Author Archives: ctrichardson

Domestic Sphere at the top of the lake

IMG_5244Earlier this month I gave a paper at the ‘Domestic Sphere in Europe, 16th to 19th Century’ conference at the Schloss Schadau in Thun, Switzerland. The conference was run by Joachim Eibach, as part of his NSF-Sinergia-project Doing House and Family, based at the Universities of Bern, Basel, Lausanne and Lucerne.

In addition to offering a trip into the mountains alongside fondue-eating locals, accompanied by the sound of cow bells, it brought together the largest group of people I’ve ever been in a room with (and a very grand room at that) who are actively engaged in thinking about the pre-modern house. Three days saw a thought-provokingly vast scale of papers, focused across Europe and from the early sixteenth to the nineteenth century. I wanted to draw together a few of the preoccupations that connected them here, to try to lay out the bones of shared concerns in a way that might suggest a way forward for studies of domestic life.

Joachim’s opening thoughts were very useful in establishing a framework for the ensuing discussion. He considered the ‘domestic sphere’ as a focus in relation to more established terms such as ‘family’, ‘household’ and ‘kinship’, and he pointed to the practical focus of the event, on doing, discussing the challenge faced by cultural historians in analysing the self-evident elements of the everyday. The notion of ‘co-presence’, of face-to-face interaction, with its concerns about shared space and communication, became an important strand in the papers. For instance Claudia Opitz-Belakhal spoke about the ‘emotionalised language’ of time spent together, and Julie Hardwick about the ways in which young couples in early modern France calibrated their intimacy in relation to their location – how they tied the registers of inside and outside space to the progress of their relationship.

Another important theme was closure, one of the key elements of the Doing House and Family project. ‘The changing degrees and different ways of ‘doing’ closure and openness of domestic spheres may serve well as a paradigm in family history’, Joachim suggested at the start, and Maria Agren’s summary comments identified a thread of argument through the papers that increased enclosure over time was a significant but complex narrative, with some elements always kept secret and the outside always present through light and glances in both directions through windows. We saw these connections in the papers on religion within the home – in Tine Van Osselaer’s identification of priests and ceremonies brought into the domestic environment, and in Irene Galandra Cooper’s arguments about the relationship between devotional forms used in both the churches and the lower status houses of Naples. The connections were also made evident in Frank Hatje’s argument that we should see bourgeois groups’ need for privacy to read as connected to their investment in patterns of sociability through which they might display that reading. Interesting points were made about openness as involving both inviting people in and talking about the household outside; about the description of relationships as part of their performance (Sandro Guzzi-Heeb) – for me, a larger question emerged – how are physical and narrative experiences of space and co-presence linked to one another at different times and in different places?

But, as was frequently pointed out, levels of closure are not just about modes of accessibility – they provide a key way for historians to understand social control. Focusing on what’s seen and unseen, known and unknown across the threshold is a way of exploring the relationship between the state and the house; the Political and the political; public and private spheres. The opening remarks asked how we might articulate what is apparently a broad shift from the relative heterogeneity of the ‘household family’ to something more nuclear and ‘privatized’; ‘From relatively open ‘mixed zones’ to a retreat into privacy behind walls and curtains (‘Rückzugswohnen’)’? Thinking through that broad chronology as a series of points in time demands a combination of micro-histories of the house with macro-historical questions. This is a crucial task, it seems to me, for the study of early modern domestic process – partly because by undertaking it we get at the heart of early modern identity, and partly because we rescue the study of everyday life from perceptions of triviality and inconsequence.


So what kind of insights were gained in Thun from the micro-macro connection? Inken Schmidt-Voges’ quiet revelation of a ‘conflict biography’ of court case in which upholding the peace was seen to be more important than upholding patriarchal rule demonstrated with great power what is at stake in a fuller understanding of these relationships. Sandra Cavallo’s careful work on annotations on printed medical texts showed that textual knowledge was not passively received, and in doing so undermined apparently clear distinctions between professional and domestic cultures. The work on emotion was also interesting here: Claudia Opitz-Belakhal considered how social relations might be structured by ‘public’ rules and discourses as well as ‘subjective practices of emotions and emotionality’, and Julie Hardwick considered what she called ‘sexual scripts’ – the generally understood phases through which individual relationships moved. These were very thought-provoking examples, but we still need more methodological work that explicitly examines ways of connecting up these levels of discourse, and the role of material, oral and literate cultures in those connections.

