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A Yorkshire Buddha

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Tuesday, 30 May 2023, 16:26

A Yorkshire Buddha - this one sits in meditation on a lotus flower in the grounds of the University of York. When I took the picture there were some offerings of fruit and flowers.

I couldn't find much information about the statue, it is dated as 19th century and was donated by the family of a key benefactor to the University and a major 20th century public figure in York, John Bowes Morrell. It apparently used to sit in his front garden! I've done my study day each week for A111 in the JB Morrell library and so there is one more link with OU study.

On my first visit to the statue I'd not noticed some of the discreetly positioned items that were tucked into the corners of the Buddha's covering. The only one that I've been able to find out much about is the collection of 'coin charms' - these are found in use in China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam and can apparently also be part of Confucian and Taoist religions. Such items can be left for many different reasons, to commemorate particular events/people, as prayers for support/good fortune.

The university now has large numbers of students from countries where Buddhism plays a significant part in the culture. This statue is perhaps less 'exotic' now than when it was first donated - and looks to have an established functional value at least for some students.


The university now has large numbers of students from countries where Buddhism plays a significant part in the culture. This statue is perhaps less 'exotic' now than when it was first donated - and looks to have an established functional value at least for some students.

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Benin at the BM

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Tuesday, 30 May 2023, 16:27

Managed to 'negotiate' 20 minutes in the British Museum at the end of April. Fascinating both to see the Benin objects and to watch people looking at them. I'm a bit sceptical about the 'museum for the world' rhetoric - but perhaps just a little less having been reminded of what a global city London really is!

However displayed it was interesting to watch how much (and how little) attention the objects received. 

There is just so much going on in some the plaques (Ama), the detail in this one is amazing, the hairstyles, musical instruments, even the patterning in the clothes.

Details from Digital Benin

Oba supported by two attendants 

If you look closely you can make out Portuguese heads in the detail of the Oba's dress

Details from Digital Benin

An attempt to reinforce the depth of the relief casting - I'm still intrigued as to whether they were cast with sprue and channels to enable the brass to reach all the areas (a question for the future)

Ivory hip-pendant mask (Uhunmwu-Ẹkuẹ) thought to be of Queen Mother Idia

Understandable why this image is so iconic, the design alone is really striking even before you get to the historic meaning.

Details from Digital Benin

Figure of European with long hair, beard and moustache

Details from Digital Benin

Four page figures in front of palace compound

Another incredibly detailed and exciting plaque, with altar goods set out that you can see around you in the exhibits.

Details from Digital Benin

Oba with royal page holding a netted calabash rattle

Details from Digital Benin

This last plaque really intrigued me - I wasn't at all sure what to make of it - male?...female? 

Tracking down details online on the train home revealed it was thought to represent an 'Ehioba' carrying a stick/switch.

'Ehioba is leader of the Ooton guild, selected from descendants of previous rulers of Benin, who served the high priest Osuan. The bulge beneath his tunic on his chest represents the concealed jawbones of a deceased Iyase (a political opponent to the Oba).'

Details from Digital Benin

Made me think a lot about all the detailed scholarship and research that will have been conducted by Western experts to 'establish' an interpretation of this object - work that was only needed because it was stripped of all context by its initial Western looters.

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The 'New Room' in Bristol

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Sunday, 23 Apr 2023, 20:34

Coming home from a holiday in Devon I had a chance to look at the Methodist 'New Room' in Bristol, which features in the 'Christianity and its material culture' chapter of A111. 

The chapel is the second building on the site dating from 1748, the first which opened in 1739 was quickly outgrown. It sits just off the main Broadmead shopping centre in the middle of Bristol, there is a courtyard in front of the building with a statue of John Wesley on horseback.

One aspect of the building's design which wasn't mentioned in the A111 materials is the small stable block that flanks the entrance to the chapel. Travelling was very much part of a Methodist preacher's life and so the building including accommodation for both humans and horses!

I like the simplicity of the building's interior - the roof lighting really does flood the room and even on quite a grey day made it seem much more open and inviting than I'd expected.

Something that links with the more recent 'crossing boundaries' A111 theme and which initially surprised me was that the only translated information in the museum was in Korean. Apparently whilst the Methodist Church shrank dramatically in membership across the UK in the 20th century it saw a big increase in South Korea following missionary efforts from the USA - sufficient to make it worth the museum's while to try and encourage donations specifically from Korean pilgrims to the site! 

This variant on non-conformist Protestant Christianity is now practiced much more commonly outside the UK than it is within it.

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From Benin to Devon

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Sunday, 23 Apr 2023, 19:55

This is a bronze of the head of an Oba - thought to have been cast around 1816 or after. It was part of the loot from the 1897 destruction of the Kingdom of Benin and was gifted to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter by Ralph Locke. He, along with Alan Boisragon, was one of the two British survivors from the initial expedition to Benin and accompanied the group which subsequently sacked the city. Locke served in the consular service in Nigeria and on return to the UK became a prison governor, he was apparently governor at Exeter prison when he donated this casting. He made some other donations (I think the figure of a Portuguese soldier on page 168 of Crossing Boundaries A111 book was given to the BM by him) but sold most of his collection at auction in the 1920's - so presumably it is now all over the world in private and public collections.

There is more detail on the Digital Benin website (which is where I found out about the object in the first place)

The object is displayed as part of the 'Africa' section of a diverse ethnographic collection at RAMM, I've also included the contextual information they provide. The display text includes an image of members of the 1897 expedition and the object is described as 'plundered' - the information also makes a point of saying the object was donated to the museum. There is interesting detail about how the object would have originally displayed and of its original meanings - there was no reference to the relationship between the cast heads and carved ivory tusks, perhaps because the museum does not have anything to display. 

The image below is of a more contemporary casting that is also displayed in the gallery. This is described as a 'Lost wax casting in brass of an Oba or King of Benin on horseback. The casting was made by a Yoruba craftsman in the Benin court style for sale to a British expatriate'

It is recorded as 'purchased 1962-68', presumably this is a date range for original sale as I would have thought that RAMM would have an exact date if a museum purchase had been meant. The object is identified as produced in Owo, Southwest Nigeria. It was interesting to see a 'shiny' bronze and try to imagine what the original royal art might have looked like.

RAMM has repatriated at least one object from its collection in recent years (returned to a first nation group in Canada after a vote by the city council) I don't know if there are any active claims for return of the Oba's head bronze to Nigeria.

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A vocabulary for 'Reception Studies'

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Monday, 27 Mar 2023, 07:44

Just a few notes from:

Reception studies by Lorna Hardwick. (2003) Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Three different latin terms:

exempla (a lesson)

imitatio (imitation) 

aemulatio (competition)

I thought the following might be a helpful list of terms (pp.9-10):

Acculturation: assimilation into a cultural context (through nurturing or education or domestication or sometimes by force)

Adaption: a version of the source developed for a different purpose or insufficiently close to count as a translation

Analogue: a comparable aspect of source and reception

Appropriation: taking an ancient image or text and using it to sanction subsequent ideas or practices (explicitly or implicitly)

Authentic: close approximation to the supposed form and meaning of the source. At the opposite end of the spectrum from invention (i.e. a new work)

Correspondences: aspects of a new work that directly relate to a characteristic of the source

Dialogue: mutual relevance of source and receiving texts and contexts

Equivalent: fulfilling an analogous role in source and reception but not necessarily identical in form or content

Foreignization: translating or representing in such a way that difference between source and reception is emphasised

Hybrid: a fusion of material from classical and other cultures

Intervention: reworking the source to create a political, social or aesthetic critique of the receiving society

Migration: movement through time or across place; may involve dispersal and diaspora and acquisition of new characteristics

Refiguration: selecting and reworking material from a previous or contrasting tradition

Translation: literally from one language to another. Literal, close, free are words used to pin down the relationship to the source as are phrases like 'in the spirit rather than the letter'. Translation can also be used metaphorically as in 'translation to the stage' or 'translation across cultures'

Transplant: to take a text or image into another context and allow it to develop

Version: a refiguration of a source (usually literary or dramatic) which is too free and selective to rank as a translation

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To The Island

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Sunday, 26 Mar 2023, 22:12

At the start of March I had the opportunity to see a touring production of 'The Island' at the studio theatre at Hull Truck, I made a few notes on the production which was by the Elysium Theatre Company. Really excellent performances by Ewen Cummins as John and Daniel Poyser as Winston. 

I've included a few production stills below to give a sense of the stage setting and design. The outline of Africa in the cracks of the cell wall with a darkened South Africa looks so obvious now on the photos but came as a real surprise when I eventually spotted it for the first time during the performance!

John (L) outlines the plot of Antigone to Winston (R)

Set design and the opening mime

Winston and John in the final moments of the play, just before they are re-shackled

There was a bit of contextualising for the play arranged around the performance - there was an audio-loop running in the background as you entered the theatre, it was made up of what sounded like apartheid era newsreel clips, these were short and seemed to present multiple perspectives i.e. some supported the policy, some did not, these were edited as though tuning into different radio stations. I've copied the programme details below and highlighted the one explicit comment made in the programme by the company on the 'meaning' of the play in the current era.

