Tag Archives: art history

A walk into London’s past

This post was contributed by Graham Fifoot, who is currently enrolled on Birkbeck’s MA Renaissance Studies

Great-Fire-of-LondonAt one o’clock on Thursday the fourth of June 2015, an important crowd gathering took place at St. Paul’s Cross within the churchyard precinct of St Paul’s Cathedral.

At the very place where victory was announced over the Armada, where books were burnt by Cardinal Wolsey, where four Gunpowder plotters were seen publicly punished, as well as where the book-trade took off in a big way – we were to meet Professor Vanessa Harding who was fully prepared to be our expert guide for London’s nearby streets and pathways.

I think many questions were circulating amongst us all in anticipation: Can we possibly envisage an old London as experienced by past Londoners? How do past maps of London compare to our more contemporary and familiar ideas?

Fully equipped with our Wenceslas Holler maps of London (a London just after the Great Fire), we began by walking beyond Paternoster Row, along Cheapside to discuss the seventeenth century frontage offering a tantalizing glimpse of where the old street had once been.

We were to continue along the old ‘Goose Lane’ (that no longer exists) towards Bow Lane, to stop in the Bow Churchyard and discover the bronze ground studs for indicating the boundary of the churchyard. As we walked further along London’s streets, we could visibly see implemented (or about to be implemented) changes to road layout, boundaries as well as past marks of property ownership. Along Fenchurch Street, we viewed the Drapers and Vintners companies with their coat of arms, and found how the old stream of Walbrook had now become a named street.

Then, passing along Wittington Ave and the Leadenhall Market to St Helen’s Church – we were able to view the extent to which the Great Fire had had an impact, as well as stop by the Shard to pass judgment on the continuing redevelopment of our contemporary London (probably to the horror of Professor Vanessa Harding!).

On continuing to the Guildhall Yard (also hit by the Great Fire) we were able to view where the Roman amphitheatre may have stood before progressing further to Little Britain and Aldersgate Street.

In fact, what originally stood as a one and a half hour appointment with Vanessa, quickly became (by overwhelming crowd demand and opinion) a fantastic two and a half hour overview of the surrounding streets of London.

By the end of this walk on a most glorious summers day, our assembly realised they had experienced something special. Now the old maps of London began to make more sense and the London of John Stow and Strype more imaginable thanks to the company of Birkbeck’s own expert, Professor Vanessa Harding…

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Soldiers’ homecoming in poetry and prose

This post was written by Bryony Merritt, from Birkbeck’s Department of External Relations.

A soldier relating his exploits in a tavern-1821-John Cawse-Copyright-Ownership of Natinoal Army Museum London

John Cawse ‘A soldier relating his exploits in a tavern’ (1821) Copyright/Ownership: National Army Museum, London

The transition from military service to civilian existence has never been easy, as demonstrated in the accounts presented by Dr Kate McLoughlin on the first day of Birkbeck Arts Week 2014. Despite covering a period of over 2000 years, during which methods of warfare have changed beyond recognition, the emotions and experiences of the homecoming soldiers revealed striking similarities.

After the Battle of Waterloo, all veterans of the Battle were awarded a medal, one of which can be seen on the soldier’s uniform in John Cawse’s A Soldier Relating his Exploits in a Tavern (1821), while he proudly expounds upon his heroic feats. Dr McLoughlin drew our attention, however, to the more ambiguous response of his audience, whose demeanour suggests that they are less than enthralled by the soldier’s storytelling.

This kind of scene may be ambivalence towards the heroic status of the returned soldier is captured also by William Wordsworth in The Discharged Soldier. When pressed for stories from the war, the soldier responds with

A strange half-absence and a tone

Of weakness and indifference, as of one

Remembering the importance of his theme

but feeling it no longer

The discharged soldier’s reluctance (or perhaps inability) to share his story, contrasts to the British Government’s 1915 poster, encouraging men to sign up for the army by appealing to their desire to be able to recount their contribution to a future family. The poster shows a little girl asking “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?” However, the father’s pensive gaze, to me, suggested he was not about to launch into tales of bravery and heroics. At first glance it seems to me that the poster aims to evoke a feeling of embarrassment at the idea of not having a heroic tale to tell in future. But the artist has unwittingly captured an expression which could be translated as the reluctance of a discharged soldier to brag of his former actions.

Henry Nelson O'Neil 'Home Again' (1858) Copyright/Ownership: National Army Museum, London

Henry Nelson O’Neil ‘Home Again’ (1858) Copyright/Ownership: National Army Museum, London

The ‘soldier as hero’ can be a difficult role to fill, suggested Dr McLoughlin. On homecoming, soldiers are welcomed as heroes, as depicted in Henry Nelson O’ Neil’s Home Again (1858). However, Henry Metcalfe’s memoirs describe how, following his return from India in 1859, the warm welcome by a “grateful public” was soon forgotten and Thomas Jackson’s memoirs (I missed the date of this publication) describe how he “sees himself as an isolated being”.  The hero of Eric Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) describes how following the reunion with his family he sensed “a veil between us.”