Of the four ‘guiding aspects’ of the conference, then, 1) material culture, 2) social space and habitat, 3) gender and 4) transformations, the least was said about the former. Joachim asked us to consider whether we would act, communicate and feel differently if we met in an ordinary seminar room at the University of Bern – undeniably true! I spoke about it in relation the decorated interiors of early modern English middling houses (of course), advocating the key relationship between space, objects and actions with which Tara and I are so concerned, but the majority of the evidence was undeniably documentary.

Finally, we were asked ‘Is there any such thing as ‘the European domestic sphere’’? It remains an important question, linked to a growing sense across the period of the differences between European and Eastern domesticities – curtains, doors and locks were mentioned, but we might also want to think about actions of sitting and modes of sociability in this light. Philip Hahn’s paper on the spread of ‘how to do household’ books across early modern Europe gave a solidly-grounded textual answer, as he asked what was found useful/acceptable across national boundaries and considered the rewriting of husbandry advice to take account of different climates and soils. Can we do the same for the material cultures of intimacy and display we heard about in Thun, and can we then connect it to those macro-questions on a European level? The Doing House and Family project will undoubtedly provide many useful answers, but I suspect there will still be more work to be done…



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Shakespearean Forensics

IMG_2561 (2)A quick update on cutting-edge material practices in libraries and archives. Just looking through my photos from New Orleans, taken at the Shakespeare Association of America Annual Conference last month, and I came across this one of Wendell Pierce who played Bunk Moreland in The Wire talking about the political power of drama in the wake of the hurricane – captured here doing a bit of Macbeth I think. I’d like to point out at the start that making the (dubious) connection between his (inspiring) talk and a session on Shakespearean Forensics wasn’t my idea, one of the speakers in the session did it first (honest!), but it did get me thinking again about the material moves which that session made between technology, close work, and early modern cultures of reading and writing.

The premise of the session was that all the approaches it introduced required, relied upon, the analysis of early modern objects, but that none of the would have been possible without advances in technology. There was analysis, for instance, of the supply of the raw materials for writing, of scarcity and corruptibility and the ways in which these features of source material shaped communication. We heard that ‘libraries are full of animals’, about attempts to reconstruct or reassemble them from their skins, and about the massive reduction in the varieties of sheep which took place between 1700-1800 – connections between economics, agriculture and the textual record.

There were also human traces. We heard about ways in which the waste products of conservation were being analysed at the Folger – how their ‘dust bunnies’ could be used to see how many people over the centuries had interacted with the books (and, apparently, how many readers had had acne). We learned about the way bacteria from different parts of the body can be distinguished from one another, allowing us to know whether books have been kissed or caressed. Forensic archaeological techniques applied to bodies themselves revealed, for instance, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan in the mouth of a German nun, indicating that she had been a painter of manuscripts.

This kind of work broadened my sense of what it means to interact with texts far beyond annotation, and its focus on the physical interactions which individuals had with pages, letters and images as artists, writers or readers suggested interesting questions about moments of use and how we might analyse them. In some ways it was a controversial session – a question afterwards suggested that it flew in the face of the kind of political engagement which Pierce advocated for drama at least, its different kind of work running counter the liveness of text as spoken, social interaction. Understanding the histories of those interactions, and thinking through the scale on which we might need to understand them, seemed important too though – the questions for Pierce after his talk included one about his own infamous scene of analysis of a shooting in season 1 of The Wire, an episode which involved lots of minute looking and figuring out that eventually produces the bullet, but a notoriously limited dialogue!


If you want to know more about this work, these were the session participants: Joshua Calhoun, University of Wisconsin; Christina Warinner, University of Oklahoma; Matthew Collins, University of York; Michael Witmore, Folger Shakespeare Library; Peter Stallybrass, University of Pennsylvania.