One detail that I wouldn't have picked up on at all (or at least would have thought differently about) if I'd not skimmed the A111 chapter beforehand... in scene one (page 78 of the A111 book) when John briefly pretends to be an actor 'George' playing King Creon in a production he had seen - the actor did it in what was clearly an imitation of Nelson Mandela (who I now know, courtesy of A111, played Creon in Antigone whilst on Robben Island). I thought that was such a clever way of linking together so many things about the history of the play and the history of South Africa. 

The audience was almost entirely middle-aged, which probably just represents a theatre-going age-group - but did make me wonder if it was a 'nostalgia' for causes of our youth as much as engagement with contemporary concerns or drama that had attracted people? (I don't think it was made up exclusively of OU students and tutors!) It was an exclusively white audience, one of the other things that will have changed so often as this play has been performed in different settings since 1973 and interesting at the point in the play when the 'audience' is part of the drama.

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The Brutish Museums

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Thursday, 20 Apr 2023, 09:33

The book 'The Brutish Museums' by Dan Hicks is briefly mentioned in the 'Optional' materials in week 27 'The art of Benin: 1897 to present day'. Hicks is Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at Oxford and Curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which houses a number of objects taken from the Kingdom of Benin.

I've made a number of notes below, chiefly on points that I want to keep in mind from the book and some onward links.

Overall, I wish I could say I enjoyed the book more than I did. I'm broadly in sympathy with Hicks's view that museums and galleries need to take a more active role in repatriation of illegally looted objects in their collections. I'd also agree that they should be actively raising difficult conversations about the awful reality of the British Empire and its ongoing legacy and consider how they can engage in a process of meaningful restitution. In fact there wasn't much about any of the arguments he makes that I'd disagree with, the difficulty I had was really with the writing style. The book is a polemic, which is often invigorating and a necessary part of study - I just found the repeated 'short-cut' language of 'disaster-extraction-capitalism', 'ultraviolence', 'corporate-militarist colonialism', 'white fragility' etc. became wearing and clichéd in the end and detracted from the message for me. 

That said there are lots of points that I want to keep hold of!

An early reference was made to 'Workers investigating their own workplace' and the movement 'Dig where you stand' promoted by Sven Lindqvist. I've subsequently discovered this was a Swedish 'History from Below' movement that encouraged examination of the history of employers and companies by their workers. Hicks makes this link because as a 'museum worker' he is critically examining and exposing the history of his workplace.

Hicks takes the following as a key motto in the book: 'as the border is to the nation state so the museum is to empire' - I take this to mean that whilst borders divide humanity into so-called 'nations', museums use time to make distinctions between different types of human. 

There is a chapter on the 'Theory of Taking' - which I think really boils down to the argument that material theft should be similarly considered as has land theft in studies of colonisation. That these forms of dispossession are just as important and damaging to survivor populations.

Hicks talks about 'Necrography' - not just the 'life histories' of objects in museums, but also death histories - documenting loss - and the loss of life in particular - associated with objects.

He takes issue with:

  • cultural biography - i.e. the idea of what is added to object through reuse/passage
  • entanglement - a reciprocity of reaction between cultures which come into contact, Hicks seems to argue that this obscures the enormous asymmetry in the damage accruing from these contacts with colonisers.

The idea of necrography seems to be a response to this.

Another term coined was, 'White projection' - essentially projecting colonisers faults onto others - it was Benin's 'fault', they were the savages - even though it was the colonisers who exhibited the savagery.

Hicks makes (to my mind) a good case that the 'Punitive raid' was part of a pre-planned expansion of colonial control for profit. He also promotes the idea of 'World War Zero' for the period of colonial violence worldwide from the Berlin Conference to the start of WWI. Whilst this may have some merit in highlighting the geographic scale, the continuous (if sequential) nature and the horror of these 'Small Wars', I think it potentially underplays their asymmetry - the later WW's were much more 'equal'. However interesting to think about whether this whole period will in fact in time be seen as one of extended (chiefly European) imperial conflict.

There was lots of discussion about museums, objects and 'duration' and archaeology as being involved in 'duration'. I assume that is perhaps about 'what lasts'? Hick argues that museums, (and perhaps display in particular?) cause ongoing violence - extend the duration of the original assaults, he also sees the violence as increased over time. I did wonder if it is really possible to establish who are (and who are not?) the victims of such violence, is this a process of self-identification?

The following points were taken from a number of academics that Hicks draws on - it will be valuable to follow some of these up.

Interesting ideas on what museums do to objects from the work of Achille Mbeme in his book 'Necropolitics' he describes a process of  'mummification, satuefication and fetishization' 

The language of Aimé Césaire was 'chosification', colonisers make colonised into 'things' in his 'Discourse on Colonialism'. Another point linked with this academic was the basic 'equation (Christianity=Civilization Paganism=Savagery)

'Chronopolitics' is a term used by Johannes Fabian in 'Time and the Other' - basically putting individuals who live at the same time in different times - so people in Benin were 'living in the past' - Hicks argues that museums collude, perhaps even exist, on the back of this idea. I gather there was also a geographic component to this idea - the further away from the 'centre' communities are the further 'back in time' they are considered to be.

Finally just a few direct quotes from Hicks to think about....

'Understand artefacts[...] not as frozen moments of time, but ongoing durations' p.13

'Museums are devices for extending events across time: in this case extending, repeating and intensifying the violence' p.15


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Gothic East Yorkshire

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Thursday, 23 Mar 2023, 20:52

In late February I took impetus from studying AWN Pugin's great Gothic Revival buildings in the metropolis and set off on a local pilgrimage of Victorian church architecture and design. I picked up the 'Southern Route' of the Sykes Churches Trail across the Yorkshire Wolds.

All the churches on the trail were built, rebuilt or restored by either the 4th or 5th baronet of Sledmere, both identically named, Sir Tatton Sykes. Of the two, Sir Tatton II (1816-1913) made the far greater contribution, launching a building and renovation programme of rural churches (17 in total between 1866 and 1913) that was essentially unique in the Victorian/Edwardian period.

Both baronets commissioned nationally recognised architects who specialised in the Gothic Revival style to restore or design the building and interiors of the churches. The architect JL Pearson subsequently went on to design Truro cathedral, GE Street is probably best known for the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Temple Moore also had a practice specialising in the Gothic style.

My trip took me to the following churches: St Mary, Sledmere; St Mary, Cowlam; St Michael, Garton-on-the -Wolds; Wansford Parish Church; St Elgin, Frodingham; St Mary, Kirkburn; St Nicholas, Wetwang; St Mary, Fimber; St Mary, Fridaythorpe; St Mary, Thixendale and ended at St Edith, Bishop Wilton.

The outstanding highlights were definitely the amazing painted interior at Garton-on-the-Wolds (such a surprise after the austere Norman exterior), the Norman fonts at Cowlam and Kirburn, and for all round unity of vision and design, St Edith's at Bishop Wilton. 

I've included some glimpses of the really beautiful decorative arts on show.


(St Luke painting Mary and Jesus was at Wansford; the windows showing scenes from the 'Creation' are at Thixendale and by the same company, Clayton and Bell, and to the same design as the wall paintings at Garton; Clayton and Bell are also responsible for the scenes of Jesus on Lake Galilee and feeding the five thousand at Fimber and window details of castle and flowers at Wansford)


(The knotted pattern is at Thixendale, the other tiling is from Bishop Wilton) 



(Going clockwise these ceilings are at: Thixendale; Thixendale; Bishop Wilton; Garton-on-the-Wolds)


(All these paintings are at Garton-on-the-Wolds, the architect GE Street was responsible for the design, Clayton and Bell created the paintings)

I have included an image of the bust of Sir Tatton Sykes II that can be found in each of the churches, they are quite an achievement.

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The 1916 Rising in stamps

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Sunday, 28 May 2023, 20:41

I thought I'd share the stamps that the Irish An Post published in 2016 to commemorate the 1916 rising.

Having now read the A111 chapter 'Remembering and forgetting in Ireland' I think there were some really interesting choices made about what was 'remembered' (I wonder a bit about what was still 'forgotten', perhaps the impact on Unionists, the link with Germany?). The stamps came grouped into four themed sets

Leaders and Icons

An Post stamps 2016 commemorating the 1916 Rising

The leaders are grouped to represent the three organisations involved in the Rising, the IRB, the IVF and the ICA and there are a couple of the flags flown over the occupied buildings. This set is similar to the stamps published in 1966 - the seven executed signatories to the proclamation of independence.


