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Thursday, 31 May 2018

World-Class Pride

This Oxford Pride, School of Philosophy, History & Culture doctoral student Ross Brooks highlights Oxford’s place in British queer history and heritage.

‘I never knew there was so much in it!’ This was how Dr Evan Harris, MP for Oxford West and Abingdon at the time, began his foreword to the first edition of my LGBTQ+ city guide Queer Oxford which I produced as an extra-curricular project when I was a History undergraduate at Brookes back in 2006. As it happened, nobody involved with the project back then knew just how much there was ‘in it’. Since that time, I have unearthed a considerable amount of additional material relating to the local LGBTQ+ experience stretching back to the fourteenth century. For example, for five weeks in the late summer of 1394, a transvestite prostitute named John Rykener worked in Oxford as an embroideress under the name of Eleanor. Later, Rykener confessed to police interrogators that during his stay here he had often ‘practiced the abominable vice’ with three scholars.

Since returning to Brookes for the MA in History (History of Medicine) in 2016, and now studying at doctoral level, I have been able to explore further the local queer experience and utilise opportunities to communicate just how much Oxford has to offer to our understanding and appreciation of LGBTQ+ history and heritage.

It is a very exciting time to revisit Oxford’s rich queer history. Whilst some may be aware that Oscar Wilde studied at Magdalen College from 1874 to 1878, or that Evelyn Waugh’s classic 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited was largely based on his experiences at Hertford College between 1922 and 1924, the depth and breadth of the local LGBTQ+ experience is really only now finding its place in broader narratives of British queer history and beyond. Significant in this regard were last year’s commemorative events marking 60 years since the 1957 Wolfenden Report which recommended partial decriminalisation of male homosexual acts, and 50 years since the recommendation was enacted by the Sexual Offences Act 1967. High-profile events such as the National Trust’s momentous ‘Prejudice & Pride’ project and Historic England’s equally momentous ‘Pride of Place’ project broadened perceptions of British queer history beyond the major UK cities to an unprecedented extent. Also contributing to this important work is a major AHRC-funded project entitled ‘Queer beyond London’, a collaboration between Birkbeck College, University of London and Leeds Beckett University. Although the project focuses on four UK localities—Brighton, Leeds, Manchester, and Plymouth—an international conference entitled ‘Queer Localities’ at Birkbeck last autumn explored many and varied intersections between sexuality and locality on a global scale.

© Images & Voices, Oxfordshire County Council
Cyril Arapoff’s gloriously homoerotic images of nude and semi-nude young men are unique in British queer history. They offer unprecedented insights into the queer dynamics of 1930s Oxford.
Notably, Oxford was the only locality to be the subject of a whole panel. Beth Asbury discussed the development of her ground-breaking ‘Out in Oxford’ trail of Oxford’s gardens, libraries, and museums. George Townsend discussed his research on the infamous Parson’s Pleasure, a secluded spot in central Oxford on the banks of the Cherwell which was, until 1992, set aside for male nudism. My paper discussed a set of gloriously homoerotic photographs taken by the Russian émigré photographer Cyril Arapoff (1898-1976) who was resident in Oxford (Headington) during the 1930s. These beguiling nude and semi-nude images of handsome young men present a unique opportunity to glimpse the otherwise hidden homoerotics that were facilitated by the (still predominantly male) university culture of Oxford at this time but which are otherwise poorly documented. An investigation of Arapoff’s homoerotic images reveals much about his young male subjects, including the spaces they inhabited, the networks they created, and their interconnections to London’s vibrantly queer dance and theatre scene.

