27 September 2023
Diane Hughes is a Professor in Vocal Studies and Music at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, and was a 2022 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
My research as an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow was undertaken at the British Library during April to May, 2023. I arrived with a long list of sources to examine - recordings, historical references, and a range of interviews. I am passionate about music and singing. The aim of my current project is to document the evolution of the contemporary singing voice and its intersection with, and the influences of, American and British popular singing. This includes the conceptualisation and contexts of contemporary singing that centre around questions of voice and identity and sociocultural perspectives of song and of singing. It also involves diverse perspectives of contemporary voice and related technologies.
At the British Library, I discovered and listened to first-hand accounts related to crooning and orchestrated singing, along with more contemporary types of singing.1 This furthered my understanding of the historical significance of the musical arranger, of different recording technologies, and of various creative intents and interests. As recording technologies adapted to enable singers to be isolated from surrounding musicians, or in recording sound booths, more nuanced styles of singing emerged.2 Such nuanced audibility is often attributed to the communicative capabilities of “the microphone”, however, my research identified that this equally related to artistic objectives and to modes of audience engagement.
Several reflective accounts by touring and established singers, and by musical arrangers, provided detailed information on specific career trajectories.3 These accounts also contained commentary on changing musical styles, vocal delivery and on individual artistry. They assisted in contributing to a timeline of why and where transition points in contemporary singing occurred–broadly involving the strident sounds of vaudeville, the smoother crooning styles, the resonant singing of orchestrated standards, the personally expressive singer-songwriters, the stylistic influenced revival of skiffle, the innovative vocalisms of jazz, and the contemporary characteristics of rock ‘n’ roll, rock, and pop. I found it exciting to further explore these transitions through “captured” singing in broadcasts and recordings, through to singing in “live” performances.
During my research, I uncovered several unexpected sources. These related to mid-20th century definitions of popular music,4 and pedagogical publications on contemporary singing.5 In 1950, a renowned pedagogue of her time, Miriam Spier, offered aspiring singers the salient advice to use “the best artists as your guides, analyze and experiment; do not merely imitate”.6 This exploratory approach is still relevant today and has much to do with the evolutionary nature of contemporary singing styles and sounds. Other sources alluded to the progression and succession of popular styles, where rock ‘n’ roll/rock was hypothesised as having “the characteristics of a temporary craze”7 or where the development of contemporary jazz singing followed an exploration of vocal sounds and words.8 Many sources referenced the popularity of singing in relation to individual or communal listening and, as such, the value of singing clearly extended beyond the performer to their audience.
The evolution of the jazz and popular singing voice in Britain and the USA is complex and multilayered. Each is highly influenced by creativity, technologies, sounds, styles, and people, and will adapt and evolve as vocal exploration continues.
My sincere thanks to the Eccles Centre at the British Library for the opportunity to conduct this research and to the librarians at the Sound Archive for their assistance during my visit.
1. Stan Britt Collection. Sound and Moving Image Catalogue. This is a collection of interviews with a range of jazz and popular music performers undertaken by Stan Britt during the latter part of the 20th century.
2. See, for example, Peggy Lee interviewed by Stan Britt (23/07/1977). Stan Britt Collection. Sound and Moving Image Catalogue. C1645/238.
3. Stan Britt Collection.
4. Peter Gammond and Peter Clayton, A Guide to Popular Music. London: Phoenix House, 1960. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection 2737.c.3. Music Collections REF M.R.Ref. 781.63.
5. Frank Sinatra in collaboration with John Quinlan, (c1946), Tips on Popular Singing. For the British Empire (excluding Canada and Australasia) and the whole of Europe, the property of Peter Maurice Music Co. Limited. Music Collections VOC/1946/SINATRA; Miriam Spier, (1950), The Why and How of Popular Singing: A Modern Guide for Vocalists. New York: Edward. B. Marks Music Corporation, . British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection 7889.b.43.
6. Spier, p.41
7. Gammond and Clayton, p.177.
8. Norma Winstone [interview] (1994). Oral History of Jazz in Britain. C122/206-C122/207.
26 July 2023
Lesley Finn is a writer and artist based in New Haven, Connecticut, and was a 2022 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
A library is an excellent place to connect with the dead. After all, many of its books, papers, and artifacts were made by those no longer living. But what about really connecting with the dead?