An Post stamps 2016 commemorating the 1916 Rising

These were a very interesting set of choices, the Dublin police constable was the first person killed in the uprising by Sean Connelly who himself died in the Rising, Michael Malone was an IVF member who died in the Rising his brother William had died the year before on the Western Front, Dr Lynn and Elizabeth O'Farrell were a doctor and nurse respectively who were active Nationalists and provided medical care to the rebels, the picture of Jack Doyle and Tom McGrath is one of very few taken inside the GPO during the week

Easter Week

An Post stamps 2016 commemorating the 1916 Rising

More interesting choices...Seán Foster was among the 40 children who died in the Rising, Louisa Nolan received a medal from George V for tending to British wounded, Sir Francis Fletcher-Vane was a British officer who exposed the murder of the pacifist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and four others by another British officer (there was an attempted cover-up, Fletcher-Vane was relieved of his command but had the political contacts to get the perpetrator convicted) 

The Aftermath

An Post stamps 2016 commemorating the 1916 Rising

Images of the destruction in Dublin, of poor Dubliners scavenging for fire-wood, the repression and round-ups of the public that contributed to a change in public perception and Roger Casement who was the last leader executed having been caught soon after smuggling in arms for the rebellion from Germany.

An Post credit two historians for their contributions to the development of the stamps, Fearghal McGarry and Lar Joye

I don't think many of these stamps, other than the first four, could possibly have been printed in 1966, I found them a really fascinating set now I've learned so much more about public memories!


According to Mark McCarthy in his 2012 review of 1916 remembrance (Ireland's 1916 Rising: explorations of history-making, commemoration & heritage in modern times. Farnham: Ashgate.),  'much of the substance of the 90th anniversary commemoration was about recovering lost memories of the revolutionary past. In what seemed like a public relations exercise of grandiose proportions, Easter 2006 was all about recasting the Rising in a new positive light and sanitising its legacy from all of the negative connotations associated with the actions of the Provisional IRA during the course of the Troubles.' 

The Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, had played a key role in the negotiation of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and according to McCarthy 'saw the 90th anniversary as an opportune time in which to reassert Fianna Fáil’s republican credentials and reclaim the Rising’s legacy from the Provisional IRA.' 

The first military parade since 1971 to celebrate the 1916 Rising was seen in central Dublin and the scale of celebrations exceeded anything that had occurred during the Troubles.

The commemorative stamp was a simple photograph of a recently cleaned and refurbished GPO building and to my mind is the most 'neutral' of all the stamp designs memorialising the Rising. There are no images of conflict or visual references to the rebels themselves - it certainly does look like a 'sanitised' legacy.


In 1991, the 75th anniversary of the Rising, the commemorative stamp was a combined image of the Cúchulainn statue which stands in the GPO building as a memorial to the Rising and the text of the Proclamation of Independence. The Irish text on the side of the stamp translates as 'in memory 1916'. The other image on the first day cover is a statue of Hibernia which stands above the pediment on the building.

The original statue 'The death of Cúchulainn' was made in 1911-12 by the sculptor Oliver Sheppard and chosen by Éamon de Valera in 1935 as the 20th anniversary approached to be a monument to the Rising. Though mortally wounded by his rival Lugaid, Cúchulainn has himself tied to a standing stone to face his enemies upright in death. Only when a raven lands on his shoulder do his opponents know he has died.

The 1935 memorial also includes part of 1916 Proclamation, but Allison Martin (https://www.historyireland.com/easter-rising-commemorations-in-the-early-irish-state/) makes the point that only a section is included. The failure to include the section on expectations for religious and civil liberty and equal opportunities for all its citizens may reflect a nervousness on the part of the government that the social ambitions of the rebels had not yet been achieved.

When this stamp was issued in 1991 the 'Troubles' were ongoing, the 'Birmingham Six' had been released from prison in England a fortnight earlier, regular sectarian killings occurred in the weeks surrounding the anniversary. The text that accompanied the first day cover reads as quite constrained in its description of the Rising, 'a noble but hopeless venture', 'in almost every sense, a failure.' 


The 1966 commemorative stamps could be saved in this special display leaflet, there were eight stamps in total. Seven stamps commemorate the signatories to the proclamation, each is given a brief potted history, particularly highlighting their role in the Rising. The date of execution is given for each. 

I think the stamp commemorating the Rising itself is perhaps the most interesting. The text says it 'joins symbolically the lives lost in the war of independence and the theme of Ireland marching into an era of freedom'. The stamp uses the three colours of the Irish flag and I think the sunburst is probably a reference to the Fianna in Irish mythology, the Irish text simply commemorates 'The Easter Rising'. The stamp design was by the Irish artist Edward Delaney, who is best known for his sculpture, including major memorials in Dublin to Wolfe Tone and Thomas Davis. The chapter discussed some of the 'sculpture wars' of this period, but only mentioned the 'victims' of Republicans, Delaney's Wolfe Tone sculpture was blown up by Loyalists in 1971 - but recast and replaced shortly afterwards.


This is a commemorative from 1941 and the silver jubilee year of the Rising which occurred during the 'Emergency' (aka WWII). What I found interesting was the image of fighting youth. (The Irish is the 'in the name of God and the dead generations...' from the Proclamation)

In one of the A111 chapter references by Allison Martin, https://www.historyireland.com/easter-rising-commemorations-in-the-early-irish-state/ the 1941 celebrations are discussed and how, despite being a neutral country the government opted to make a real show of the military in the commemorations.

"De Valera and his administration therefore decided to use the commemoration service in order to project an image of military strength. In reality, the Irish state was militarily and financially unprepared for war. Nevertheless, the impressive military procession had the desired effect: one reporter from the Irish Independent was left with the distinct impression that ‘the nation was prepared’."

I think this political priority really comes across in the stamp design, none of the other commemoratives (there are ones from 1941,1966, 1991, 2006 and 2016) emphasise images of 'battle' like this - a really potent image!


In 1941 a provisional set of stamps (two and three pence) were also printed and released just before Easter that year, these were standard 'definitive' stamp designs over-printed with the text 'In memory of the Rising 1916' in Irish. 

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'the materiality of cultural construction'

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Thursday, 23 Mar 2023, 20:29

Plastic bottle shaped in the form of Mary the mother of Jesus

"As an object moves from one person to the next, from one social setting or one culture to the next, it acquires different values and associations, negotiating differences and carrying with it veneers of significance..."

‘The materiality of cultural construction’ (2008) David Morgan. Material Religion (vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 228–9)

This is a plastic bottle in the shape of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, which I either bought pre-filled or filled with water (can't remember which) at the pilgrim site of Lourdes in the summer of 1987 and then brought home as a 'souvenir' for my parents. It is now back on my shelves as I'm clearing up my mother's flat for sale now that she has moved to residential care.

I've decided to think through some of the ideas Morgan describes as the 'social career' for this object.

This was an object I bought thirty-six years ago aged 22, I had (privately at that point) decided to become an atheist perhaps two or three years before - having been brought up a Methodist. I had travelled to Lourdes as the nearest rail station to Gavarnie in the central French Pyrenees where I had planned a short solo walking holiday. I can remember that Lourdes surprised me, I found both the commercialisation of the 'pilgrim site' and the whole scale of the Roman Catholic imagery and 'performance' of pilgrimage quite disconcerting. It is one of very few locations I've been to where religion and faith are such a fundamental aspect of a place now, informing everything from what is on sale in the shops to the names of the hotels.

I think I only stayed overnight (can't remember where - presumably camping) I saw the Grotto from outside and people collecting water from a set of taps, I wandered through a huge subterranean church. I didn't attend any services or explore any of the available 'St Bernadette' tours or activities, but I did witness a number of physically disabled young people being wheeled to the shrine - I recall that being a rather humbling experience as I'd been feeling very superior, amused by all the 'tat' on sale in the shops (mints, 3-D Jesus pictures, snow-globes etc...).

(Far from uniquely!) buying souvenirs of holidays is a tradition in our family, essentially established and maintained by my mother. We collected objects, created scrapbooks etc. and I think it is chiefly in that tradition that I initially purchased the object. It was in my price range, portable, locally appropriate and a 'conversation piece' when I got home - I think I often look for objects that I somehow feel 'embody' a place. For me, at that point, its 'meaning' was simply an example of exotic kitsch Catholicism, different from any of the religious symbolism I had grown up with - and additionally it contained the 'magic water' which I could contrast with the scientific rational beliefs that I was acquiring (I had just finished my first real research training).

The initial setting for the 'Mary bottle' will have been in a shop, presumably alongside other versions of the same object and surrounded by other pilgrim souvenirs - a sort of secular/quasi-religious space dedicated to commerce based on either faith or tourism (or both). I wish I could remember for sure whether it came pre-laden with water, or whether I filled it up at the taps - I think it was the latter, but I really can't say for certain now.

For the next thirty years of so the 'Mary bottle' lived on a shelf in my parents front room, one of a number of souvenirs and family mementos. It didn't have any particular position of importance, and would have sat alongside 'a gift from [insert]' pottery - my memory is of it being reasonably out of reach, certainly not put anywhere that implied accessibility was important. I haven't asked Mum specifically what meaning the object held for her over that time, but what came up when I mentioned it were her memories of me at around that age. Whilst the water level in the bottle is not full to the top, I've no sense from her that she made any use of it and no doubt this could just be a consequence of evaporation - or perhaps it was never completely full. It wouldn't surprise me if she had chosen to use the water however, she and my father faced a number of significant health problems, there are aspects of Mum's thinking that are quite 'magical' and whilst her non-conformist faith held little truck with 'fancy stuff' there was always an ecumenical strand to her religion.