© Images & Voices, Oxfordshire County Council
In February I again presented Arapoff’s photographs at the sparkling Party at the Pitt: An LGBT History Month Celebrationat Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, to great effect. As with Oxford’s queer history more generally, the audiences for this fascinating material transcend dogmatic academic / non-academic boundaries. Embracing this, key moments in Oxford’s LGBTQ+ history will soon form the substance of a new, updated edition of Queer Oxford. Produced to accompany the forthcoming ‘No Offence’ exhibition at the Ashmolean, the new project will constitute an interactive city trail which will highlight some of the most significant people, places, and objects that have long since established Oxford as one of the world’s queerest localities. The trail will be available both in printed form as a part of a new mobile app that is being developed by TORCH, the Pitt Rivers Museum, and the Web and the Mobile Applications Team at Oxford University and funded by the IT Innovation Fund and which will provide a platform for sharing Oxford’s diverse voices, stories, research, and collections with members of both Oxford’s universities, locals, and visitors.

LGBTQ+ history is coming of age. Local voices and local stories, past and present, from many localities across the country are contributing to a transformation in perceptions of British queer history and heritage which both enhance and challenge those better-established historical narratives that have been pieced together from studies of the major British cities. Queer Oxford will continue to help capture and promote those voices and stories from the city that that Wilde called ‘the capital of romance’ and help find their place in the national, and international, picture.

Ross Brooks pursued his BA (Hons) degree at Brookes between 2006 and 2010. He returned to Brookes to study the Masters in History (History of Medicine) in 2016 and is now in the first year of his doctoral thesis which he is pursuing within the Centre for Medical Humanities. Entitled Evolution’s Closet: The New Biology and Homosexuality in Britain, 1885-1967, Ross’s project is fully funded by the Wellcome Trust.

Follow Ross on Twitter @rossb_oxford and, for more on Oxford’s LGBTQ+ history, @Queer_Oxford.

Monday, 28 May 2018

The labyrinthine meanings of race

I've researched the history of eugenics for more than a decade, particularly in East-Central Europe and published a number of books on the topic. I have also researched the history of East-Central Europe more broadly, focusing on nationalism, fascism and biopolitics. I’m really interested at the moment in a global history of race and racism. This emerged from a 3rd year module that I taught last year when I was emboldened by my students to delve deeper into the labyrinthine meanings of race.

I have always been interested in the history of race, particularly in terms of its complicated relationship with philosophy, culture, science and politics. Historians must attend to specific historical traditions, but at the same time suggest the need for a new cultural and moral framework suitable for dealing with questions of collective, minority and individual identity in an increasingly polarised and divided world. In my teaching, I try to dispel the fears and insecurities our students may have when talking about race and racism in our society and in their communities. Tellingly, race as we now know it, in the twenty-first century, has not changed significantly by comparison to the sixteenth or seventeenth century, when it first emerged as a tool to interpret human difference. It is becoming clear that, despite historians deconstructing racism, racial narratives have proved to be enduring.

I am known nationally and internationally as a specialist in the field of racial studies and eugenics in East-Central Europe, a field I spearheaded through my publications, research networks and student supervision. More recently I began looking at broader geographical areas. In this work, I re-conceptualise the history of nation and race by exploring the plurality of global racial heritages that are forgotten or misplaced. In my latest book entitled Historicizing Race (Bloomsbury 2018), I suggest that a more nuanced historical and critical perspective on race is needed in order to understand its growing appeal to contemporary sensibilities. After all, Brexit has highlighted the broader crisis of national and collective identity which Britain and Europe at large are experiencing at the moment. In its current personification, racism is expressed in a political vocabulary that utilises strategies of coping with an identity, which allegedly is under threat. In this respect, we need to understand the appeal of race within its historical context, as many of the images used by politicians today are often recycled historical narratives, so popular in 1920s and 1930s, and, indeed, in the nineteenth century. 

