Americas and Oceania Collections blog

Exploring the Library’s collections from the Americas and Oceania

3 posts from June 2023

28 June 2023

On my desk: Celebrating the Faculty of Humanities of the University of East Anglia

The Americas team is fortunate to work with some fascinating items that cross our desks for a variety of reasons from exhibition loans to Reader queries. Through the On my desk blog series, we ask the team 3 questions which will give you an insight into the work of curators and cataloguers at the Library and a behind the scenes peek at some of the items in the collections. Today’s post features Hannah Graves, one of the Curators of North American Published Collections (post-1850).

A colour photo of multiple books on a curators desk. Not all titles are visible. All books pictured are listed at the end of this post
A selection of publications by UEA staff

What is the item?

There is no one item on my desk today. Rather, I have looked through the British Library’s catalogue to bring together publications by staff within the Faculty of Humanities of the University of East Anglia (UEA) focused on the Americas.

Why is it on your desk?

I am new to both the Americas team and the process of making acquisitions for the library. We receive regular lists of titles to consider for purchase. When looking through the spreadsheets for selection prepared by our colleagues, the sheer volume of titles published every year can be overwhelming. It is easy to forget that each individual monograph is a bit miraculous. Reflective of a lifetime’s work, these titles are often researched and written while juggling numerous competing professional demands. So today, the team wishes to celebrate all the staff of UEA, but especially those who have helped advance our understanding of the history and cultures of the Americas. We are grateful for their invaluable contributions, which enrich the British Library’s collection and the Americas research community as a whole.

A colour photo of a closer-up image of some of the titles on a curators desk. All books are listed at the end
A closer look at some UEA staff titles

Why is it interesting?

The research portal on UEA’s website allows you to begin to appreciate the scale of contributions made by the academics and creative practitioners within the Faculty of Humanities. Each of the titles I have called up are, of course, interesting in their own right. However, it is when you see them assembled you begin to appreciate the value of a strong faculty. We often perceive researching and writing as solitary pursuits, but academic work is highly collaborative, shaped by predecessors and peers. It is an interesting exercise to gather on my desk some of the work produced by colleagues within the same institution. It crystallises the major contributions of UEA staff in shaping the Americas research community.

Naturally, this is only a slim and subjective selection of some of the items the British Library holds as printed books. Many more titles are held electronically. I would encourage you to use the UEA portal for yourself to find the next article or book for your reading room basket. Or, you could start with some of the following:

  • Frederik Byrn Køhler, ed., Chicago: a literary history (2021) held at YC.2022.a.8030
  • Thomas Ruys Smith, Deep water: the Mississippi River in the Age of Mark Twain (2020) held at YD.2020.a.98
  • Tessa McWatt, Shame on me: an anatomy of race and belonging (2019) held at YK.2020.A.1784
  • Rebecca Fraser, The Mayflower generation: the Winslow family and the fight for the new world (2017) held at YC.2018.a.11495
  • Jos Smith, The new nature writing: rethinking the literature of place (2017) held at YC.2017.a.5592
  • Tim Snelson, Phantom ladies: Hollywood horror and the home front (2015) held at YC.2016.a.7045
  • Malcolm McLaughlin, The long, hot summer of 1967: urban rebellion in America (2014) held at YC.2014.a.4894
  • Jacqueline Fear-Segal and Rebecca Tillett, eds., Indigenous bodies: reviewing, relocating, reclaiming (2013) held at YC.2014.a.653
  • Rachel Potter, Obscene modernism: literary censorship and experiment, 1900-1940 (2013) held at YC.2015.a.877
  • Una Marson, Selected poems, ed. Alison Donnell (2011) held at YC.2012.a.3527
  • Alison Donnell, Twentieth-century Caribbean literature: critical moments in Anglophone literary history (2006) held at YC.2006.a.4763
  • Steven Hooper, Pacific encounters: art & divinity in Polynesia 1760-1860 (2006) held at YD.2010.b.1173
  • Nick Selby, Poetics of loss in the Cantos of Ezra Pound: from modernism to fascism (2005) held at YC.2007.a.6115

19 June 2023

The Art and Life of Francesca Alexander

Jacqueline Marie Musacchio is Professor of Art at Wellesley College, USA; she was a 2020 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.  