However, I think the most likely meaning the object held over all this time was 'me' - one of a set of objects around the house that reminded my mother of her son. I realise I've left Dad out of these reflections, but 'nick-nacks' were very much Mum's domain - at most Dad would get involved in making a bespoke 'device' to support something, or perhaps in mending any breakages - I don't know for sure, but I'd guess the object had little significance for him.

Over the last five years the object has been on the bedroom window-sill of my mother's flat - she relocated to Yorkshire from Devon after several years living alone. Interestingly, the 'Mary bottle' survived what was a very significant clearance of objects at that time as she downsized to a single bedroom flat. In fact the majority of Mum's ornaments went either to charity shops or refuse, including many of the objects I might have bought. I've no sense of why this object was retained and whether that implied any change in its meaning at that point. I wonder if the fact that it was a 'religious' object made it hard to simply throw in the bin and it was kept by default (it was unlikely to be of value to Oxfam for resale!). However, I also know Mum finds it hard to accept my atheism (which we only really discussed fully about a decade or so ago) and I wonder whether it held significance for her as an object that reflected an earlier time when she thought we shared a faith - again not something I have been brave enough to ask about.

Now however Mum shows no signs that she wants the 'Mary bottle' in her new single room within a residential home. Family photos, plants and flowers are the only objects that she now regularly has around her - and seems happy with this. I know she now has more significant religious doubts than at other times in her life and whilst she had a number of faith-related objects and books these aren't things which she currently appears to want to interact with. When we talked about the bottle recently it led mainly to memories of my travels and visits home and I'm sure this was always its chief significance for her.

So it comes back to me - back to a shelf, now in my study. Right now its meanings are all wrapped up in this reflection and as a consequence the object will probably continue to hold a connection with OU study and an 'academic' consideration of religion. It is also a link back to my (relative) 'youth' and the time and place it was first bought and, of course, to my own relationship with my mother. It has no connection to any super-natural realm, nor do its contents. I will certainly keep it whilst my Mum is alive - after that I'm unsure, it's time for a review of much of the clutter that I have collected that, whilst it may trigger memories for me, will have no meaning for any of my children. I see no likelihood of my returning to a religious faith - but perhaps its association with healing may also contribute to my retaining it - a reminder that there are many different ways beyond the scientific in which health is considered.

So, this object which 'in principle' is a Christian pilgrimage souvenir containing 'holy water' imbued with a healing power has most of its current meanings entwined with family dynamics and personal memories of an earlier life of exploration and discovery now complemented by an intellectualisation of culture and the arts.

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"You will recognise how the arts and humanities are relevant to issues of ethical, social and public concern"

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Sunday, 28 May 2023, 21:03

Part of the reflective exercise in week 17 was to look back at the A111 module learning outcomes we considered at the start of the course and specifically to reflect on the progress we've made in developing those skills we'd initially prioritised. The one learning outcome that I felt I'd not really reflected much on was the statement:

"You will recognise how the arts and humanities are relevant to issues of ethical, social and public concern"

So I thought I might try and structure some thoughts chapter by chapter...

An opportunity in this chapter to consider how contemporary representations of characters in media may tell us something about current preoccupations. The module considered how Cleopatra was presented in different films and TV shows and how this reflected concerns and priorities of the time. Whilst Cleopatra films aren't necessarily going to turn up on a regular basis, perhaps there's an opportunity to think about how powerful female leaders are shown in film and drama.
Mary, Mother of Jesus:
A valuable module to reflect on links between Christianity and Islam (which I know very little about), and perhaps particularly on the way in which individuals might cross some 'boundaries' between the faiths in seeking intercession via Mary. Interesting to reflect on what makes Mary an active power in some people's lives and in the way in which she always seems to be in some form of tension between an officially sanctioned role and one developed from 'below'. 

Elizabeth I:
Plenty to think about here in the way in which images of power are created and the meanings they may contain - opportunities to think about whether there are contemporary parallels. Very interesting to study this around the time of Elizabeth II's death and the imagery mobilised then. Perhaps also worth reflecting on how 'succession' is best managed in other settings - what are the pro's and con's of naming a successor? 
The aspect of this chapter that made me think about wider relevance was the part touching on ideas of 'genius' and the 'sources' of whatever this is. Also a chance to reflect on the 'gendering' of genius and how such attributes may have been (are) considered when applied to women.
Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Wollstonecraft:
Lots to think about here in terms of her insights and philosophy on gender, development and power. Many aspects of her critique of male tyranny are sadly still of contemporary relevance. Plenty to consider about the nature of difference between the sexes, the extent to which it is real and the extent to which it 'matters'
Dickens and A Christmas Carol:
Most of my reflections on contemporary issues prompted by this chapter are here.
Van Gogh
Van Gogh:
I think this chapter, more than most, got me thinking about 'go back to the object' rather than relying on the peripheral 'knowledge' that you think you've accrued about someone/something - worth keeping in mind when considering contemporary artifacts.

Academic Integrity:
Generalisable points on 'truth' and 'opinion' and on the value of intellectual property.
Greek and Roman sculpture:
Prompts to think about what contemporary artists/public figures may have to gain from associating their work with classical icons. Touched on some of the symbols of masculinity and how these may be used today.
The Blues:
This chapter got me thinking about appropriation and so many of the issues around 'membership' and 'ownership' of different traditions. Inevitably dominated by issues of particular relevance to Black populations and of what has changed and what has not.
Writing stories
Writing Stories:
The call to 'pay attention' seemed particularly relevant - to be engaged in an ongoing process of trying to closely observe the world and to try and let that observation inform your work. 
Reading Poetry:
Because the focus was on animal poetry this chapter encouraged me to think quite a lot about relationships between humans and animals - the deep challenge of anthropomorphism and the dominance of our human-centric perception.
Plato's Laches:
Reflection on approaches to education and the extent to which 'knowledge' does require personal experience. Touched on 'Virtue Ethics' which I've heard about in medicine, but don't know enough about - something to look into. The discussion in Meno led to some reflection on the meaning of 'knowledge' and 'true opinion' in an online discussion on ChatGPT the latest open access AI platform.

Remembering and Forgetting in Ireland:
Thoughts about the importance that 'forgetting' may have in conflict resolution and the establishment of stable societies. Much of value in trying to understand contemporary challenges post-Brexit and important insights into the influences of the past on relations across the British Islands.

Christianity and its material culture:
Plenty to think about in terms of how belief systems are reflected/incorporated into objects and materials. A reminder of how important such objects can be, also how there have been waves of destruction across time, interesting to think about what contemporary iconoclasm is going to look like - will we have a revolution against selfies and curated selves?

The revival of the Gothic tradition:
One aspect of this which interested me was in the reflection of political values in buildings - the contrast between the power of basing buildings in 'the past' and perhaps of looking to other traditions - celebrating modernity or 'place' as the parliaments in Wales and Scotland look to do. What do civic buildings tell us about contemporary values?
This chapter really felt like a step up in terms of these learning outcomes on 'ethical, social and public concern' - much more of a feature across all of this book. Lots to think about regarding what 'leadership' involves and also the great difficulties that individuals and groups, who are actually not so far apart, can encounter. Found it fascinating to be casting Paul Simon as 'Antigone' when listening to him trying to justify 'ignoring' politics in making 'Graceland', instantly sympathised with 'Creon'! A big message here about compromise.
The Island:
Both awful to have lived in the time of apartheid and amazing to have outlived it. The capacity for imagination and 'play' to sustain people at the worst of times came across here to me. Such an engaged piece of drama - wonder if it will eventually become a period piece, or whether it will spawn new versions, less embedded in South African history? 
Music and protest in South Africa:
Can't forget the description of prisoners singing before execution - so moving. Did make me think about what was the music of 'conformity' - how did Afrikaans music sustain their beliefs and values - would we find similarities or radical differences?
The art of Benin: 1400 to Present Day:
Got me thinking and reading a lot about questions of post-colonial issues. These are such a core challenge in British culture at the moment, one of the main reasons for being interested in history. The considerations around repatriation of art are clearly complex, but I have no doubt that these objects should be largely returned to Africa. Thinking through this chapter has made me think about what a lot of work we still have to do as a culture to accept the damaging legacies of Empire. A big role for the arts and humanities in that work!
 Buddhism in practise:
This was perhaps the 'eye-opener' chapter for me - will be fascinating to see how the reception of Buddhism continues in the West. I learned a lot about the history and diversity of Buddhism - and the 'Very short...' booklet on Buddhist ethics was an interesting extension to what insights this could give on questions such as war and violence and reproductive ethics.
 Philosophy and compassion:
A bit baffling to work through Schopenhauer's metaphysics and the reasoning he applied to his views on compassion. I don't think I can live as a pessimist, but I think the chapter gave plenty of impetus to question unthinking optimism! Philosophical study is perhaps the most straightforward topic to think of 'applying', I was interested in the aspects of discussion around the 'burden' of compassion - do think there is something to be said for reflecting on the 'joy' that such actions can also bring.