I came to the British Library to research Spiritualism, a religious movement with the core precept that the soul survives physical death, and that the living can communicate with the spirit world those souls inhabit. As a writer working on ghost stories and a visual artist working with text and book arts, I was fascinated by the drama of Spiritualism’s séances, the concepts explored by the movement, and the possibilities of visually interpreting its archival material. Much of what I write and make is concerned with how relationships endure barriers of material, time, and distance, and Spiritualism offers a unique way to think through this concern.
One distance that Spiritualism bridged was the Atlantic Ocean. Though the religion originated in the United States in the 1840s, it came to Great Britain soon after, and many of the movement’s notable practitioners crossed back and forth on visits. Transatlantic exchange shaped this spirituality—one that has been marginalised in the historical imagination as occult and other, though it was a popular religion for nearly a century, replete with churches and published hymnals.
At the same time that households across the US and Britain were establishing practices to communicate with the dead, the technology of the telegraph, another practice of communicating across space and time, spread in usage. The telegraph, a mechanism that relied on magnetic fields and electricity to transmit words from one person to another, had much conceptual overlap with the séance, which communicated disincarnate messages from the dead through the magnetic field and electricity of the human body, specifically that of a spiritual medium. This parallel was embraced by Spiritualists of the time, who called the séance a spiritual telegraph, and titled a periodical that circulated in the US in the 1850s with the same name.
The majority of Spiritualism’s history in the US and Britain takes paper form: in addition to periodicals like The Spiritual Telegraph, there are books published by The Spiritualist Press and other houses, along with photographed and written documentation of séances by groups like The Ghost Club (British Library Add MS 52258-52273) or by investigators (more on that later). The British Library contains a noteworthy addition to this history: the Dan Zerdin archive, which contains a rare 1934 recording of what was at the time considered the world’s largest séance. The Zerdin recording offers a first-hand, unfiltered experience of the historical Spiritualist movement.
With support from the Eccles Centre, I launched a project to study the archive and transcribe the recorded spirit messages from the séance into another form: telegrams. My idea was to take this documentation from an understudied religious movement and creatively reimagine it, with the goal of disrupting fixed narratives of “archives we are inclined to overlook,” to quote historian Tina Campt. Dominant culture is quick to dismiss the veracity of these spiritual communications, but what happens when we see them in a material form accepted by dominant culture? Perhaps changing the material encounter with an archive can shift our thinking and cultivate space for alternative accounts of experience.
I came to the work not knowing what I would find, expecting to be a bit disturbed. After all, years of watching horror films had taught me to be afraid of voices from the beyond. But what I found was a recording that documented a gathering of people working toward the common end of love, understanding, and community. Joyful messages rise above the static of the record. Fight the good fight. You’ll have all the help you want. Bless you. The 564 people in the London audience laugh and gasp, as do the 36 people participating in the séance on Aeolian Hall’s stage. At one point unexplainable piano chords drift through the recording; the sound is soothing, not haunting.
If contemporary attitudes towards séances and mediums are shaped by fear and othering, the same is true of past attitudes. The shadow of skepticism looms large in the history of Spiritualism, and I glimpsed it often in my research. In the catalogue listing of the Zerdin archive, for example, spirit voices are noted with the grammatical equivalent of a raised eyebrow, the scare quote. In contrast, the Zerdin archive includes a document that lists the people in spirit who communicated through the medium as attendees alongside the living, no distinction whatsoever.
I wonder about these subtle frames of doubt, how they shape our encounter with the archive. I repeatedly saw scare quotes in my research into other mediums, especially with the American medium who went by the name of Margery. In the decade before the Aeolian Hall séance, Margery visited London and became the subject of an extensive investigation by the Society for Psychical Research. Malcolm Bird, an American parapsychologist, authored a portion of the investigation’s outcomes, including the book “Margery”. Seeing her name on the cover and title page in quotation marks—regardless of how Bird or the publishers intended to use them—primes the reader to approach the material through the lens of doubt.
It's hard not to see the skepticism of Spiritualist experience as tethered to gender. Male mediums existed but women were the majority. Male mediums were investigated, but the archives are not filled with that documentation; instead we have accounts of vaginal searches that preceded Margery’s sittings, of photos of her in various restraints that would test her validity. Let’s not forget this was a religion, a belief system. Imagine an archive documenting Catholic mass, the priests required to prove transubstantiation as empirical, scientific fact!