The change which creates this distance between soldiers and the people and places that were previously so familiar to them was so pronounced in some of the accounts that the soldier was not even recognised by his family. Upon Odysseus’ return to Ithaca it is only his dog and his former wet nurse who recognise him (and the latter only because of a scar on his leg). Even the wife who has faithfully seen off suitors during his 20-year absence fails to recognise her husband. John Ryder, who published his memoir in 1853, describes how on his return to Twyford he went first to the pub where he met with lifelong acquaintances, and later his father and mother, none of whom recognised him.

The final returning soldier to whom we were introduced was the captain in Helen Ashton’s novel The Captain Comes Home (1947). On learning that his wife has remarried during his long absence during World War Two, the captain returns to his village and assaults her new husband, for which he is put on trial. Identifying the significance of this literary trial, Dr McLoughlin concluded by noting that the weight of expectation on homecoming soldiers throughout history and today means that they all face trials of their own.


From Stigmata to Golf: Praying through the ages

This post was contributed by Clare Brown, a student on Birkbeck’s MA History of Art. Clare blogs at Renaissance Utterances.

This was an interesting start to Birkbeck Arts Week. Given the MA Catholic reformation module, I thought it would be an on topic diversion. As the blurb said, ‘in our secular world, prayer has become unfamiliar, and past cultures where prayer was more central are harder to understand. Dr Isabel Davis (Birkbeck), Revd Dr Jessica Martin and Dr Nicola Bown (Birkbeck) discuss representations of prayer in literature and art in the Middle Ages, the seventeenth century and the Victorian period. Technique of prayer; what it is and what it is like’.

Dr Isabel Davis and her band of pilgrims set out from the late Middle Ages. For the church going population kneeling was a natural, obvious, submissive posture. And yet, where did this invented and culturally specific idea come from?

Early Christians sat, knelt or stood, nothing was prescribed. Kneeling was a gesture of defeat in Roman images of slavery. And indeed the translation of  ‘doulos‘ is variously slave or servant and in Romans 1.1, Paul is a doulos of Jesus. So when we kneel to Jesus we are demonstrating our submission. Dr Davis stated that Christianity is a stigmatic religion, so as I understood it, if stigmata is from the greek ‘stigma‘ meaning brand or cut into the body, then it was an honour to be the slave of Christ and carry his mark.

So if the people are slaves to Christ then kneeling is a default position. For kings it was a gradual process throughout the middle ages; the magi went from standing, then kneeling on one knee, then both. Affected piety was all and she once again used linguistic sources. Isadore of Seville linked the Latin genua and genea :

The knees are the meeting-points of the thighs and lower legs; and they are called knees (genua) because in the womb they are opposite to the cheeks (genae)… Thence it is that when men fall on their knees they at once begin to weep. For nature has willed that they remember

Pity is the central emotional devotion so kneeling takes one the ultimate sign of piety. The cultural cloud has assimilated the multifarious meanings of kneeling. By the late Middle Ages kneeling ubiquitous in brass, stained glass, wall paintings, manuscripts. The Bolton Hours shows the family kneeling in prayer, stressing their pietate (compassion) in miniature. They are appropriately humble yet by their clothes and beautiful prayer book, extremely well to do

And then along came reformation and the Black Rubric of 1552 which made clear the controversial nature of kneeling. It’s not adoration to kneel but actually signifies humility and gratitude of the heart. Therefore for protestants, kneeling needed interpretation to change the meaning of the same action. The bread and wine is now a fixed substance…but the meaning and interpretation of kneeling has changed. This very specific Eucharistic situation had been downgraded to a memorial. It was now a created image not real presence.

In Scotland, Knox said kneeling was wrong and suggestion of real presence and he rejected catholic practices as idolatrous. However for Anglicans, kneeling wasn’t idolatry, it was the congregation being properly instructed. But just how metaphysical were these people, and did they think this through? But for Pecock in ‘The repressor of over much blaming of the clergy’ images were just images.

The second talk was by Revd Dr Jessica Martin whose focus is Public and private piety. What people did when they weren’t in church from 1530-1700. She outlined the radical reforms instituted in 1630s laudian reforms where kneeling at altar rails was introduced.

Elevation of the Eucharist was a major part of the service pre -reformation but the 1549 Common Prayer Book said there should be no elevation or adoration. These reformed practices were intensely communitarianist and authorities were suspicious about private prayer, which was suggestive of secret Catholicism. So people would do their best to show that they weren’t praying; even carrying a devotional book you could be prosecuted. So you prayed loudly as a body.