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‘Writing Buildings 2016’: call for papers

Catherine is co-organising this conference with CREAte, the research centre for architecture and the humanities at the University of Kent:DSC_0142

In collaboration with the Architectural Review, ‘Writing Buildings’ will bring together quite different traditions of writing about historic buildings. The special character of this conference is that speakers will be drawn from both academic and non-academic fields, and from a range of disciplines that touch on architectural experience and history. In this way we aim to offer a new experience for writers on architecture, interior design and urban space.

We’re inviting papers from those in Architecture, English, History, Sociology, Film and Drama, Landscape Studies and other academic schools with a specialist interest in writing about buildings and urban spaces or experiences across different time periods. The common theme of the papers will be the uses of a variety of voices in creating architecture culture.

Writing Buildings will offer two days of alternative ways of writing architectural history which will encourage experimentation in criticism through breaking disciplinary barriers. The programme will include papers from both academic disciplines and non-academic professions which engage with the built environment, for example, journalism, interior design and construction, as our keynote speakers demonstrate:

Iain Sinclair / Writer

Matthew Beaumont, UCL / Psychogeographer

Jonathan Meades / Writer and Film Maker

Alexandra Harris, University of Liverpool / Cultural Historian

Barbara Penner, Bartlett, UCL / Material Anthropologist

Jonathan Reed / Interior Designer

Ben Campkin, Bartlett, UCL / Urban Geographer

Ian Dungavell / former director, the Victorian Society

The conference will host at least one project-based writing event outside the conference hall. This is currently planned to be held in collaboration with Turner Contemporary as part of their innovative Waste Land project.

For updated news about the conference, including information about events, talks and activities, please see the Writing Buildings


Both previous CREAte conferences have resulted in edited books by leading international academic publishers and we anticipate that this will happen again this time. In addition, the widely read and respected international journal The Architectural Review will promote the conference and intends to publish papers from it.

Conference directors:

Dr Timothy Brittain-Catlin, Kent School of Architecture, University of Kent
Dr Catherine Richardson, School of English, University of Kent
Tom Wilkinson, History Editor, The Architectural Review.

Abstract submission:

Abstracts should be 250 words long.
Abstract submission deadline: 30 September 2015
Notification of acceptance of papers: by 31 January 2015
Conference dates 14th-16th July 2016

Please submit your abstract to with the subject ‘Writing Buildings: abstract’.

If you have any questions, please contact: Timothy Brittain-Catlin ( or Catherine Richardson (

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by | September 15, 2015 · 7:28 pm

Film on YouTube: Reconstructing the Early Modern Domestic Interior

IMG_2462The film which I mentioned a few posts ago is now up on YouTube:

Part of the findings of the AHRC ‘Ways of Seeing the English Domestic Interior 1500-1700’ network, it explores how research into surviving documents relating to houses can be brought together with extant buildings and objects, digital media and modern craft skills to help us to understand how the early modern domestic interior functioned. So the whole thing is an argument for interdisciplinary ways of approaching the topic.

The film starts in Melissa White‘s studio, with her thoughts on how early modern painters created the wall painting from which she was working – her detailed analysis of their work – and her own practice and the raw materials she has used. It then moves on to the hall at Bayleaf (shown here), to my discussion with Danae Tankard about who would have lived in a house like this, and how it would have been furnished, and what the documentary evidence is for our ideas about this. In the final sections the three of us discuss how people might have interacted with these cloths – their visual impact on both the modern & the sixteenth-century viewer, and how they work in the hall space. One of my favourite parts of the film is the part where the digital media becomes a part of the research: the timelapse photography (like the film itself, beautifully shot by Darren Mapletoft during our night in the house) where you can see the way the cloth changes in the shifting lights of dusk and sunset, fire and candle, dawn and sunrise. We’d be very interested to hear which parts of the film you’ve found useful for understanding domestic life…


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100 Hours up close with things

IMG_2271For the first time in ages, we actually found ourselves at the same event a few very hot days ago, so we thought we’d put together our thoughts about it. In a grand room overlooking the quad at UCL, a bizarre collection of objects was ranged along a series of low cupboards – at the end of the line, a slice of meteorite, a Nupe stool shaped like a spider, some Edison Dictaphone Tubes (now silent), a set of miniature plaster models of sea creatures. We were there to discuss the findings to date of the 100 Hours Project – 10 researchers, 10 UCL objects, 5 meetings, 100 hours is the tag – a lively, experimental bringing together of subjects from different disciplinary perspectives within the Humanities with a disparate collection of objects from the UCL museums collections.