The desire for proof is understandable, but can be limiting and misguiding, especially in the case of connecting with the dead. By rejecting an aim to falsify Spiritualist practices, we might create room for observation and insight that opens rather than shuts down possibility. British Library holding C1080/21 offers a practical tip.1 Here the medium of the Aeolian Hall séance, Florence Perriman, is asked to describe what it felt like to channel spirit voices. Her reply: “It’s a peculiar sensation at the back of my neck. It seemed to come both from the back of my neck and from the throat—can you imagine a tooth being drawn? Well, it’s just as though something was being drawn out of the back of my neck.” Being alive to sensation, to the peculiar, to our own processes of drawing out—Perriman’s note on communing with the dead sounds like research advice to live by.
Interview with Florence Perriman. 1934?. British Library, Sound and Moving Image shelfmark: C1080/21.
18 May 2023
Ben Fried was a 2022 Eccles Visiting Fellow at the British Library; he recently completed his PhD at Cornell University and is currently a British Academy Newton International Fellow at the Institute of English Studies in the University of London, where he is working on 'Migrant Editors: Postwar Migration and the Making of Anglophone Literatures, 1967-1989.'
I came to the British Library in search of publishing archives—the records of how books come into the world and reach their readers. As an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow, I was beginning a new project on 'migrant editors,' on the postwar immigrants to London who created and reinvented the capital’s literary institutions. How did migrant-led publishing houses and magazines develop through the decades of decolonization and shape later twentieth-century fiction, both British and more broadly Anglophone? I was hungry to understand the extent to which these editors harnessed and redirected London’s cultural and commercial power. I wanted to learn how their own hybrid identities influenced the writers they cultivated and the works they released. I knew the answers lay in letters, memos, pleas for money, and the margins of manuscripts.
And so I spent my month sifting through three archives in particular: the Virago Press records,1 Carmen Callil’s personal archive,2 and the files of Granta magazine (which are still being catalogued).
The famed feminist Virago Press was founded in 1973 by the Australian Callil and later led by a Canadian, Lennie Goodings. Sitting in both the Manuscripts and Maps Reading Room, I opened folder after folder of author correspondence, business plans, reader reports, all of them illustrating the fates of individual works and the larger sweep of an upstart publisher’s progress. Callil died just a few months ago, in October 2022, and her courage (not to mention her crackling wit and energy) is everywhere apparent in these archives. The picture they paint is not a solitary portrait, however, but a scene of collective literary labour, illuminated by the sparks that fly off creative relationships. Callil was a necessary node in a much wider network of readers, professional and lay, mobilizing to bring women’s stories to the centre of literary life.
Take, for instance, the folders devoted to Angela Carter, perhaps the most emblematic of Virago’s contemporary authors.3 They reveal a Carter who was as important a reader to Virago as she was a writer. You can track not only the agonizingly slow development of Carter’s Sadeian Woman (1978)—a study of the Marquis de Sade and 'the culturally determined nature of women'4—but her backstage interventions on other writers’ behalf. She submitted reports on manuscripts; she connected aspiring authors to an ambitious publisher. She acted as a go-between, and practically a second editor, for her former student Pat Barker, passing along Barker’s first novel with twelve pages of luminously insightful notes. On 8 January 1981, Callil replied that 'I’m deeply grateful to you for getting the book to me; I’ve offered for it and asked at the same time that they will let me work with her incorporating your alterations and suggestions.'5 Barker’s revised Union Street was published in 1982 and quickly became one of Virago’s biggest sellers, proof that a press famous for reprinting forgotten classics could also launch startlingly original fiction.
Granta was similarly electrified by a fresh arrival’s energy. A venerable undergraduate magazine at Cambridge which ran out of steam in the 1970s, it was relaunched by the American graduate student Bill Buford in 1979. Initially a channel for American literary influence—its first issue purveyed 'New American Writing' and its third proclaimed 'The End of the English Novel'—it became over the course of the 1980s a much broader magazine for writing in English, one that has exhilarated generations of writers and readers. The Granta records open a window onto the alchemical process of bringing an issue together. Along with his co-founders Peter de Bolla and Jonathan Levi, Buford began by working his academic connections and wielding his university’s clout, coaxing established authors to contribute and letting would-be writers down gently, hustling for grant money and blowing past unpaid bills. Given such ingredients and such results, it’s rather fitting that Buford followed up his celebrated editorial career with an equally ravenous second act as a cooking-mad writer.