In early 2020 I received word that I had been awarded an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellowship. I was thrilled, but knew I couldn’t take it any time soon. Travel was all but impossible, the British Library was closed, and my research, on a book project tentatively entitled At Home Abroad: Anne Whitney and American Women Artists in Late Nineteenth-Century Italy, was necessarily stalled. My book is predicated on the fact that, in the late nineteenth century, increasingly regular and affordable steamships and railways brought Americans to and around Europe, and these journeys had a profound influence on how Americans understood, created, and lived with art. Many of these travelers were aspiring women artists seeking freedom from social constrictions as well as the training and contact with art that they could not get at home.

As 2020 turned to 2021, the pandemic continued but vaccines arrived. Refocusing on this project, I realized my book was really two books. A planned chapter on the American artist, author, and philanthropist Esther Frances Alexander (1837-1917), better known as Francesca, the name given to her by John Ruskin, seemed out of place with my other case studies. I decided to turn that chapter into a monograph, now under contract with Lund Humphries with the working title The Art and Life of Francesca Alexander. This is what I researched when I finally took up my Fellowship in spring 2022.

Though not well known today, Francesca Alexander was a celebrity in her time and her story is a compelling narrative at the intersection of art, literature, and history, set in pre-Civil War United States, pre- and post-Risorgimento Italy, and Victorian England. She had no formal training, but her artistic style was indebted to the Renaissance, and to the summers she spent in the Italian countryside. Although she made a number of paintings, her preferred medium was pen and ink. She sold her work, gave it away, and occasionally took commissions, never seeking out an audience but relying on those who came to her. Unusually for an Anglo-American in Italy, she engaged with a large number of Italians during her long residence there, from 1853 to her death in 1917. She and her parents supported Italian independence and they knew prominent figures like the politician Gino Capponi and General Giuseppe Garibaldi; they enjoyed formal balls at Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. But the Alexanders were also close to many Italians from the lower social classes who lived in Florence and the surrounding countryside, as well as further afield in the Apennines and the Veneto region, where they spent their summers. Francesca employed these Italians as models, and transcribed and translated their songs and stories. She was deeply charitable and devoted much of her time, as well as the money she earned from selling her art and other funds she solicited from wealthy friends, to assist them.

Her fame resonated on both sides of the Atlantic. American artists, including Thomas Ball, Henry Roderick Newman, and Joseph Lindon Smith, and English artists, including William Holman Hunt, Frederic Leighton, and George Frederick Watts, praised her work and American poets James Russell Lowell and John Greenleaf Whittier wrote poems about her. This fame only increased after she and her mother (her father had died in 1880) met John Ruskin during his final visit to Florence in 1882. They began a lengthy correspondence; Ruskin shepherded three of Francesca’s manuscripts to publication and celebrated her in his lectures, even comparing her nature studies to those by Leonardo da Vinci.

My analysis of Francesca Alexander establishes her place in artistic and intellectual circles in Florence as well as the United States and England, demonstrating her wide network and contemporary appeal. In addition to Francesca’s own art, publications, and correspondence, my sources include unpublished letters and diaries by her contemporaries and references in guidebooks, magazines, and newspapers. In fact, some of the most valuable resources, for both of my book projects, are the British Library’s collection of Anglo-American newspapers published in Europe. These newspapers were available via subscription for English-language speakers on an extended residence abroad, as well as in hotels, banks, and reading rooms for more itinerant travelers. They provided a wealth of gossip and advertisements with information on the available goods and services that made life in Italy much like life at home. They also regularly published the names and addresses of Anglo-American residents and travelers to facilitate socializing. The Alexanders appeared only infrequently in these lists, and only after they moved to an apartment in the Hotel Bonciani near the church of Santa Maria Novella [see Fig. 1, below].

A newspaper column detailing residents in an Italian hotel.
Fig. 1: Detail from Italian Gazette, 26 January 1895, p. 12. British Library shelfmark: MFM.MF845.

But people knew how to find them; after the Alexanders met Ruskin, and he began to publish her work, she became a true celebrity, a sight to be seen like Florence’s churches and museums. Newspaper articles and advertisements provided updates on her publications and shared information – sometimes erroneously – about her life [Fig. 2, below].

A page of printed text.
Fig. 2: Detail from 'Letter from Florence' in Roman News: A Weekly Review of Politics, Archaeology, Fine Arts, Literature and Society, 28 March 1883, p. 4.  British Library Shelfmark: NEWS3415.