Catherine chaired a morning panel whose participants reflected on the shifting perspectives afforded by a protracted engagement with things. James Paz, an early medievalist, talked about how too much looking had begun to ‘uncreate’ his Egyptian oracular bust, breaking down its anthropomorphic features. Florian Roithmayr, a sculptor, suggested that not knowing his plaster models extended his curiosity and postponed knowledge, and discussed how things might teach what they do not know by a process of facilitation based on form. Emily Orr, a design historian, raised Nabokov’s concerns around an involuntary ‘sinking into history’ as opposed to skimming over matter. She found a maker’s perspective on her stool, from the bottom up, the carving communicating the movement of the carver’s hand. Finally, Kate Smith, one of the project’s historian organisers, discussed the way objects cultivate forms of intimacy (which might include knowledge) and suggested how those forms might be explored through gesture – those we make now in response to things, in a museum situation, and the ones they might have initiated in their first users. Her ‘object’, parts of a whistle which might, or might not, be able to be reassembled into an instrument for testing the pitch of hearing, picked up on questions across the day about completeness – what is an object, the part or the whole, and how do the categories into which we slot things develop?

I was fascinated by the tensions in this and other sessions between the historians’ urge to contextualise, to give their objects a history and know them through it, and the possible release from what James referred to as ‘information overload’ proffered by objects that had no histories. Tying down models for other kinds of knowing, probing those productive gaps between people and things that Florian mentioned, seems like a way forward. And the different ways in which the contributors turned their interactions with objects into narrative form has kept me thinking ever since – how do different disciplines articulate their dealings with things, and how might they develop their practices in the light of the kind of sustained attention – the long looking – advocated by 100 Hours? Just what is the relationship between objects and narrative…?

For me (Tara) the 100 Hours Forum raised important questions about definitions and terminology, both in terms of the subject and process of enquiry. Firstly, what do we mean by the term ‘object’? As Catherine mentioned, in questions we discussed the tyranny of ‘wholeness’; are we really talking about fragments rather than complete things? In considering what might indicate the extent or boundary of an object there is also the matter of framing, packaging, protecting and presenting things that becomes part of its biography. Several of the featured items from the UCL collections were in fact collections of things, mounted and displayed in an album, glass case or protective box. Should this material intervention, aggregation or accretion now be considered integral to the thing? How do we get to grips with the unbounded nature of the material? If we are studying “intersections not objects” how might close and repeated encounters with an object attend to this interest? Is a thing a thing or a meaning? Can we distinguish between them? Should we refer to material things not as objects but as specimens or assemblages? Or, as suggested by one respondent, should we call them ‘shares’ to capture the intimate quality of shared things and experiences?

In terms of the process of enquiry, the range of approaches adopted by the 10 researchers raised questions about what it is we expect or wish to find out through close encounters with objects and thus what it is we are doing as researchers when we engage with things. Much of the interpretation was refreshingly freeform, without a systematic strategy apart from the recommended close, repeated looking and without the need to produce a particular ‘finding’ other than to reflect on this process. This raises questions about the status of the object as evidence and its relationship with other sources of information. Several researchers stated their conscious rejection of recourse to text in an attempt to reverse or redefine their disciplinary training and tendencies. This desire to keep the object centre-stage produced some fascinating creative journeys; I was particularly struck by the presentation on the Nupe stool. The absence of any associated documentation to contextualise the particular object meant that its researcher, Emily Orr, followed the form of the stool, allowing its surface and shape to resonate and prompt associations and “conversations” with other designed objects. But in privileging the object (and the terms ‘seduction’, ‘fetishism’ and ‘idolatry’ did come up in discussion) are we losing sight of our original research questions and strategies, and if so, does it matter?