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'...the lack of any legitimating tradition within feminism'

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Only just started this book (and may dip in and out as chiefly interested in the early phase at this point) but didn't want to lose sight of the arguments Caine raises about reasons for, as she sees it, the lack of a continuity in traditions in feminism that might be seen in other political and social movements.

'...this lack of a definite and coherent feminist tradition seems itself to be a result of the oppression and subordination of women that are the target of feminism. For women in general have lacked the resources needed to establish and transmit their ideas.' 

'Moreover, feminist writers, activists, and theorists have never had the the kind of prestige or patronage which would make later generations seek connections with them as a way of enhancing their own status or prospects.'

Caine makes the point that claiming connection to a founding father in other fields like economics '...automatically conferred legitimacy and importance on male writers [...] connection with Wollstonecraft suggested only moral laxity.' (page 6)

Caine goes on to suggest the lack of a single tradition might make feminism '...appear particularly subject to discontinuities and to breaks and constantly to be in need of revival and rescue.' resulting in opportunities and challenges. The absence of a strong central tradition can make it feel a 'starting from scratch' for every generation, 'On the other hand, the lack of an institutionally based tradition has conferred great freedom on later feminists to break with the past, [...] to formulate new theories and programmes [and also] to read and reconstruct their feminist past as they choose.'

Along with being helpful in thinking about the nature of Wollstonecraft's 'legacy' I think these may be important issues in other situations, particularly thinking about traditions relevant to other oppressed groups.

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"Creating a miniature anthology"

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Sunday, 29 Jan 2023, 10:23

The 'Reading Poetry' chapter of A111 has an online activity to select our own tiny anthology of poems from 'The Faber Book of Beasts', this was my attempt - with a few added photos.

This mini-anthology was prompted by reading one of the poems, Les Murray's 'Pigs'; a startling attempt at creating a distinct animal voice, one in which we also face square on to the process of routine animal slaughter. I decided to trawl 'The Faber Book of Beasts' for other (inevitably livestock) farming poems and explore briefly what poets may have to say about this relationship between humans and the natural world. To be included I thought that there should be at least some indication of a farm or farmer somewhere in the poem (so room for Craig Raine's 'Lamb', but not for Blake's). I found about thirteen poems in total and having decided that Heaney and Hughes could be allowed only one apiece I ended up with the following ‘collection’. A number make for quite tough reading, particularly all in one sitting - but with global livestock now outweighing wild mammals and birds by a factor of ten it feels a relationship we (particularly meat-eaters like me) should work at understanding.


1.Craig Raine, 'Pretty Baa Lamb' (pp. 208-9)

It seems right to start off the anthology with new life. The title deliberately infantilises, using the 'dream' language we keep for our own young as we talk about the farm. However, the poet is quick to detail the mechanics of tail docking and castration and despite the vigour of the lamb's suckling reflex we know its end is already in its beginning. 'Its life a death/exact in every detail,/the lamb belongs here/ in the improbable dream/we tell each other,/day after day, before it fades.'

Image of sheep in field

2.Richard Wilbur 'A Black November Turkey' (pp. 37-8)

The poem gives a beautifully observed portrait of the turkey in its prime, but one literally 'foreshadowed' in dark plumes 'Himself his own cortège/And puffed with the pomp of death,' It may have a 'timeless look', but the clock is running and late November will bring Thanksgiving Day.

  Image of turkey

3.Norman Maccaig 'Fetching Cows' (p. 89)

I love this simple account of gathering in cattle, perfect in taking me to the time and place - the swaying ABA rhyming pattern occasionally disappearing in the enjambment of stanzas three and four then sounding out again. The final metaphor is a perfect descriptor of that burdened swinging walk, 'The black cow is two native carriers/Bringing its belly home, slung from a pole.', but I struggled with those 'natives' for quite a while. I was going to have to leave it as just 'of its time' (and nothing wrong with that) but then I was struck by the thought, what could be more 'colonised', more 'enslaved' by man than nature? Suddenly a wholly different view point opened up.

 Inage of cows

4.Seamus Heaney 'Cow in Calf' (p. 62)

A real sense of 'contact' in this poem, Heaney absolutely takes me into the stall with this cow - I can feel the stinging in my hand as we try and move her on. Three stanzas of free verse, but finishing in a flourish of repetition and internal rhyme, 'The udder grows. Windbags/of bagpipes are crammed there/to drone in her lowing.' 'Windbags/bagpipes' 'her.../her.../her...' 'drone/lowing/going'. Yet again the farming cycle of birth and death is emphasised, this calf, like all the others, is part of a process.


5.Les Murray 'Pigs' (p. 206)

This reminded me of another one of Les Murray's frequently anthologised poems 'The Cows on Killing Day' (https://griffinpoetryprize.com/poem/the-cows-on-killing-day/), in particular with the 'herd-speak' of 'Us’ and ‘we'. Here, verbally and syntactically it tries to shock us in to animal eyes, both when talking of an ancestral dream-time, 'Us back in cool god-shit. We ate crisp./We nosed up good rank in the tunnelled bush.' or when brought up cold against the image of hung carcasses, '...This gone-already feeling/here in no place with our heads on upside down.' Of course, human language, however twisted, constrains it to the anthropomorphic - but it is at least exciting to even try and meet animals on their own terms. 


6. Ted Hughes 'View of a Pig' (pp.275-6)

To end the anthology we have most definitely moved here from life to meat, the recurring words are 'dead/death' and 'weight/weigh/poundage'. 'Such weight and thick pink bulk/Set in death seemed not just dead./It was less than lifeless, further off./It was like a sack of wheat.' This was one of the less violent Hughes poems in the overall anthology, but even here when the slaughter is complete and conducted by someone else, he seems compelled to engage us in some form of assault, 'I thumped it...'. The poem invites us to imagine the living pig '...its life, din, stronghold/ Of earthly pleasure...' but also asks us to acknowledge that if we want 'lard and pork' then pity is really 'off the point.'

Image of pig

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A sculptural field trip in Yorkshire

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Sunday, 29 Jan 2023, 10:23

A frosty trip across to Yorkshire Sculpture Park today, followed by a visit to the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds.

I'd gone to YSP to look specifically at the exhibition 'Relics in the Landscape' by the contemporary American sculptor and artist Daniel Arsham, as an example of his work is included in the TMA on Greek and Roman Sculpture. There are six pieces, all displayed in the Formal Garden which is (as it implies) a formal green space, overlooked by a balustraded viewing path. Each sculpture is cast in bronze and coloured to simulate the patina seen on a classical statue. All the sculptures are modelled on existing iconic objects either classical sculptures or 'pop icons' like Pikachu or the bicycle from the film E.T.. Sometimes the scale is increased, and each sculpture is also marked by areas of what the artist calls 'erosions' as though they have been eaten away in some process of decay. Within the erosions are geode-like 'crystals' cast in stainless steel, the combination 'suggesting growth, transformation and the persistence of time'. Most of the statues are based on a plinth of some form, but the dominant sculpture 'Unearthed Bronze Eroded Melpomene' is designed to appear as though parts of the sculpture may yet to be excavated from the ground.

Unearthed Bronze Eroded Melpomene 

This is based on a statue dated from c. 50 BCE of Melpomene, in Greek mythology the muse of tragedy and lyre playing. The original sculpture is now held in the Louvre Museum. Arsham has dramatically scaled up the head from the original statue.

Bronze Eroded Venus of Arles

This is also based on a statue now held in the Louvre Museum, Vénus d'Arles thought to have been created in the 1st century BCE.


Bronze Eroded Astronaut and Bronze Crystalised Pikachu

Whilst the massive bronzes in particular had a dramatic impact and were beautifully set in the landscape I was left a little 'underwhelmed' by the works. The patchy erosions, didn't seem to me to really give quite the idea of a transforming process that may have been intended - perhaps that was because the 'crystals' were cast objects, images I've seen of Arsham's work for interior display use 'actual' crystals and I think look more intriguing. We're used to seeing classical statuary in various stages of decay, so for me it would have to be the 'change' that could bring some excitement. 

The idea of Pikachu as a latter-day Ozymandias didn't really grab me 😂  

After some packed lunch and a lovely bowl of soup at YSP I headed home via Leeds, and dropped in to see the exhibition at the Henry Moore Institute 'The Colour of Anxiety'

This was a great, three room exhibition of sculpture from the Victorian period, but with lots of really direct links to A111 and to the development and questioning of tradition.

The full title of the exhibition was 'The Colour of Anxiety: Race, Sexuality and Disorder in Victorian Sculpture' and the key to all the exhibits was a reflection on the move 'away from the the whiteness of Neoclassical marble' by British sculptors in the second half of the nineteenth century - and the inclusion of colour in their work.

There were links in this movement to the 'Gothic Revival' which we will look at later in the course, with interests in medieval art techniques, the rediscovery of ancient polychromy in sculpture, 'Orientalism' and new industrial techniques. The exhibition encourages us to also think about the impact of ideas of societal degeneration, Darwinism', race and imperialism and changing sexual politics.