One of the most famous of all Granta issues—the Spring 1983 number devoted to 'The Best of Young British Novelists'—shows how vision and opportunism, readerly recognition and marketing flair, could combine in the editorial act. Buford neither initiated nor chose this list of promising young writers. Rather, the 'Best of British' began as a promotional ploy by the Book Marketing Council. But Buford and Granta seized the potential of the list as an issue-shaping, generation-defining, audience-enticing format.6 They built on the Council’s own marketing push, selected excerpts from each author’s work, and made the list palpable to the reading public. Buford’s textual suggestions were not universally welcome. William Boyd embraced the idea of shifting a story’s pronouns, while Maggie Gee 'rejected every one of the [editor’s] 47 emendations.'7 Nevertheless, the magazine reaped the reward. Its cachet as a cultural arbiter immeasurably enhanced, Granta has returned to the format every ten years to anoint a new cohort (its latest 'Best of Young British Novelists' issue dropped just weeks ago).
I think of editors like Callil and Buford as readers with power—the power to select, revise, and reject. Editorial reading can be a generous force, releasing the creativity of others and realizing the potential in the text. By the same token, it may also be damaging, turning the tap off as well as on. Insofar as they can be recovered in archives such as those held by the British Library, the editor’s contributions tell us a great deal about writers, readers, and publishing institutions—about where and how power and creativity intersect.
1. Add MS 88904.
2. Add MS 889178.
3. In the 1970s and 80s, Virago was primarily known for reprint publishing: recovering and reissuing the works of neglected women writers. The Virago Modern Classics series, with its beloved green spines, introduced a generation to the books of Sylvia Townsend Warner, Stevie Smith, Christina Stead, Rosamond Lehmann, and many, many others. See D-M Withers, Virago Reprints and Modern Classics: The Timely Business of Feminist Publishing (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2021).
4. The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography (London: Virago 1978), 1.
5. Add MS 88904/1/60.
6. See Myles Oldershaw, “Granta and the Advent of the Contemporary,” Journal of Modern Literature 43.1 (Fall 2019), pp. 150-168.
7. Deposit 11183 L. in 44.
04 April 2023
Bobby C. Martin was a 2021 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
I am not a researcher in any traditional sense of the word. I am a visual artist—my practice consists of primarily painting and printmaking. So even applying for an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellowship was an act of stepping outside my comfort zone. When I received word that I had been accepted, it made me realize even more that I had no idea what I was getting into. My non-art faculty colleagues in the U.S. (researchers all) were so impressed that I was going to be able to spend several weeks in London at the British Library doing research. All the while, I was battling imposter syndrome—was I even going to be allowed in the building? What was I supposed to do when I got there? How does one go about doing ‘real’ research? Are there YouTube videos for that?
I can now report that all my fears and doubts were totally unfounded. The Eccles Centre staff were incredibly helpful and generous with their time and knowledge and the Library’s Maps team went out of its way both to make space for my untrained questions and to make the collection as accessible as possible. The process of requesting materials was fairly painless to learn and actually became wonderfully exciting as I stumbled upon many items that were well beyond what I had expected or even knew existed. I actually started getting into this whole ‘research’ thing! The time spent in the various Reading Rooms—touching, smelling, experiencing historic maps and materials—allowed me the opportunity to deeply explore items that have already made a tangible difference in the way I approach my art practice.
I came to the Library (I thought) to research the Library’s map collections, specifically maps related to the Southeastern United States. Georgia and Alabama were part of my Mvskoke tribe’s ancestral homelands. Ultimately, I found much more than maps—books, hand-written journals and photographs that helped flesh out my research in ways I hadn’t anticipated. These materials have already found their way into my current work, and informed a large mural project I recently completed that drew from much of the material I discovered during my fellowship.
While I might have been able find the material I needed for this large history mural project online, the research experience of being in the presence of the actual documents themselves deeply informed every design decision I made, and the resulting installation is a work that would not have been as rich and personally satisfying otherwise.