This leads to the issue of the beguiling quality of things, provoking particular forms of response. It was pointed out that the researchers were able to choose their object and many picked curiosities or wonders – is the impulse therefore to understand, ‘explain’ or simply to enjoy these striking, captivating things? Might the fascinating quality of the chosen items also explain the evident attachment and claim to ownership researchers articulated in giving an account of ‘their’ object and the fondness they had developed towards it? There was quite a bit of discussion around the implications of the familiarity created by the ‘return’ or repeated close viewing of an object which prompted the widespread adoption of the keyword ‘intimacy’. We wondered whether we would feel as comfortable being ‘intimate’ with other kinds of distasteful, subversive things. But cultivating forms of intimacy through the ‘return’ is not necessarily cosy; Kate Smith pointed out that repetition is in fact disruptive because each exposure is informed by new knowledge and experiences. If getting intimate with things is the way forward for historical disciplines, what are the practical constraints and what is the role of mediation (both in terms of research process, e.g. curatorial involvement, and for communicating research)? How can a researcher communicate the intimacy of their encounter to an audience lacking this same access? This was discussed in looking forward to outputs from the project, with other communication channels such as TV or radio mooted as an appropriate alternative to reflect on and share these experiences with things. Whatever the channel, the 100 Hours project is an exemplar of the rich capacity of research agendas that promote exchanges with objects and exchanges about objects and we look forward to the wider dissemination of these ‘shares’.

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Early modern design in the age of mechanical reproduction?

Hastings studioA few days ago I drove across the Romney Marsh to Hastings, to Melissa White’s textile workshop to meet her for the first time, with Danae Tankard from the Weald and Downland Museum. Melissa is creating a new painted cloth for the hall of the Museum’s most loved property, Bayleaf. We are making a film about the whole project, produced by Darren Mapletoft, as one of the outcomes the AHRC Domestic Interiors network – in the course of it we’ve been discussing the impact of decorative textiles and different ways of presenting them in heritage settings.

Part of Melissa’s work involves making bespoke hand painted replica Elizabethan domestic interiors, for private clients and museums (including at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust), and part is more mainstream – she has worked with big furnishings firms such as Zoffany to create modern textile and paper designs inspired by historic interiors.

zoffany verdure

So one of the things I wanted to ask Melissa about was what the difference is between these two processes – where does reproducing an historic interior stop, and designing something modern based around an early modern aesthetic start? Her Zoffany design ‘Verdure’ is based on the painted cloths at Owlpen (and other related ones), but for the commercial pattern she took out the figures, turning it from a narrative sequence about Joseph to a verdant scene of characteristically early modern trees, waterfalls and buildings. The painted cloth that Melissa is producing for the Weald and Downland is based on a wall painting from Althrey Hall in Wrexham that Kathryn Davies discussed at the Network final conference (see more about the conference here). So was she copying this, or designing something based around it?

Melissa talked about the processes she went through. First, she used authentic fabrics and pigments as much as possible. The canvas is sized with rabbit skin glue, the background stripes are of yellow ochre and lamp black and whiting (to make grey), and the rest of the design also includes red ochre, raw umber, and a vermillion substitute for the pomegranate seeds and some of the flowers – the small jewel-like dots of colour which shine out of the canvas and would have been the most expensive paint and therefore a signal of the owner’s wealth.

She began by copying the work of the Elizabethan painters, by imitating the nature of the brushstrokes,  their direction and the way of applying the paint – using every possible piece of evidence that could be gleaned from the original – and replicating slight alterations in the design exactly. This kind of learning by doing meant that Melissa was sensitive to the small changes that the original painters had made as they went along, and the variations that came about in creating a repeating pattern by hand. In other words, she was seeing how the pattern took shape by imitating the practice, rather than the design itself, and after an initial period of replication she could continue in that spirit and make her own changes.