'From the Hope Venus to the Tinted Venus'

Sculptures in this room included Antonio Canova's Venus (a representation of the Neoclassical ideal) and Hiram Powers's The Greek Slave which essentially has Venus in chains, representing a Christian white slave in a Turkish market, but perhaps indirectly talking of American slavery (Powers was American) - but also emphasising (like a number of the works here) naked bondage.

There was book on display by Antoine-Chrystome Quatremère de Quincy who apparently coined the term 'polychromy', challenging beliefs that ancient Greek sculpture was never coloured.

There was also a preparatory model for a 'Tinted Venus', by John Gibson that went on show in 1862 with 'ivory-tinted skin, blue eyes and rosy lips.' It apparently went down a storm with the public - but outraged artists and critics.

Finally, of relevance to A111 there was a 'table-top' sculpture of Cleopatra Dying, by Henri Baron de Triqueti, which was made from ivory and bronze (known as chryselephantine sculpture) on a marble and ebony base. This was seen as meeting a 'growing taste for coloured materials but also a fascination for all things Egyptian.'

Antonio Canova Venus  (The Hope Venus) 1817-20

Antoine-Chrystome Quatremère de Quincy Minerve Du Parthenon from Le Jupiter Olympien, ou l'art de la sculpture antique considéré sous un nouveau point de vue 1814

Henri Baron de Triqueti Cleopatra Dying 1859

Echoes of Slavery

The second room presented a number of works that have complex and challenging relationships with race and slavery. These were all statues or images representing black women, often either in chains, or markedly sexualised, or both. Several were produced, or reproduced, in bronze to give colour to the body. The exhibition also included two contemporary works by black artists Sanford Biggers and Maud Sulter. I particularly liked Biggers's statue Nile, which was caved in black marble and had a West African Dan mask on the body of a Neoclassical human form representing originally the River Seine.

Deathly Women

This was the final room and had some startling statues, almost all femmes fatales. These included the man-eating serpent woman Lamia, by Sir George Frampton who was quite astounding and looked basically like Tilda Swinton - well Tilda Swinton in some wild garb! 

There was a Pandora by the Victorian sculptor Harry Bates, but the standout for me was another work by the same artist, Mors Janua Vitae 'Death, gateway of Life', illustrated below - made me think of some the imagery in the illustrations in Birds, Beasts and Flowers I think DH Lawrence might have approved!

A curious feature': Harry Bates's Holy Trinity altar front (1890) -  Document - Gale Academic OneFile


A grand day out and I learned a lot from the exhibition at the Henry Moore Institute - just the right scale for an exhibit and a really excellent written guide and signage. Not really thought that much of the Victorian period in terms of arts (perhaps just the pre-Raphaelites) but I think this could be a really fascinating transitional period - so many social pressures and changes going on.

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'... a powerful story [...] very much for our times'

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Sunday, 29 Jan 2023, 10:24

RSC A Christmas Carol Programme

The programme included two short essays, the first was by John Bowen an academic at the University of York and focused on the social background to the original novella. 

'It was a young society, still close in many ways to the Regency of Dickens' youth; a world less stuffy and less secure than we might assume'

'It was a youthful world, not least because so many die young.'

'These decades [1830's and 1840's] were two of the worst to be born into or to have to live through in modern times, as a widespread a systematic social crisis engulfed almost every aspect of people's lives.'

'Britain at this time was rapidly moving towards its commercial and industrial zenith, but working people saw few of its benefits'

Bowen discusses the exploitation of children in the workplace and lack of regulation and often of physical protection in factories.

'The 1830s are often called the 'Angry Thirties' and the 1840s the 'Hungry Forties', for good reason'

  • Bad harvests in the late 1830's
  • Corn Laws keeping price of bread high
  • 1832 Great Reform Act extends franchise, but not to working class
  • The New Poor Law [1834] removed some protections and introduced the workhouse
  • Persecution of Trades Unions

[The essay could also have mentioned the first cholera epidemic in 1831/2 and the beginning of the Great Famine in Ireland in 1845]

Bowen characterises Dickens at this time as '...both riding high and haunted by his past' a celebrity after the success of early novels, but with his 'shameful family history - of poverty, imprisonment and suffering'

The essay discusses Dickens' response to The Parliamentary Report of the Children's Employment Commission and makes links to A Christmas Carol as mentioned in A111. Bowen suggests that Dickens 'succeeded, at least in part' in striking a blow for the 'Poor Man's Child' - as contributing to an increased recognition and campaigning for reform, with some practical legislative consequences in the 1840s. 

Bowen seeks to address George Orwell's critique that Dickens only sought an individual 'change of heart' rather than addressing systematic causes of poverty, suggesting the virtues he promoted were essentially communal ones and necessary in the absence of other routes to social support. 

Orwell too credits Dickens with wanting much more than this, and states that moral criticism of society has its own 'revolutionary' credentials, 

'Progress is not an illusion, it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing. There is always a new tyrant waiting to take over from the old — generally not quite so bad, but still a tyrant. Consequently two viewpoints are always tenable. The one, how can you improve human nature until you have changed the system? The other, what is the use of changing the system before you have improved human nature? They appeal to different individuals, and they probably show a tendency to alternate in point of time. The moralist and the revolutionary are constantly undermining one another.'

Bowen concludes by highlighting the roots of A Christmas Carol: in Dickens's childhood experience; fairy tales and parables; and social circumstances of his day. He suggests that whilst it draws on Christian morality and values its focus is on change in 'the here and now' and to marvel at the positivity that Dickens brings despite his personal experiences.....'an 'ever-generous anger.'

RSC A Christmas Carol Programme

The programme is illustrated with a variety of images - some centred around social circumstances and communal responses to poverty. The credits for the image above point to the 'Science and Society Picture Library' of the National Museum of Science and Media.

Searching the library the original images is: ‘A Night in the Streets of London’, c 1857. Photograph by Swedish-born photographer Oscar Gustav Rejlander (1813-1875). 

There is also an interesting short biography for Rejlander on the National Museum of Science and Media website. According to his entry in the ODNB, a mirrored image of this photograph was used by the Shaftesbury Society for over a hundred years to highlight the plight of homeless children.

The image below is a contemporary one of a woman working in PPE during the COVID pandemic in a church preparing boxes for a food bank.

RSC A Christmas Carol Programme

Quotations were placed throughout the programme, each displayed on a 'Christmas Gift Tag' with period decoration. There were 14 quotations in total, three were from Dickens himself and there were quotes also from GK Chesterton (an admirer and literary critic of Dickens) and John Forster (Dickens's friend and biographer) - but the most striking in terms of attempting to make links between contemporary political discussion and A Christmas Carol were four by members of the ruling Conservative party:

'Too many people in Britain, we argue, prefer a lie-in to hard work... Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world' 

Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore, Liz Truss: Britannia Unchained 2012

'To have charitable support given by people voluntarily to support their fellow citizens I think is rather uplifting... Inevitably, the state can't do everything, so I think there is good within food banks.'

Jacob Rees Mogg September 2017

'It is very hard to believe that the right to paid holiday is an absolute moral right.'

Jacob Rees Mogg March 2013

'Dignity is not just about how much money you have got ... It matters if you are earning that yourself, because if you are earning it yourself you are independent and that is the first step towards self-respect.'

Jeremy Hunt, October 2015

RSC A Christmas Carol Programme

The programme contrasts differences in the social and economic circumstances of children living in the Victorian period and the present day. This is done under the headings of School, Work, Toys and Food. Overall there are of course dramatic improvements in all areas - but the programme also makes reference to rates of inflation in 2022 and the significant increase in food prices. It end by saying that 'Thea parcel from a food bank is given to a person facing hardship every 13 seconds.'

The second essay in the programme is by Sir Christopher Frayling and explores the adaptation and performance of A Christmas Carol.

RSC A Christmas Carol Programme

Frayling discusses Dickens's public readings and the presence of multiple 'bootleg' versions on stage by the 1850's, emphasising Christmas jollity over social conscience. He suggests that by the start of the 20th century A Christmas Carol was being seen as a tale for the kiddies, in which the 'nasty ogre...becomes a fairy godfather', 'Neverland rather than now-land'.

'Then' Frayling says, 'came the cinema.' He mentions a number of film adaptations:

  • 1901 - first film adaptation, short 'trick film' centred on special effect of Marley's ghost
  • 1914- version made by London Film Company which, 'had avoided "those vexed social questions" which were in the original novel, but that this was to be applauded'
  • 1935- British feature film Scrooge had as 'centrepiece a singing of the national anthem by the great and the good inside the [London] Mansion House ...while the poor and needy huddled outside the gates joined in - showing ... we were "all in this together"'
  • 1938- MGM version centred on Bob Cratchit with Scrooge learning the hard way to make better use of his money
  • 1951- 'Alastair Sim' version, weaves 'post-war rationing and the origins of the welfare state into the story' has an emphasis on the characters of Ignorance and Want and incorporates an entirely new character 'Mr Jorkin' as the face of greedy capitalism.
  • 1970- Scrooge becomes a screen musical with all singing, all-dancing jollity
  • 1984- George C. Scott as a US-made market-driven Scrooge, not a bad man just one not yet using the power of 'caring capitalism', missing out on getting his '80's greed to do good.
  • 1983-2009 - Animated and puppetry versions, featuring Disney characters, Muppets, Bugs Bunny and (apparently) Barbie
  • 1946 - Frayling's stated preference, Frank Capra's 'It's a Wonderful Life' - a loose adaptation, but one which he thinks balances 'the darker side of A Christmas Carol and the jollity'

Overall, Frayling's main points are around how Dickens's story is reshaped by the concerns and priorities of the times - perhaps with an understandable foregrounding of the social messages at times when societies are economically 'hard-pressed'.