Dr Marius Turda is Reader in 20th Century Central and Eastern European Biomedicine at Oxford Brookes University

Thursday, 24 May 2018

News from New Orleans: The Renaissance Society of America Conference 2018

The Renaissance Society of America organises the largest annual international conference in the field of Renaissance studies, bringing together historians working across disciplines on the period 1300-1700. Held in New Orleans this year, the conference offered a stimulating blend of new research in the field, networking events, book fairs and museum visits. I hold an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded Collaborative Doctoral Award (CDA) with Oxford Brookes and the National Gallery, where I study the relationship between painting and other media in the work of the Venetian artist, Carlo Crivelli (c.1430-c.1494). With generous support from Brookes, I was able to attend the conference and present some ideas I had been exploring recently in my research.

My panel, organised by Ashley Elston and Madeline Rislow, was entitled ‘Hybridity in Late Medieval and Early Modern Art’. In my paper, I discussed various ways in which Crivelli asks the viewer to compare painting to other media, such as metalwork, sculpture and textiles, as a way of challenging our expectations of what a painting is. He does this, for example, by borrowing the materials and techniques of metalwork, painting sculptural creations that would be impossible in stone, or drawing on the aesthetic qualities of tapestries. Painting’s ability to encompass many arts, and indeed to surpass them, was a way not only of championing this materially-humble medium, but also of suggesting an analogy with divine creation, an idea that was posed by the philosopher and theologian Nicholas of Cusa in a sermon delivered in 1440. By showing the same painted detail in paint, and then in raised gesso, rope, wood or glass, Crivelli encourages the viewer to meditate upon matter transformed at the hand of the painter, and by extension, at the hand of God, who made Christ incarnate. The question asked by a member of the audience – how does Crivelli’s play on materials differ from Andrea Mantegna’s? – has reminded me of how useful it is to juxtapose Crivelli’s practice with that of his Paduan colleague. For although both are interested in the possibilities of painting and the paragone, or comparison, with sculpture, Crivelli takes his analogies in new directions by incorporating elements in relief.

It was interesting to situate my own work alongside that of other speakers, especially Ashley Elston, who discussed the interaction between painting and sculpture in early modern Italian art. Ashley presented many examples in which painting and sculpture are interdependent, raising questions about the sacred dimension of media, as well as the validity of our modern categories for works of art. The range of papers in my panel demonstrated that hybridity in art can be not only medial, but also temporal, stylistic and even experiential, brought about by circumstances such as the restoration of objects through time, the wide-ranging sources of itinerant artists, and the multivalent roles of single objects.

Other panels I attended led me to conclude that current research trends in the field of Italian Renaissance art are characterised by a focus on the agency of the object and the viewer, as well as materials and their meanings. This was especially evident in the sessions entitled ‘New Approaches to Italian Quattrocento Sculpture’, in which issues such as framing devices, theories of relief and the slippery boundaries between creating idols and representations, were addressed. It was interesting that many of the questions raised in these sessions could be applied just as easily to sculpture as they could to painting. It also suggested that there might be an interested audience for my own research on Carlo Crivelli, which applies a range of methodologies, including technical, theoretical and contextual, which are traditionally treated separately. This approach opens new possibilities for research into objects and artists that do not fit neatly within the confines of our current art-historical categories, or for which little documentary evidence exists.

The three-day conference also offered many chances to meet others active in the field. I met Tim McCall from Villanova University, who works on the representation of clothing in Italian Renaissance painting, and who discussed Crivelli’s attentiveness to the materials and logics of contemporary fashion in a previous paper at RSA. McCall’s consideration of how Crivelli gives a sense of the contingent, changeable nature of fabric, its texture and colour, as it is experience in actuality, has informed my own work on the relationship between reality and fiction in Crivelli’s paintings. I also met scholars from the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA) in Washington, where I will be moving from September for 8 months to work at the National Gallery of Art. It was great to catch up with friends and colleagues from the National Gallery and the Courtauld Institute, as well as my Brookes supervisor, Marika Leino, and to support one another by attending each others’ panels.