But then she stated that there was a rise in the use of spiritual diaries especially in conjunction with the availability of the vernacular bible. This is not easy to police so there would be commentary to tell you how to read it. For instance, the Geneva bible had margin notes because there were things in the bible the state didn’t want to encourage, eg. killing of kings etc. There was also anxiety about private reading groups. Are they safe reading on their own? This tension between public and private reading is quite interesting.

She speculated on private prayer; posture was your own choice. Given the lack of privacy in early modern homes, prayer was  done in a prayer closet and done loudly because introspection was seen as catholic. How autonomous would this private prayer be? The devil might tempt you whilst you prayed alone. Therefore ‘praying alone’ actually means praying with others as a community. In Scotland you might go for a walk alone possibly because household prayer was inspected. A comment at the end of the evening was about linking this walking and pilgrimage, this was discounted. However they suggest that it evolved into  Rousseau and solitary walks, Wordsworth and romanticism. And I would suggest modern life and golf…

For the first time in the evening, gender was brought in. At this time women started reading the bible by themselves, however, it was not really encouraged; neither was praying in the preserve closets – women should be doing the house work. Next time I am snoozing in my jam pantry, I shall claim I was praying.

During the Restoration there arose an opportunity to look at practice with Church of England and non conformists. Bishop Sanderson mediated and as he was a Calvin ceremonialist, it was thought he could bring the two sides together. Where did it fall down? Kneeling…

Finally we were on to Victorian prayer practice and possibly the most contentious talk. This was presented by Dr Nicola Brown. She works with images of people praying and when she set out on this research she assumed that pictures would have clasped hands and kneeling people. Represented by Morning prayer by Holman Hunt where her knees are resting on the bed, a  locus classicus of kneeling by bed morning and night.

She found many images of single females in private prayer, they are the praying sex.The Widow’s Prayer by JF watts where her book is open and eyes closed. She pointed out that the prayer book was an important item of devotion, even if they weren’t reading it. Because non Eucharistic services like matins and evensong were so familiar, they wouldn’t have needed the words. So it was a symbol of prayer.

image for prayer blogShe did a close reading of the Three Girls Praying – I didn’t catch the artist but I got a bad snap. It is always assumed that the girl on the right, reading was praying whilst the others are distracted. However she suggests that the middle one with her abstracted gaze is the devout one. She continues this train of thought with Convent thoughts. This Pre-Raphaelite image of intense devotion shows the nun holding the catholic missal so that the viewer can see the open pages. The image of the Crucifixion is connected with fingers not eyes as she is looking at visual symbol of passion flower. She is clearly praying.

She then went through a number of images where the woman is depicted with an abstract gaze, whilst holding letters, flowers, rings and suggests that in each, the woman is praying. One had a woman leaning over a grave ‘resurgam’ holding a flower which is normally read as a decline of Christian belief. She cast doubt on this saying it was actually a high watermark of church attendance and feeling, with palpable outpouring of devotional piety. This is a woman praying, laying her doubts before god.

As the c19th draws to a close, secularisation is rising and private devotion retreats inside; psychology takes it place. She ended with Whistlers ‘Symphony in white no 2’ which she suggests is  a prayer piece. The image is reverie, a psychological state, internalised abstraction and they do not hold prayer books or any sign of visible devotion.

I can’t say I liked the Victorian images and I don’t see all of the women in them lost in prayer. I think this is a both a wide and narrow interpretation and each needs to be taken individually. Some of these mawkish, sentimental pieces may just be encouraging women to be humble, enslaved and submissive, an ideal Victorian women. And that takes us back to the Middle Ages. An interesting evening and excellent to have the spread of history covered.


BBKtalks: Working in the Arts

This post was contributed by Éimear Doherty, a student on Birkbeck’s Arts Policy and Management.

BBKtalks was the result of a competition being held by the Centre for Media, Culture and Creative Practice. This three-part series of talks was organised by two MA students of Arts Policy and Management and funded by the Film, Media and Cultural Studies Department, Birkbeck. The talks took place over three weeks in February and March 2014 and introduced six Birkbeck alumni to staff and students at Birkbeck University, as well as very welcome attendees from UCL, King’s College and Goldsmiths.

The overall aim of the series was to engage with a topic which preoccupies many Film, Media and Cultural Studies postgraduates: working in the Arts.

A piece of advice offered at ‘SU Employability: Elevator pitch & Networking Guide’, a workshop organised by the Birkbeck Career Services on 5 November 2013 became the first and crucial step on the way to producing BBKtalks. The guest speaker recommended the audience to “do something every day that will bring you closer to where you wish to be”. BBKtalks aimed to be one of those steps, for all involved.