So does my experience as an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow make me an official ‘researcher’? I don’t rightly know the answer, but I do know that it was a game-changer for the way I approach my art practice going forward. I have a new appreciation both for the wealth of material that is available to anyone with a British Library Reader Pass and its accessibility for even the most unskilled of researchers. I appreciate the desire of the Library staff to share their amazing storehouse with all comers. I have a new-found interest in going down rabbit trails that lead to the most unexpected of discoveries that then find their way into my work. Poring over (and enjoying the smell of) centuries-old documents and hand-engraved maps brings me a real (if unexpected) joy. If this is what research is all about, then I am most pleased to call myself a researcher. Thank you to the Eccles Centre and the British Library for the opportunity!
To see images of new work and the mural project that was informed and influenced by my British Library research, please visit my Instagram page @bobbycartist.
23 February 2023
Naomi Krüger is a senior lecturer in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Central Lancashire and author of the novel May; she was a 2021 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
My current research project is a historical novel set in 1842 in two very different cities: Nauvoo, Illinois and Preston, Lancashire. These places, though geographically distant, are linked by the arrival of Mormonism and its turbulent growth, movement, and ongoing legacy.
Growing up as a Mormon in Preston, I was acutely aware of this history. I regularly heard stories about the missionaries who crossed the Atlantic, arriving in England in 1837 and travelling straight from Liverpool to Preston due to a family connection. I was told of their astonishing success in baptising converts, finding an unexpectedly warm welcome in Lancashire, the Ribble Valley and beyond. Subsequently, there were thousands of baptisms, and these new members were very quickly encouraged to emigrate and join with the American Saints in Nauvoo – a growing city on the banks on the Mississippi. By 1844 over four thousand British converts had made this journey, making them a significant minority in a city that was about to face new challenges after the death of the founding prophet Joseph Smith.
While I was proud of living somewhere that had such historical significance, I also became aware that my access to stories of these early converts in Lancashire was circumscribed. In the official narratives found in lesson manuals and church histories, these people usually became nameless, swallowed into a wider mass of emigrants, and later assimilated into the ideal image of hardy pioneers who made the trek west to Utah. In this oversimplified narrative, Preston is Babylon - a place of smoke, corruption and exploitation - and Nauvoo is Zion - the land of promise, a place of hope, community, and righteousness. Missionaries are unfailingly heroic, intelligent, and filled with power. Converts, on the other hand, are poor, humble, and self-sacrificing.
As a writer and researcher, I am eager to move beyond this. What about the converts who stayed in Preston because they couldn’t afford to go, or wouldn’t make the sacrifice? What about those who lost their faith part-way through the journey or found that Zion was not exactly what they expected when they got there? What would it have felt like to be a missionary who began to doubt? How did the social, economic, and religious conditions of Preston at that time, intersect with the desire so many people had to start a new life elsewhere?
My novel-in-progress follows a herbal physician converted to Mormonism and trying to establish himself in Nauvoo. He finds hope and spiritual sustenance there but is also drawn into a web of secrets, rituals, and unspoken rules. When he is challenged by the charismatic prophet to sacrifice his growing medical practice, travel to England, and persuade the converts in Lancashire to emigrate back to Zion, he discovers a town divided. Preston is still reeling from the aftermath of a massacre of striking millworkers and simultaneously preparing for a lavish, once-every-twenty-year celebration of civic pride. As he grapples with cultural differences, and his unsuccessful attempts to convert a woman still bitter after being left behind by a family member who has previously emigrated, disturbing dreams of Nauvoo begin to disrupt his present calling and his still fragile faith is put under increasing amounts of pressure.
The Eccles Centre's Mormon Americana bibliographic guide has been an invaluable tool for me as I explore these questions and develop my fictional world. From primary sources like pamphlets, hymnbooks, and scriptures, to a wealth of secondary texts that detail the challenges of life in Nauvoo as a frontier city, I have been able to gather important context - details that will not only inform my world-building, but even, in some cases, change the actions and decisions that my characters make.
Seeing illustrated plans of the Nauvoo temple during my research, for example, sparked new curiosity about ritual baptisms that has led to the development of an important subplot in the novel.
Reading letters written by women in Nauvoo discussing death and doctrine alongside recipes and household tips has enabled me to create a more detailed and textured picture of life in an unfamiliar place and time.
Handling a well-loved British hymnbook covered in the owner’s urgent annotations reminded me of the importance of honouring sacred experiences of faith as much as I seek to complicate them.