RSC A Christmas Carol Programme

RSC A Christmas Carol Programme

Alongside a timeline of Dickens's publications a number of key dates are highlighted with reference to social and political events across the same period. There are references to Peterloo, the Reform Acts, Chartism, the Factory Act, Irish Famine, repeal of the Corn Laws and the Indian Rebellion.


The programme to this adaptation of A Christmas Carol seems particularly rich in academic and social commentary and the production team appeared happy even to court a little controversy by presenting contemporary political quotes in the text. Overall I think it did a very good job of encouraging the audience to think a little beyond the traditional boundaries of a 'feel-good' Christmas panto.

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Birds, Beasts and Flowers

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Sunday, 29 Jan 2023, 10:26

Very excited today to have a look at a rare copy of a poetry collection which includes one of the poems I'm studying in A111, DH Lawrence's 'Bat'. Looking through my local university library catalogue (the SCONUL scheme is just such an excellent thing if you can get to a local library) I'd found a reference to a book in their 'rare books collection', the Cresset Press 'Birds, Beasts and Flowers' published in May 1930 - just two months after Lawrence died of tuberculosis.

The book was a limited edition of 530 copies illustrated with wood engravings by Blair Hughes-Stanton, and it is a beautiful thing.

An open book

There's an excellent account of the book, with lots of detail about both the illustrations and the artist at the following reference.

Keith Cushman, “Lawrence, Blair Hughes-Stanton, and the Cresset Press Birds, Beasts and Flowers”, Études Lawrenciennes [Online], 41 | 2010, 

Online since 28 January 2014, connection on 04 January 2023. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/lawrence/151; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/lawrence.151

The book contains a full-page frontispiece which I've shown above and nine full-page engravings before each section of the poetry collection, there are two smaller engravings as head- and tailpieces. 

'Bat' is one of four poems in the section 'Creatures', but perhaps sadly only 'Fish' and 'Mosquito' make it into the accompanying illustration. As the article explains, Lawrence was persuaded by Hughes-Stanton to contribute short 'prefaces' to each section and these were often the focus for the illustration. The texts Lawrence added are cryptic to say the least and seem to sometimes have only tangential contacts with the original poems (written nearly a decade earlier) so not sure they particularly 'help' in thinking about the poems. (The only link to 'Bat' is probably in the preface text that talks of how the sun's rays 'hurt the creatures that live by night', although that really speaks more to Lawrence's poem 'Man and Bat' in which the poet is trapped in his bedroom with a lost bat.) However, certainly made me think about the examples in A111 from William Blake's work and the comment made in the learning materials about taking image and text as an 'artistic totality'.

Open book

One final point was the discovery that the text of 'Bat' in this edition differs from that in the 'The Faber Book of Beasts' - the penultimate line in the latter edition, 'In China the bat is symbol of happiness.' is missing. I have to say I prefer the poem without it, a challenge for another day to discover which version of the poem originally included that extra line!

Poem Bat Poem Bat

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A lightening trip to Ashmolean Museum in Oxford

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Sunday, 29 Jan 2023, 10:26

A parental taxi-run to Oxford allowed for a hasty (15min) dash into the Ashmolean Museum and more specifically to the 'Cast Gallery' that began in 1884 as a resource for teaching classical archaeology. The following are a few 'snaps' I managed to take - along with a promise to come back and spend some quality time in the future! (spent almost more time in the loo than I did in the gallery 😆)

 Ashmolean Museum

The text is taken either from the accompanying museum labels - or from the online catalogue.

Early Greek kouros

Cast of early Greek kouros, Delphi, Greece, c. 570 BCE

'The stocky, heavily muscled naked figure stands in the schematic ‘walking’ pose copied from Egypt by early Greek sculptors, signifying motion and life. One of a pair excavated in the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi (now in Delphi Museum). The pair used to be identified as Kleobis and Biton, after a story in Herodotus about two statues at Delphi, supposedly of these two boys from Argos, who pulled their mother, a priestess, in a cart to a festival she needed to get to. The subjects are however more likely to be heroes or exemplary worshippers of Apollo, the god of the sanctuary. Such figures could carry a range of different meanings.

The engraved and simply modelled body surface, and the large eyes and flat-topped head are typical of the earliest large-scale Greek statues. The long hair is elaborately carved in thick, beaded locks, an archaic aristocratic fashion of the period. The subject is beardless, yet has strong muscle development, a full scrotum, and a trimmed mat of pubic hair - he stands on the threshold of manhood.'

[Note that the hair on this kouros is shown coming over the shoulders, more like a kore - presumably a 'local' (in either time or place) variant in style?]

Image of Peplos kore 

Cast of ‘Peplos kore’, from Athenian Acropolis, c. 530 BCE

'The young woman held an offering in her outstretched left hand (missing) and wears an unusual combination of clothes: a thin underdress visible at her feet, a thick belted dress or skirt, and a short mantle. The outer clothing would have been brightly patterned and painted.'


Athens, Acropolis Museum, inv. 679.

Found in three fragments in the 1880s, northwest of the Erechtheion on the Athenian Acropolis.

Small statue of kore type. She has long hair falling in symmetrical tresses on either side of the head and down the back, held by fillet, and crowned by stephane. She wears a chiton, a long garment held by a belt, a long jacket, and a short mantle. Studies of remaining pigment on the original marble surface have revealed complex painted decoration, with animal friezes on the long garment and lotus-palmette and running spirals on the jacket.

In: Frederiksen, Rune, and R.R.R. Smith, The Cast Gallery of the Ashmolean Museum: Catalogue of plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculpture (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2011)

 Image of Diadumenos 

Cast of Diadoumenos (hair- binder) of Polykleitos, from Delos, c. 100 BCE

'A young athelete ties a fillet around his head after winning a contest. The marble statue is a sensitive Hellenistic version of a bronze victor statue by the famous fifth century sculptor Polykleitos of Argos, made in c430BC. Over forty later copies attest the impact of this statue.'


Athens, National Museum, inv. 1826.

Found in 1894 in the House of Diadoumenos on Delos, Greece.
Statue of naked athlete tying fillet in hair. A himation and quiver are draped over the supporting trunk to his right. Hellenistic, c. 100 BC copy of a statue of 440-420 BC by Polykleitos of Argos.

In: Frederiksen, Rune, and R.R.R. Smith, The Cast Gallery of the Ashmolean Museum: Catalogue of plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculpture (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2011)

 Image of Diskobolod 

Cast of Diskobolos (discus-thrower) of Myron, 460-440BC

'An athelete is coiled up in a taut, momentary pose, about to throw the discus- one of the pentathelete’s five events. The cast combines a headless statue from Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli and the head of a statue found in Rome. Copied closely from a lost bronze victor statue by the Athenian sculptor, Myron, active c460-440BC.'


Statue: Vatican, Museo Pio Clementino, Sala della Biga, inv. 2346. Head (Lancelotti Head): Museo Nazionale Romano, inv. 126371.
Statue found in 1791 at Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli, east of Rome. The head found (with its body) in 1781 in Villa Palombara on the Esquiline Hill in Rome.
Statue of naked, male athlete with short hair throwing the discus. The cast combines a statue in the Vatican with the head of a statue in the Museo Nazionale (ex. coll. Lancellotti). Roman, 2nd century AD, copying statue of c. 450 BC by Myron of Eleutherai.
Modern: lower left arm with hand, right lower leg with foot, fragments of body, right arm and diskos.

In: Frederiksen, Rune, and R.R.R. Smith, The Cast Gallery of the Ashmolean Museum: Catalogue of plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculpture (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2011)

 Image of Augustus#
Emperor Augustus, from Villa of Livia at Prima Porta, near Rome c. 20 BCE

'Augustus raises his right arm in the gesture of a general addressing his troops. The military commander's cloak and armour were the most distinctive of all Roman power costumes. The breastplate carries an elaborate allegory of the return of the standards lost to the Parthians in 19 BCE. The marble statue was once brightly painted'

'At the time of its discovery (1863), extensive remains of the statue's colouring were visible. In this reconstruction, the original pigments were recreated and their approximate shades were applied on the cloak, parts of the armour, the hair, the eyes, but not on the skin or on the ground of the armour, which were originally left uncoloured. The result shows some of the startling effect of polychromy applied to statues in antiquity.'


Second, painted cast of the same original as B 161.
Cast acquired in 2009 from the Musei Vaticani. Reconstructed polychrome version produced under the scientific direction of P. Liverani.