The following is a summary of the guests’ comments from across the three nights, in response to the topic at the core of BBKtalks: the challenges and potentials of working in today’s Arts sector.

The guidance referenced is a mixture of that provided by guests’ during their presentations and interviews, as well as during post-talk discourse.

1. What rules?

There are none.

Something which rang clear each week was the fact that there is no pre-established path into the Arts.

“There are no rules, officially, when it comes to the arts. London is wide open. You need to create your own rules.  Virginie Peurtolas Syn revealed to the BBKtalks attendees on 6 March. The accounts were provided by Leslie Primo and Lucy Taylor, who have forged careers from two very different directions, availing of postgraduate education at varying points in their professional lives.

However, there are some qualities which are essential. Before you decide what your rules will be, “you need to do your homework and be informed”.

2.       Do Your Homework”

Preparation is key.

The importance of staying informed is crucial. From researching key players in the Arts, to examining the key events and discussions taking place on various platforms. Without the right information, effective networking and successful interviews are not an option.

Two BBKtalks guests, Virginie Puertolas-Syn and Aser El Saqqa, began working in the Arts after over 15 years working in the business sector. Their advice to those making a career change or in the early stages of climbing their chosen ladder, was to make time to do some personal homework by considering their own skillset and finding effective ways of communicating their transferable skills.

3.       Experience, Education and Transferable skills

Practical forms of engagement need to go hand-in-hand with knowledge and information.

Both Lucy Taylor and Hannah Cross acknowledged the benefits of interning and how work placements in various institutions acted as stepping stones as well as networking tools during the early stages of their career. Experience is key. They encouraged the audience to engage with the Arts in a professional capacity as much as possible and as soon as possible. Caro also emphasised this point and found that her internship gave her the freedom to engage with the work and ask questions, without the kind of pressure you would have felt in other roles.

Caro Skyrme enrolled at Birkbeck years into a well-established and successful career. However, for her, much like Virginie, the MA gave confidence, underpinning her expertise. For Caro, the MA was a change to stand back from her working practice and consider issues she could not see or put aside time to engage with from within.

4.       Be Pro-active

If the opportunity is not presenting itself, you have to make the break for yourself.

After getting to know some artists, Caro Skyrme created her own role and became a visual arts consultant. “Just do it”. This could mean moving to a new city and leaving all that you know behind but you need to take a risk and invest in yourself before you can expect anyone else to. For Caro, the key to being pro-active lies in being able to make decisions and follow through. She advised the audience that one take consensus and be prepared to take the slack and the praise. Good planning and preparation (‘do your homework’) is also key, ensuring that solutions and alternative routes should never be far from reach.

Creativity is sometimes about making your own opportunities. Once you make a start, opportunities, offers and openings will follow. However, this “snowball effect” depends on your reputation. “People talk”, said Virginie Peurtolas Syn, making the Arts “a very transparent industry”. Lucy Taylor also emphasised one’s reputation as their most valuable commodity and reminding the audience how the London Arts scene is much smaller than it was first appear.

5.       The 30 second Pitch

It is important to know your key skills and how to make the most of them.

Something which was emphasised over the series of talks, in various ways, was the importance of being able pitch; either yourself or an idea. Ideally, according to Virginie, in less than 30 seconds. The speakers suggested that the audience ask themselves ‘what makes you different?’.

Effective pitching links back to the importance of networking and maintaining a good reputation. Human relationships are key and can determine a lot. One speaker stated how “you need to engage yourself with the sector of the arts who wish to become a part of. Go to people and introduce yourself.” Those among the guests who had experience working abroad championed London for its “flow”, explaining that unlike many other cities they had worked, London was a place where you could network with ease and build genuine contacts and working relationships.

6.       Perseverance and Passion

“People have asked me, ‘why do you do it?’”, admitted Aser to the audience on 6 March

His response? “Because I love it“.

Know what you wish to do and be prepared for the long haul. “Working in the Arts is a lifestyle choice”, remarked Hannah Cross on the second night. This is something that was also discussed by Lucy Taylor and Leslie Primo, who spoke candidly to members of the audience about how they spent their free time. Both emphasised how their work never left like ‘work’; an attitude shared by each of the BBKtalks speakers. Their passion for what they do was unmistakeable.


Some words of advice, imparted by our generous guests.

  1.  “Don’t waste your time worrying”
  2. “Don’t be ashamed to ask for help”

It is a challenge to summarise the range of discussions which took place over the three part series of talks and the value advice provided by our six speakers was enough to fill a book.  Should anyone want more information on the talks, please contact Éimear Doherty and Stefania Donini at bbktalks@gmail.com or visit facebook.com/bbktalks2014 and @bbktalks.