As well as a chance to build professional contacts, and the experience of presenting my research at a large, international conference, my attendance at RSA has led to an invitation from the organisers of my panel to contribute a chapter to the volume they are editing on the subject of hybridity. This publication, which I will write in the Autumn, will allow me to develop some of the themes I touched upon in my paper, including the comparison with Mantegna’s practice. Over the Summer I will be focusing on writing up my PhD, starting with the artistic and devotional context of Crivelli’s multi-media polyptych for the church of San Domenico in Ascoli Piceno, now in the National Gallery. The research leads and ideas that RSA gave me will undoubtedly enrich my PhD in new ways.

Amanda Hilliam, PhD student in the School of History, Philosophy and Culture

Monday, 14 May 2018

Forensic medicine: where history and science collide

Scene of the murder at 37 Henry Street, Church Coppenhall, drawn in April 1887. The National Archives, ASSI 65/15, Regina v. Thomas Henry Bevan, Cheshire, 1887

I research the history of crime and forensic medicine in Britain, especially England and Wales, since about 1700, with a particular focus on the period up to the First World War. I’m especially interested in the role played by doctors in solving crimes and how that changed over time, given the increasing presence of lawyers and police in the criminal justice system. Because these links are most visible in cases of violent crime, I tend to spend a lot of time reading first-person accounts of murder and other grisly goings-on. This might sound rather grim, but really it’s not!

Choosing the history of forensic medicine was a lucky accident, really. My original intention was to become a chemist, but it didn’t take long for me to realise that although the scientific information I’d gained from my undergraduate degree might be interesting, it wouldn’t make for a rewarding research career. But it led me to the history of chemistry and from there I began to explore the history of toxicology – a science that has always been closely associated with poisoning crimes. From there it became obvious that doctors, rather than chemists, were always there or thereabouts when there’d been a murder – somebody had to examine the victim and provide a report for the courts, and usually it was a local practitioner. This led me to explore notions of expertise, a subject of broad interest to historians, criminologists and lawyers. And the forensic focus of my research means that my training as a scientist remains useful.

I’m a little unusual in having scientific training and in that my interest in forensic medicine has led me to combine several different aspects of social and legal history: the workings of the criminal justice system, laws and how they’re applied, the development of policing, the expertise of the medical profession, and the motives and methods of accused criminals. This connects to broader social problems like domestic violence and poverty, in many cases. Most or all of these issues are instantly related and brought vividly to light the moment a violent crime is committed, and it is important to realise that this was no less the case in the eighteenth century than today. Of course it wasn’t quite the same then, but it was more similar than most people assume. My research aims to show how we got to where we are now when it comes to crime investigation – students always find that fascinating.

There are lots of highlights of doing my research! The sense of stepping in to the shoes of a person who lived decades or centuries ago brings the past alive for me, particularly when I can see on the page in front of me their signature, or an ink blotch, or a prosecuting barrister’s trial notes (usually involving lots of underlining and a few shorthand comments using blue pencil), or the occasional doodle. I’m particularly drawn to a weird fanged dog that a Welsh judge drew in his trial notebook in 1814; I hope he did it between trials, which were conducted pretty speedily by modern standards. The point here is about evidence in court: who presented it, what they said and what the jury and judge made of it! The insights that people’s comments, questions, decisions and actions provide to attitudes and beliefs about family, medicine, law, the police, criminality, violence and justice are windows into the past but still speak to today’s concerns.

Nowadays when a crime occurs our first thought is to call the police, and they immediately call in a forensic team: a pathologist to examine the victim and a separate forensic scientific expert (often more than one) to photograph and examine the crime scene. My research shows how and when these patterns became established during the course of the nineteenth century. The development of forensic practices that we now take for granted was closely linked to the expansion of policing and an increasingly lawyer-dominated courtroom practice, and I see this beginning in the first half of the eighteenth century.

