters, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Caroline Bowles, Charles Lamb, and Edward Quillinan reciprocally adding poems to the albums of Edith Southey, Warter’s mother. For Warter then, commonplacing was not only an educative practice, but an inherently social one, with her compilation of ‘Brontëana’ consistent with the collective practices of her own extended literary family.
More than the sum of their collaged parts then, Warter’s commonplace books are not only a collection of individual details and textual clippings, but evoke the broader contexts of authorship, celebrity, and collaboration.
I’m thrilled to announce that from September 2017 until August 2018 I will be joining the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow. The fellowship is ten months long, but includes a two-month interruption for my fellowships at the Huntington and the Harry Ransom Center. The fellowship will allow me to conduct research for my postdoctoral research project, Collage before Modernism: Art, Intimacy and Identity in Britain and North America, 1700-1900. I’ll post more about my time at IASH as I take up the Fellowship.
This week the Bodleian Library’s John Johnson Collection of printed ephemera tweeted the following question on behalf of their visiting scholar Jill Shefrin.
— John Johnson Coll (@jjcollephemera) January 24, 2017
Shefrin is currently undertaking a major research project on writing blanks, objects which are are ephemeral, yet important pieces of visual and material culture. The post received several responses, unearthing some truly beautiful examples of the genre:
— Stephen Barker (@Stephen25367746) January 24, 2017
— Sandy Rich (@MrSandyRich) January 26, 2017
This got me thinking about my own research into the ephemeral, specifically my postdoctoral project on collage and assemblage before the twentieth century. Aside from the research I’ve completed as part of the project’s pilot study (which I discuss here and here), so far I’ve mostly be concerned with finding out what collaged objects survive in what collections. This has meant many a rewarding hour trawling museum and library catalogues, and has led to some really exciting discoveries that I’m anxious to research further over the next few years.
It’s because of this richness—the huge variety of collaged objects preserved in museum collections today—that I’m convinced that many many more examples must be out there, both in museum and private collections. As the project progresses, I fully intend to follow the John Johnson Collection’s example and use Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media to try and unearth as many examples of collage from colleagues, research institutions, and the public more broadly.
As my research on collage is inherently concerned with ideas of intimacy and identity, I’m particularly keen to learn about personal, private objects – objects that might have passed down through several generations, rich with inherited meaning, yet whose private (i.e. non-institutional) nature might mean that these stories are never heard. Accordingly, I’m becoming increasingly interested in the prospect of creating a kind of crowdsourced ‘database’ of collaged objects, where individuals can submit objects, images, stories, and reflections. The contours of such a project will obviously need further delineation, but I feel like it could make a fascinating counterpart to the more ‘academic’ aspects of this project. As ever, I’ll be posting more about my various research projects as they develop, and stay tuned for a post on ‘the book proposal’ coming asap.
Inspired by a number of reflective end-of-year blog posts (including this and this) I thought I’d map out my aims and activities for 2017. If you’d like to gain a sense of what I achieved in 2016, you can check out my series on being a year post-phd here, here, and here.
Yale Center for British Art
As always seems to be the case, 2017 is shaping up to be a very busy year.
In January, I’m primarily working on editing my PhD thesis for publication: firstly, I’m editing the sample chapters of my book that will be submitted for review, and secondly, I’m revising an article on needlework and visual culture, which is currently at revise and resubmit stage with a peer-reviewed journal. As a broader research aim, I also want to develop a sustainable daily writing habit during this month.
January is also the month in which I return to teaching, and this term I’m teaching four courses, one of which is completely new to me. I’m excited (and slightly apprehensive) about the challenges of a heavier teaching load, and interested to find ways of balancing my time between teaching and research commitments. Indeed, while teaching and marking dominate the months of January, February and March, I’m also planning on revising another article, this time on the interior decoration of A la Ronde, during this time. In February, I’m working on hosting a public event on Queer Material Heritage to tie in with this year’s LGBT History Month theme.
In April, I’ll be finishing off some marking, but more excitingly I’m off to Yale University’s Lewis Walpole Library for a two week-research trip. I’ll be researching an exciting mixture of things for both my monograph project, as well as my postdoctoral project on collage in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Directly following on from this, I’m spending the month of May as a Visiting Scholar at Yale Center for British Art, during which time I’ll also conduct research for the collage project, this time on composite albums, botanical paper collages, and a number of mourning objects.
In June I’ll be travelling to Umeå, Sweden for the International Society for Cultural History 2017 Conference, which this year is on ‘Senses, Emotions and the Affective Turn: Recent Perspectives and New Challenges in Cultural History’. My presentation, ‘Lost Objects & Loss Objects: Intersections of Absence and Presence in Eighteenth-Century Material Culture’, will hopefully provide the perfect opportunity to tease out some of the key issues for the Introduction of my book.
In July, I’m off to another conference, this time in London. At Sibylline Leaves: Chaos and Compilation in the Romantic Period, I’ll be presenting my recent work on Romantic commonplace books, which has functioned as a sort of pilot study for my collage project.
Finally, in August, I’m spending a month as a research fellow at the Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library. Other than providing a gorgeous setting for research, I’ll be using the Wintherthur’s library and museum collections to conduct research on a form of paper collage known as ‘scrapbook houses’. I’ll definitely be posting about all my research trips so stay tuned!
I’ll also be running Edinburgh’s Eighteenth-Century Research Seminars again this year (with the first session on Jan 25th) and Katie Faulkner and I are hoping to develop a project from #WaysofSheing, which will look at the contribution of female art historians across history – watch this space.
From September onwards, things are a little more hazy, although I’m a hundred per cent sure that I’ll be working on publications as much as possible, having kept various articles and the book ticking over during the first 8 months of the year. So 2017, let’s do this.