The challenge of writing historical fiction is to negotiate a balance between research and imagination, the needs of a story alongside the demands of historical evidence. I am still in the middle of this complex process, but I have no doubt that the notes and images I have gathered from my time as an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow will continue to find their way into the creative work in unexpected and transformative ways.
14 February 2023
In this second installment of a series of blogs, Philip Clark shares his experience of being a 2022 Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer's Award winner.1 The Writer's Award offers £20,000, a year's residency at the British Library to develop a forthcoming book, and the opportunity to showcase work at Hay Festival events in the UK and Latin America. Philip’s book – Sound and the City – will be a history of the sound of New York City and an investigation into what makes New York City sound like New York City.
For a few months at the end of last year, I communed daily with Dutch colonials of the mid-1600s. In various roles, taking various responsibilities, the likes of Peter Stuyvesant, Adriaen van der Donck, Peter Minuit, Willem Kieft and Cryn Fredericks established the city of New Amsterdam which, by 1664, had become the English colonial city of New York.
Having already taken the deepest of dives into 1920s New York, through the work of the composer Edgard Varèse and the novelist John Dos Passos, I decided that my book Sound and the City – my history of the sound of New York City – needed to flip the chronology on its head. The 1930s will follow, but later, and in the meantime I engineered a flashback to the beginnings of recordable time itself, and to the Ice Age. In the span of this history, the appearance of Dutch colonials a mere three-and-a-half centuries ago feels relatively contemporary. When they turn up, their interactions with the Indigenous People, who had populated that coast for centuries, pivots the story into something more like countable time, a reassuringly familiar turnaround of years, decades and centuries again after thinking about time in units of hundreds of thousands of years.
My subject is sound. Music-writers are often called upon to speculate about where music might be heading next, although writing this section of my book made me realise that second-guessing the root sounds of the deep past is no easy matter either. How do you ‘hear’ sounds of which no recorded example exists? Listening in to the modern-day city is normally a good starting point, and one afternoon last summer I took an ‘A’ train from Penn Station in midtown Manhattan to where the line terminates at Inwood 207th Street.
A fifteen-minute walk later, I found myself in deserted woodland, the trilling of sirens cutting through from downtown the only clue I was still in New York City. I’d come to Inwood Hill Park because this park, perched on the far northern tip of Manhattan, has preserved something of its prehistory. This is where you come to look at New York’s oldest rock formations; to trace how the imperceptible tread of glaciers scooped out what would become the landmass of New York. Inwood was the place Native Americans gravitated towards over centuries, its caves and bountiful ecosystem providing shelter and sustenance aplenty.
Although probably a wishful-thinking myth, Inwood Hill Park is also purportedly where, in 1626, Native Americans sold the island of Manhattan to the Dutch colonial governor Peter Minuit for 60 guilders. More likely, this meeting actually took place farther downtown, where Peter Minuit Plaza stands today, near Battery Park. But numerous mythologies all converge around the inlet of the park where the meeting was said to take place. This was where the British explorer Henry Hudson supposedly dropped anchor in September 1609, having made landfall a couple of weeks earlier at Sandy Hook. A tulip tree started growing there a century later and, as a commemorative plaque makes clear, the tree, 280 years old when it died in 1932, represented the last living link with the Native Americans who had lived here. In a city that became celebrated for high-rise structures, the tulip tree was a pioneer. Towering over the park, its height reportedly equivalent to a seventeen-storey building, it resonated as a marker of a past that had moved beyond collective memory – a potent symbol in a city that was otherwise engaged in relentlessly inventing its future.
Almost as soon as I arrived in the park, though, a shock. The 4G on my iPhone fizzled out, then Google maps froze, and I was rudderless. In an area of the park now called ‘The Cove’, the slug-like progression of glacial erosion spooned out the innards of the earth and the glacial potholes that resulted – some 50,000 years old – look bracingly abstract to me, like sculptures by Henry Moore or Seymour Lipton thwacked into the earth. They also look unmistakably like disembowelled speakers, I thought, with their cones ripped out, but still receptible to sound. My awareness that darkness was about to fall kept me moving, pushing through the woods, using paths trampled into the ground over centuries, with a covering of tulip trees above my head. I followed the reassuring rumble of cars and, more through good luck than canny navigation, found myself staring at the Henry Hudson Bridge, which crosses the river into the Bronx. At that precise moment my iPhone pinged back to life and I located my position. I was looking across at Spuyten Duvvil Creek – where the Hudson River meets the Harlem River Ship Canal – and the rock formations I could see, which I discovered subsequently are called Fordham Gneiss, are a billion years old.