Dr Katherine Watson is Reader in History at Oxford Brookes University

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Celebrating the role of trees in British Art

Silent Witnesses:
Trees in British Art, 1760-1870
, Christiana Payne

This month Professor Christiana Payne is hosting a conference at Oxford Brookes University on Trees and Wellbeing (registration closes on 4 May!) She recently published a book on trees in British art and in this blog she writes about how she first became interested in these topics.

I’ve been interested in landscape painting for a long time. I very much enjoy walking in the country, visiting mountains or coastal areas, looking at clouds, sunsets and sunrises, and seeing how the seasons change. So it seems natural to me to take an interest in those artists from the past (and present) who have recorded their impressions of these places and effects.

My most recent project has been on trees in British art from 1760 to 1870. The idea came to me from a combination of looking and reading. I saw an exhibition (in Edinburgh) of watercolours by the eighteenth-century artist Paul Sandby, including some amazing pictures of beech trees, and at about the same time (on a holiday in Suffolk) I read a book by the nature writer, Roger Deakin, entitled Wildwood: A Journey through Trees. I realized that here was a new topic, which, surprisingly, had never been treated systematically before. Moreover, it had definite popular appeal.

I knew that some of my favourite artists had devoted a lot of attention to drawing and painting trees – Samuel Palmer, John Constable and Edward Lear. What I didn’t realize when I started was there were some beautiful illustrated books on trees published in my chosen period – and lots of drawing manuals. Evidently, amateurs and artists were drawing trees like mad at this time, getting to know the attributes of the different species and trying to express their ‘character’ as if they were human subjects.

John Constable, Elm Trees in Old Hall Park, East Bergholt (1817).  © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The research has given me a new view of British landscape painting – one in which drawing is as important as painting. It has taken me to see watercolours and drawings in public collections, especially the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. I’ve enjoyed looking at old books in the Bodleian Library. And I’ve also travelled to see actual trees – the very ancient ones, that were depicted in the eighteenth century and still survive today, such as the Tortworth Chestnut in Gloucestershire, the Ankerwycke Yew, near the spot where Magna Carta was signed, and the Bowthorpe Oak in Lincolnshire. In some cases they look exactly like the ‘portraits’ that were made of them in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries.

There is something mystical about these huge old trees, and in the eighteenth century people wrote openly of ‘worshipping’ them. They believed that their forefathers – the Druids - had worshipped God in groves, before the building of cathedrals whose architecture mimicked the forms of the forest. They recorded the many popular superstitions that gave magical power to trees.
Neil Gow's oak, Dunkeld

I find that my work gets favourable reactions, because so many people love trees. I had my own favourite trees as a child – an old horse chestnut on which I had a rope swing, and a group of beeches whose roots were intertwined. I once found some money amongst the roots of these beech trees – which then became know in my family as the ‘leprechaun trees’. Now that I live in Oxford I very much enjoy getting to know individual trees in the street, in the local park, and even on the Brookes campus – there is a magnificent oak between the Tonge and Gibbs buildings that I visit regularly. 

Attitudes to trees have been affected by social and political change. Eighteenth-century paintings show humble cottages nestling in the shelter of ancient oaks; by the mid-nineteenth century they depict middle-class visitors picnicking in the woods. Views of landed estates make way for pictures that celebrate public woodland, open to all. Different species rose and fell in popular estimation: oaks acquired special status because they provided the main material for wooden ships, but in the mid-nineteenth century the beech woods were especially loved as places to escape the summer heat of the cities.

Samuel Palmer, In a Shoreham Garden (c. 1830) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Trees purify the air, they hold on to soil to prevent flooding, they provide havens for wildlife. And much recent research shows that they are vital to human wellbeing. So there is a direct link between the perception of trees in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the issues that face us today.

I’m delighted to have been awarded a Research Excellence Award by the University – this will enable me to focus on sharing the results of my research with a wider audience. I have curated an exhibition at the Higgins Art Gallery and Museum, Bedford, and worked with the National Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum on activities and resources for visitors.

Christiana Payne is Professor of History of Art at Oxford Brookes