Francesca’s most popular book, the one referred to in the article in Fig. 2, was her Roadside Songs of Tuscany (1884-5), a compilation of songs and poems known primarily through oral tradition, which she compiled, translated, and illustrated. Ruskin purchased the manuscript from Francesca with great excitement, believing it had the potential to educate readers about Italy and Italians – patronizing as he was about both, and critical about Catholicism – and he was charmed by what he considered Francesca’s innocence and truth to nature. Nevertheless, [see Fig. 3, below], he made considerable editorial interventions before publishing this manuscript, first in ten installments and then in book form. Yet Francesca did not mind these interventions; indeed, her interest in these publications was limited to the funds they brought in to help her with her charitable endeavors.

Page proofs for a book; a mix of text and hand-written comments.
Fig. 3: Page proofs with notes by John Ruskin from Francesca Alexander, Roadside Songs of Tuscany. Orpington: George Allen, 1884-85. British Library shelfmark: C.66.g.2. See pp.24-25 for this image.

Francesca spent the rest of her life in Florence and although her later years were difficult – she was increasingly blind and became essentially housebound – many of her friends and admirers continued to visit until her death of bronchial pneumonia at age 79 on 20 January 1917. The next day a notice appeared, in Italian, in the Florentine newspaper La Nazione, announcing her death and inviting friends to attend services at her home and then at the Allori cemetery on 23 January [see Fig. 4, below].

An Italian newspaper column detailing the death of Francesca Alexander.
Fig. 4: Death notice in La Nazione (Florence), 22 January 1917. British Library shelfmark: MFM.MF836.

A second notice, this time in English, was printed in the 23 January edition with the same information. The bilingual announcements, which would have alerted Italians and Anglo-Americans to her death, indicate Francesca’s unusual position in both communities. Her many years in Florence, and her artistic and charitable activities, provide an excellent example of an American woman leading a rewarding life in Italy during this era.


02 June 2023

Call for Papers: Grenada, 1973-1983 | Beginnings of a Revolution, Invasion and After



Call for papers for a one-day symposium for academics, creatives, activists and community-based researchers to share research, ideas and reflections on the Grenada Revolution.

The British Library | Friday 27 October 2023

In 1979, Grenada became the first and so far only revolutionary socialist nation in the history of the English-speaking world. The Revolution arguably began with the emergence of the New Jewel Movement in 1973, initially a coalition and coalescing of diverse radical Black energies, and ended dramatically and violently with the USA’s invasion of the island ten years later.

This one day symposium, co-organised by Black Cultural Archives and the British Library, invites researchers from across academic disciplines, creative practices, and other forms of knowledge making to present new thinking about the Grenada revolution, its origins and its aftermath.

Blog image
A selection of British Library collection items on the Grenada Revolution:
  • Maurice Bishop, One Caribbean: two speeches (Stoneleigh: Britain-Grenada Friendship Society, [1982?]). YD.2008.a.6793
  • Maurice Bishop Chris Searle, Grenada: education is a must (London : Education Committee of the British-Grenadian Friendship Society, 1981). Document Supply 83/00073
  • Maurice Bishop, Maurice Bishop speaks: the Grenada revolution 1979-83 (New York: Pathfinder, 1983). YC.1987.a.6465
  • Brian Meeks, Caribbean revolutions and revolutionary theory: an assessment of Cuba, Nicaragua and Grenada (London and Basingstoke, Macmillan Caribbean, 1993). Document Supply 93/04335
  • Chris Searle, Grenada: the struggle against destabilization (London: Writers and Readers Publishing, [1984]). Document Supply 96/33780
  • Address by Cde. Maurice Bishop, Prime Minister of the people's revolutionary government at the opening of the Caribbean Conference of Intellectual Workers, [at] the National Convention Centre, Grand Anse, St. George's, Grenada, November 20th, 1982. (Grenada : [Caribbean Conference of Intellectual Workers], 1982). YA.2003.a.38123

Themes for presentations might include:
- The place of the Grenada Revolution in longer and wider histories of Caribbean and socialist revolutionary movements
- The Revolution in this history of Black political thought
- Grenada and Black Power in the Caribbean
- The transnational entanglements and legacies of the Grenada Revolution
- Literature, music, film and visual art
- The invasion of Grenada and US imperialism
- The Grenadian diaspora in the aftermath of Revolution
- Memory and memorialisation

Contributors will be invited to give a 15 minute presentation based on original research or new ways of understanding the Grenada Revolution, and there will be ample opportunity for shared discussion and reflection. Presentations can be delivered online or in person.

If you have any questions please email [email protected].

If you would like to participate in the symposium, please email a 250 word proposal of your presentation, together with a CV, to [email protected], with 'Grenada Revolution Symposium' in the subject line. Please indicate in your email if you would like to present in person or online.