A few weeks later, back in the relative safety of the Rare Books and Music Reading Room at the British Library, I searched for sources that might help explain my afternoon in Inwood Hill Park. This has been the rhythm of writing this book so far; intense field trips followed by equally intense research binges at the Library. Unpicking the mythologies surrounding the tulip tree took hours of poring over old newspapers and contemporary reports. Mythology should never be dismissed lightly. What mythologies tell us about a city’s sense of its own history is intriguing in itself. But chipping away the layers of folklore to reveal what actually happened was important too.
Something else that needed to be chipped away at: those ancient rock formations scattered around Inwood Hill Park. One great pleasure of British Library research is the ease with which you can slip outside your own area of expertise, and, in Rare Books and Music, I began a fingertip search through geological and flora-&-fauna reports relating to the park. My examination of New York’s oldest rock formations was about determining how nature created this giant resonating chamber later called New York City, where all sorts of sounds would happen. Slipstreams of sound ricocheting around the city is central to my obsession, and examining how geological activity established this field of play gave my book its roots.
The moment the colonials arrive, primary sources bounce into life. Adriaen van der Donck’s A Description of the New Netherlands (1641), Daniel Denton’s A Brief Description of New-York: Formerly Called New-Netherlands (1670) and Jaspar Dankers and Peter Sluyter’s Journal of a Voyage to New York (1679-1680) are all fantastically vibrant accounts of the emerging city of New Amsterdam and the surrounding wilderness. Colonial fascination with the possibilities of this new world against the reality of what had been there before, the presence of Indigenous people in particular, leaves a bitter aftertaste. Dutch colonialism was ultimately responsible for – through landgrab and brutal repression – the decline of Indigenous Peoples. One needs to be aware of this wider historical context using this material and read with caution, but there were little clues in each journal – a sound here, a sound there – that allowed me to build a soundscape.
A few basics became crystallised; the distinction between the ‘downtown’ of the New Amsterdam, the huburb around the fort, and the streets that fanned out around it, against the bucolic peace of the bouwerie farms beyond the city walls, where the East Village and Chinatown sit now. Jaspar Dankers and Peter Sluyter – a pair of visiting priests – took the same trip to Inwood Hill Park I did nearly 350 years later. Fortified by supplies of peaches from the local orchard, they tackled the churning “eddies and whirpools” of Spuyten Duvvil Creek in a hired canoe (which they complained was over-priced). My discovery, sitting in a reading room on Euston Road, that they saw the same rock formations which had filled me with awe: “two ridges of very high rocks, with a considerable space between them, displaying themselves majestically, and inviting all men to acknowledge in them the majesty, grandeur, power and glory of their creator”, sent shivers down my spine. Shaking hands across history with fellow travellers. Who, I note, had no need for 4G.
1. Philip Clark's first Writer's Award blog may be found here.
07 February 2023
Cassie Quarless is a filmmaker was a 2020 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
As a documentary director, a large part of my job is mining my mind and my experiences for subjects that I am excited about and that I want to share with others. One such subject is the connection and exchange that exists between the music and musical cultures of the Caribbean, United States, United Kingdom and West Africa. During my time at the British Library I sought to research this further.
I was really struck by the British Library's collection and its wealth of Black British music, which spans a wide range of genres and styles, from early blues and jazz to contemporary grime and hip hop. The collection holds a wealth of resources for researchers, including sheet music, recordings, and concert programmes, as well as a range of scholarly publications and academic works on the subject.
One of the main issues that I had at the British Library - coming from the film/moving image space and having had a background as a DJ - was that I really wanted to be able to riffle through the Library’s collections like one would in a friend’s home or in a record store. After having spoken to and met with various incredibly knowledgeable members of the British Library staff, I ultimately got the hang of the different systems that the Library uses to catalogue its extensive collections and was able to navigate them in a more natural way.