Althrey Hall wallpainting

That led us on to discussing the nature of repetition. She talked about the fact that so many early modern decorative  textiles replicate the nature of woven cloth, in which repeats can be produced mechanically. She sees them as aiming to imitate elite fabrics, particularly in this design the swags and the pomegranates that very expensive imported silks often contain, and we discussed where rural families might have come across such fabrics – perhaps in the vestments and altar cloths of the pre-Reformation parish church might be one place? The close relationship between different decorative works – painted cloths and wall paintings for instance, meant that key deign elements from fabrics could determine the appearance of domestic interiors.

It was fascinating finding out about the practicalities of making, and the insights this gives into the models and processes of sixteenth-century painters working across a range of different media. The workshop was a really inspirational place. The next part of the process will be to see what visual impact the new cloth will have behind the table in Bayleaf, and how it will alter the space. We’ll be filming the installation and the responses of some of the staff and visitors, and trying to analyse the way it works visually in the different lights at different times of day. Knowing how the aesthetic qualities of these cloths worked within the house as a backdrop for particular kinds of activities will help us to understand why people invested in them, and  the role they played in shaping the status of their owner. More soon on the installation, and then a link to the video…

Althrey design reference

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Writing the past with the Treaty Canoe: public engagement as material process

treaty-3Here are some further thoughts on different ways of bringing the early modern past and the present into conjunction with one another, prompted by an unexpected encounter with a canoe! As the darkness fell last week in the cool and expansive space of the double-height foyer of one of the colleges at Kent, a 12ft papier mâché and birchwood canoe swayed gently on a long steel line. It was being rocked between members of the audience at the event to mark its launch, as they absent-mindedly tried to centre it. Alex McKay, the artist who had spent several weeks making it in situ, talked about the significance of his work, called Treaty Canoe. The texts with which it is covered are transcriptions of treaties made between the British colonial territories and their indigenous people, texts which date back to the early seventeenth century and have a continuously troubled history into the present day. One of the main aims of the project is to explore the history of the relationship between indigenous peoples – such as Native Americans and First Nations Canadians – and the Crown, and its ongoing significance to indigenous rights, as part of the Idle No More movement.

This has been a ‘public engagement event’ with a difference. For a start, Alex, David Stirrup and their team have been camped out in the foyer for a couple of weeks, and they’re excellent at engaging people of all ages and backgrounds in conversation – I’ve seen them in equally effective action with students, heads of department and small children. Intrigued, they’ve come and discussed the gradually-emerging form of the piece, and in doing so been drawn into dialogue about its meanings. Then they’ve written out those documents again themselves, encouraged as they did so to think through the process of writing and rewriting, codifying and replicating promissory notes about land. It’s those pieces of writing which have formed the outer skin of the canoe.

And then there’s something about the object itself which is immediately, disarmingly appealing. It’s instantly recognisable and simply beautiful. The methods by which it is made are traditional ones, so one element of its appeal is a kind of practice as research – seeing something take shape in the way it has always taken shape, and viewing it as a tangible connection of process to early modern makers of such objects.


After the speeches, the canoe was raised up way above our heads by two enormous men from the Estates department, and I asked Alex whether he was pleased with the way it had turned out – it’s the second one he’s made. That turned out to be terribly hard to answer – was I asking him about the physical form it had taken (more regular than the last one), or about the effect its making had had upon those people who had been involved in the process (very satisfying)? Was I asking an aesthetic or a political question? That tension’s at the heart of what I’ve found so fascinating about this project – the simultaneous allure of the object and repulse of the message it conveys; its physical beauty and the deeply complicated ideological issues that beauty gestures towards. Listening to the formal speeches, and then standing up above later on in the silence of the mezzanine taking this photo, I was struck by the barely-contained emotions circulating around the treaty canoe, by how rare it is that early modern history has such a direct connection to live and heartfelt political activism, and by how central a material object has been to bringing those things into the same space. Someone apparently came up to the team and suggested they were wasting their time: ‘you’d be much better off trying to get people to sign a petition’ she said, demonstrating a remarkable lack of perception in every sense of the word!