In: Frederiksen, Rune, and R.R.R. Smith, The Cast Gallery of the Ashmolean Museum: Catalogue of plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculpture (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2011)

Permalink 1 comment (latest comment by Judith McLean, Wednesday, 4 Jan 2023, 13:34)
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Scrooge's nexus

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Sunday, 29 Jan 2023, 10:25

I've really enjoyed some of the new perspectives that A111 can bring to 'old friends' like A Christmas Carol. A simple one has been to put aspects of the novella in the context of their (possible) settings. The podcast 'The Rest is History' produced a Christmas Carol special in 2020 and sections were recorded at sites that may have featured in the book. I spent time pausing the podcast and looking up locations on Google Maps 'street view' as the story moved up and down Cornhill in the financial hub of modern London. 

This was my final summary image, hopefully next year I'll find some time to visit some of the sites on foot! 

Aerial view of Cornhill area of London, with possible locations for settings within A Christmas Carol

The podcast is available here: https://play.acast.com/s/the-rest-is-history-podcast/132-a-christmas-carol

Permalink 1 comment (latest comment by Steven Oliver, Monday, 26 Dec 2022, 11:16)
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Does this reputation rest on its laurels?

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Sunday, 29 Jan 2023, 10:25

I've enjoyed the section of A111 dedicated to examining the use of portraiture to create and promote 'reputations' for Elizabeth I - both during her lifetime and, in the figure below, following her death in 1603. 

Unknown artist (English school), Queen Elizabeth I in Old Age or Allegorical Portrait of Queen Elizabeth Ic.1610, oil on panel. Corsham Court, Wiltshire. Photo: © Bridgeman Images.

Beginning to learn to decode courtly art; the meaning of colours, clothes, the 'language' of flowers, a whole string of props from sieve's to stoats, certainly adds to the enjoyment of what otherwise are perhaps rather dull (certainly static and mannered) images. It has also been interesting to discover the way in which the written and visual arts combined in this tiny world of elite courtiers. Exploring the 'Allegorical Portrait', and the images of 'Death' and 'Time' that bookend Elizabeth, a number of authors point to links to the works of the Renaissance poet Petrarch - and in particular his 'Triumphs', written between 1351-1374.1,2,3.

Image of Petrarch

Francesco Petrarca, 1304 - 1374. (Petrarch) Florentine poetStefano Tofanelli & Raphael Morghen. Out of Copyright, National Galleries of Scotland

In this collection of six poems, Petrarch describes a sequence of linked allegorical battles, victories and triumphal parades, starting with that of Love, Love is then conquered by Chastity (personified by Petrarch's muse, Laura), Chastity is defeated by Death, Death by Fame, Fame by Time and Time by Eternity. 

'Laura' was one persona through which Elizabeth could be presented as having 'acceptable' female power (along with Diana, Deborah, Judith etc.). In this instance chaste but triumphant, without having to engage in actual physical conflict. There are visual links to the 'Triumph of Chastity' in particular in a number of portraits of Elizabeth, the 'Sieve' portraits link her with the vestal Tuccia who miraculously proves her chasteness in holding water in a sieve. Tuccia features in the 'Triumph of Chastity', as does Dido, another character in at least one sieve portrait. There are quotes from the Petrarch poems in some portraits as well.

The first lines of Petrarch's 'Triumph of Fame' certainly appear to capture the look of Elizabeth in the 'Allegorical Portrait'.

When cruel Death his paly ensign spread

Over that face, which oft in triumph led

My subject thoughts; and beauty's sovereign light,

Retiring, left the world immersed in night”

      ‘The Triumph of Fame’(Petrarch)

But Roy Strong and others see links in this posthumous portrait through all of the sequence of Triumphs,1,2,3 highlighting the presence of a laurel wreath (the mark of a Roman Triumph) at the very apex of the picture and the inclusion of both 'Time' and 'Death'. The general view seems to be that the portrait was created at a point in James I's reign, possibly in the 1620's when he was losing favour in some quarters whilst attempting to establish a marriage for his son Charles with the daughter of (Catholic) Philip III of Spain. Making this then a piece of Protestant 'protest', showing the old Queen in eternal triumph, having backed the 'right side' in the religious divide. 

However, not all authors see the portrait in this light. The collection of essays 'Dissing Elizabeth' brings together a number of perspectives on dissent from the vision of 'Good Queen Bess' which was expressed in a variety of ways. This includes through visual images and the book's editor, Julia Walker, considers the Allegorical portrait in her chapter on Elizabeth's reputation after her death, 'Bones of Contention: Posthumous Images of Elizabeth and Stuart Politics'4

J. M. Walker Ed. (1998). Dissing Elizabeth: negative representations of Gloriana. Duke University Press.

Walker views the portrait as a mocking parody of the 'Armada Portrait' which we studied in A111. She highlights the mirrored seated postures, the same plush red imperial furnishings and contrasts the over the shoulders backdrop of Armada victory with an Elizabeth wasted by the ravages of the now overlooking 'Time' and 'Death'. The Imperial crown that took pride of place is now being whisked away by (left-handed) cherubs, along with any vestiges of Elizabeth's power...

'... it seems more than a possibility that Elizabeth with Time and Death was commissioned not merely as a parody of the queen at her most powerful, but as a dismissal of Spain as the natural enemy of England and English monarchs, substituting instead the more universal Time and Death.'

Armada and Allegorical Portraits of Elizabeth I

Walker considers that the portrait's patrician owner must have fallen very much in the King's camp at the time of the 'Spanish Match' controversy.

I found Walker's chapter fascinating, the contested 'Bones' she refers to in her title are those of Elizabeth herself which were relocated by James I from a prime site under the main altar of the Henry VII chapel in Westminster Abbey to shared accommodation with her older sister Mary, whilst Mary Queen of Scots (James's mother) getting a massive new monument.

However, it was interesting that Walker makes no reference at all in her work to the alternative (and earlier) academic ideas that the allegorical figures might have been drawn from Petrarch. 


There is one difference between the image we looked at in A111 and the one that Walker shows in her figures (and in the cover art for the book) - the portrait is slightly cropped at the top, just sufficiently that the laurel wreath is invisible.

So I'm left wondering, did access to only a cropped image influence Walker's interpretation of the portrait, or was the image cropped so as to better fit the interpretation? Or.... (and no doubt most likely) was the cropping entirely coincidental, something that happened when the book was being setup for printing for example?

No answers - but perhaps that in itself is an excellent way to mark one of the key learning points from the Elizabeth I chapter, that interpretations between historians vary and will continue to vary as they try and evaluate the fragmentary and complex primary evidence.


  1. Campbell, H. (2007) ‘“And in their midst a sun”: Petrarch’s Triumphs and the Elizabethan icon’, in A. Connolly and L. Hopkins (eds) Goddesses and queens: the iconography of Elizabeth I. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, pp. 83–100.
  2. Peterson, K.L. (2018) ‘Picturing Elizabeth I’s Triumph of Melancholy’, English literary renaissance, 48(1), pp. 1–40. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1086/696110.
  3. Strong, R. (1987) Gloriana : the portraits of Queen Elizabeth I. London: Pimlico.
  4. Walker, J. M. (1998). Bones of Contention: Posthumous Images of Elizabeth and Stuart Politics. In J. M. Walker (Ed.), Dissing Elizabeth: negative representations of Gloriana (pp. 252–276). Duke University Press.

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Sunday, 29 Jan 2023, 10:25

This was a surprise inclusion in a set of freebie postcards that I picked up from University of York library on one of my 'OU Wednesdays'. The cards promote the University Archives collections, and this image is the frontispiece of Christopher Saxton's 'Atlas of the Counties of England and Wales' (Tabula Anglia), the first atlas of any country. This hand coloured copy dates from 1590 and is in York Minster Library. 

I can now recognise Elizabeth's coronation robes, she is seated between figures who represent astronomy and geography, but still much on the engraving is beyond me - who are the couple in the image above the Queen's head and what are they up to?

The inscriptions translate as:

A gentle governess of Britain rules.

This mark of distinction shines for all to see.


While sad wars wear down around all the races. And blind mistakes wreak havoc upon the entire world. You bless the Britains with peace, long and true with your piety: (ruling with) even handed justice, wisely with gentle rein, Held dear at home, while celebrated abroad, and with a long rule you have this now for such a time, a kingdom everlasting.

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The Virgin Mother

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Sunday, 29 Jan 2023, 10:24

This is Damien Hirst's 'The Virgin Mother' at Yorkshire Sculpture Park a few months ago. I'd always thought it was just a bit overblown and kitsch and a rip-off of anatomical models, but now seeing it in a new light after reading Mary Joan Winn Leith's analysis in her book 'The Virgin Mary' in the 'a very short introduction' series. Everything from the nudity to the nipples gets a link to Marian symbolism!

Permalink 1 comment (latest comment by Steven Oliver, Saturday, 14 Jan 2023, 13:01)
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Jumping straight to Week 7

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Sunday, 29 Jan 2023, 10:24

A walk around Beverley yesterday and I bumped in to this! Mary Wollstonecraft lived at this house, 2 Highgate in Beverley, from age nine to 16. Apparently the location was only established four years ago. She will have received her education somewhere in the town, whilst her father was failing as a farmer.

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