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Next AHRC workshop announced – Museum of London Cheapside Hoard Exhibition

Emerald-Watch-2It’s time to register for the next workshop! Come and join us to continue the discussion about the relationship between different kinds of pre-modern materiality and how we analyse and display them…

Following on from the first two in the series of AHRC Collaborative Skills Development workshops hosted by the Museum of London at The London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre, and University of London Senate House Library, the third workshop will take place at the Museum of London. This workshop will examine the practicalities and challenges of displaying objects in museum exhibits.

An initial session will examine a small group artefacts relating to death and mourning from the early modern period and formulate ways that such themes might be interpreted in a display for a variety of different audiences. After having worked up ideas and possible strategies for delivering textual information and display requirements, an area of the Museum of London’s War, Plague and Fire gallery will be studied to learn how objects and text come together in practical terms as part of a grand narrative of an exhibit. This will be followed by a visit to the Museum’s temporary Cheapside Hoard exhibition. Here, the focus will be on analysing specifically the design of a major exhibit and how visitors engage with very small objects as well as related supporting content, reconstructions and illustrative material.

To register go to:

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Comfort Zones

unity2Two things have happened recently which set me thinking about comfort zones, now and in the past. First, I gave a talk for Unity Arts as part of their HLF-funded project ‘A Restoration Wyfe – A Saucy London Life’. The talk was called ‘The interior life of the Restoration wife’, and it was about the changing relationship between interiors and women’s lives between the 16th and the 18th Centuries. I started off with the china scene from William Wycherley’s 1675 play The Country Wife, with its blistering run of double entendres:

Mrs Squeamish: Oh Lord I’ll have some china too, good Mr. Horner, don’t think to give other people china, and me none, come in with me too.

Horner: Upon my honour I have none left now.

Mrs Squeamish: Nay, nay I have known you deny your china before now, but you shan’t put me off so, come —

Horner: This Lady had the last there.

Lady Fidget: Yes indeed Madam, to my certain knowledge he has no more left.

(you can watch it here, about half way through the clip:

Then we cut back to Thomas Bentley’s 1582 The Monument of Matrons, in which he outlines a routine of early morning prayer in the chamber: ‘Putting on your neerest garment [your clean smock], praie thus:…O cover thou my nakednesse and shame with the fine linnen robe of his righteousnesse and vertue…Yea, make thou my linnen cloaths as white as snowe, and shining like the light’ (pp. 369-71). The point of the talk was to explore how we might get from one chamber to another: how representations of the room changed from a space of pious meditation to one that could be represented as a scene for debauchery, even if it was happening just off stage.

So the barest bones of the talk were the way sixteenth-century halls were ceiled over to provide chambers up above, and the effects this had on the specificity of space – the division of activities between rooms, the creation of rooms that were intended for sleeping and not much else, and the significance of ‘going upstairs’ at night time. And we looked at the development of closets and dressing rooms in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – the movement to entertaining in small spaces for more intimate sociabilities – comfortable and comforting rooms filled with women’s personally significant objects. The changing way women decorated chambers revealed a great deal about their ‘interior lives’. We also discussed who was allowed in; the permeability of rooms and houses. Watching early modern comfort zones shift in location and boundaries gave me back something of that shock of the new that you lose when you forget what happens before and after the period you work on.

unity5And the other thing that’s happened is that I’m now the DoRPE in the School of English at Kent or, marginally more attractively, the Director of Research and Public Engagement, which has led me to thinking about how we start conversations about the past with people outside our departments. The way Unity Arts ran this event was fascinating. The talk came after a series of songs from the period sung by costumed singers and a reading from Pepys’ Diary, all at the Geffrye Museum of the Home, where the audience could wander around period rooms before and afterwards. And the whole event was set against the full-sized recreation of a Restoration bed they’d produced, and in the context of the research they’d done on portraits and Restoration wedding documents in the local archive. This was an event with previous form – a culmination of other kinds of exploration – and that really came across. It gave them a range of different ways of getting at a central problem – what was the life of a Restoration wife like? – and what it offered its audience wasn’t a holistic package (a kind of living history where you are supposed to forget you’re in Hoxton in 2013) so much as a variety that kept changing your point of view. Have a look at this video of a previous piece of work, shown again at the Geffrye, for instance – it’s all about view point:

And speaking in this setting was naturally engaging, both for me and, I hope, for the audience. It couldn’t possibly be a passive event. Talking about place as part of an experience, rather than doing it cold in a lecture theatre, and seeing research as animated – as a performance of words – made a space for understanding domestic experience that was very different to what I’m used to. It made a lecture into a moment at which things might be coaxed into coming together. And it made demands on us all to imagine, and to think of the constraints on imagining too. That’s when things start to happen – when, in talking it through in an inspiring space with an audience who keep asking interesting questions, you start to see the evidence you work with differently. Way outside my academic comfort zone it felt to me as though this was a different kind of ‘located’ engagement. It would be interesting to know what others think…



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Chairs that eat themselves – texture, conservation and the senses


This is the seat of a chair that the Geffrye Museum of the Home is currently working on. Turkeywork was incredibly popular in early modern England, for chairs and for carpets in particular, but what we see now has lost a great deal of its visual impact. The black dye in the ground of the design ‘eats itself’, as Eleanor Johns of the Geffrye put it, and in doing so the appealing contrast of bright colours against a black background is lost.

We looked at this and other chairs in the middle of the final conference of the AHRC network on ‘Ways of seeing the English domestic interior’, and the question of the degradations textiles suffer over time and what we might be able to do about them was an important focus of the day, as it has been for the network as a whole. Kate Frame from Historic Royal Palaces opened the day by pointing out that textiles were once dominant in interiors, but have gradually slipped down the list of things we notice in historic properties because they are no longer so eye-catching. Mary Brooks referred to our comfortable response to what we often see as ‘authentic’ early modern colours as an ‘acceptance of the muted’, or an ‘aesthetic of fading’. When HRP recoloured some of the huge tapestries at Hampton Court the result was staggering, but also perhaps faintly disquieting.

Johns at GeffryeThe one thing they had difficulties with in this tapestry project was reviving the tarnished silver-gilt in the scenes from the story of Abraham. The bold use of the reflective properties of precious metals was a huge part of elite fabrics’ appeal, designed to catch the light and therefore the eye. And light was another important issue for this conference. How light works in a room across the hours from dawn to dusk affects the way textiles are perceived and understood, Mary Brooks pointed out, raising for me the possibility that there might be a particular ‘moment’ for a tapestry or a piece of embroidery, a time of day when it comes into its own. Dinah Eastop from The National Archives talked about the potential of Polynomial Texture Mapping, with its ability to reveal subtle surface details. This technique employs overhead and raking lighting to reveal surface texture and gilding effect, allowing the viewer to watch the light play over the surface of an object virtually.

The National Archives began this work because people wanted to be able to touch their holdings. Mary Brooks suggested that weakened artefacts invite the public to touch in order to interrogate and engage, putting their fingers in holes as an important part of learning about textiles. And she pointed out the sensory range of the early modern interior, from soft to hard – the dynamic between the two, in furniture such as the padded seats of the Turkeywork chair, it seems to me, was at the heart of early modern conceptions of elevated status. Maria Heywood outlined early modern England’s explicit discussion of engagement of the senses in decorative schemes that explored their meanings. Between these papers a very strong impression of the significance of sensory engagement, both then and now, emerged.

So what affects how we look at the early modern domestic interior now? The condition of the objects with which it is filled, and the information we are given about it in advance, were the most prominent issues to come out of the data we explored at the conference. What conditioned early modern viewing? For a start, the material on which designs were expressed; the way light played across shining surfaces; ideas about sight and appreciation; education. And then, how to bridge the two modes of viewing – how should we intervene in peoples’ experience given the fading glories of these textiles? To what extent should we be prepared to provide a substitute experience, either materially or digitally? What do you think about this new fringe made to replace the one lost by the chair that ate itself….?


More information about the full range of papers and issues from this conference will shortly be available on the project website.

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