One particular non-recorded music gem for me was the unpublished collection of correspondences by Andrew Salkey, a Caribbean-born writer and publisher who played a crucial role in promoting Black art and literature in Britain during the 1960s and 70s. These letters offer a unique perspective on the experiences and thoughts of one of the leading figures in the Black arts movement, and provide valuable insights into the cultural, political, and artistic context of the time.
I was particularly struck by Andrew Salkey’s correspondences with the Jamaican poet and academic Kamau Braithwaite and what they suggested about the expressed sharing of knowledge and thoughts about art (whether they be visual, literary or musical). Much of the correspondence that I read was dated from the mid-60s and onward into the 70s.
Both sides of my family are from the Caribbean (Grenada to be precise) and I was always regaled with stories of family ties and friendships that were lost through migration to the United Kingdom, other Caribbean islands or to Latin America. It had basically become a foregone conclusion for me that within the context of the Caribbean and its diaspora, the distance of the sea meant the death or at least serious atrophy of social connections during the 60s and 70s. When it came to music, it was felt that records from the Caribbean came to these shores with much of their context and intellectual intention removed - after all, only the most successful acts actually got to travel to the UK to perform and to spread their messages.
What Salkey’s correspondence with Braithwaite underscored was how much conversation was happening between interested parties across the Atlantic. People were not only exchanging art critique but also referring to their cross-nationally intermingled lives and social connections.
I am sad that my time as an Eccles Fellow at the British Library will end before the launch of its landmark exhibition centred on Black British music presented in collaboration with the University of Westminster. I was, however, definitely impressed by the British Library's collection and the breadth of materials that it contained. The collection not only documents the music itself, but also the broader cultural and social context in which it was created. This includes a range of materials that shed light on the experiences of Black musicians in Britain, including recordings of live performances, interviews with musicians and industry professionals, and articles and essays on the subject.
As a filmmaker and as a fan of music, my time at the British Library has definitely given me some new and valuable insights, but more importantly it has gotten me thinking even more deeply about the connections that I was looking to elucidate. I will be back here often as my project progresses.
25 January 2023
Philatelic comics, cartoons and caricatures comprise an important research resource in assessing public response to postage stamp design. Published globally from the nineteenth century to the present era, examples of this genre are in the thousands. Significant cartoonists, writers and illustrators had a hand in their creation, as exemplified by the life and work of the Australian historian, artist and writer Montague Thomas Archibald Wedd.
Born on 5 January 1921 in Glebe, New South Wales, Wedd worked as a junior poster artist for a printing firm, then as a designer and illustrator for a furniture manufacturer. Serving in the Australian Armed Forces during the Second World War temporarily interrupted his studies at the East Sydney Technical College in commercial art. Upon completing his studies on the restoration of peace, he produced his first comic strip under the moniker ‘Monty Wedd’ titled ‘Sword and Sabre.’
Following its commercial success, Wedd developed several other important Australian comics including ‘Bert & Ned,’ ‘Captain Justice’ (Figure 1) and ‘Kirk Raven.’ In 1954, he created his best-selling strip ‘The Scorpion’ and became a prolific cover designer for various pulp fiction novels during the 1950s. In 1963, Wedd turned his hand to animation producing ‘Marco Polo Junior versus the Red Dragon’ and the ‘Lone Ranger.’
Wedd also used his amazing talents of art and narration for didactic purposes. In 1966, he created the cartoon mascot ‘Dollar Bill’ to educate the public about Australia’s imminent switch to decimal currency. Later, he produced artwork for the Captain Cook Bicentenary celebrations in addition to a pioneering biographical comic strip chronicling the life of iconic nineteenth century bushranger, Ned Kelly.
Retiring from comics in 1977, Wedd established a museum dedicated to the Australian army with his wife’s support and published a richly illustrated, informative monograph ‘Australian Military Uniforms 1800-1982’ just five years later in 1982 (Figures 2-3). Returning to comics in 1988, Wedd created the long running historic comic strip ‘The Birth of a Nation’ chronicling Australia’s history published in various newspapers. Given this prodigious output, Wedd received the Order of Australia in 1993 for his services as an author, illustrator and historian. Sadly, he passed away on 4 May 2012 in New South Wales aged ninety.
From its launch in 1954, Wedd provided regular contributions to the important new Australian philatelic magazine ‘Stamp News,’ submitting over two hundred comics and illustrations to the editor, which became one of the publication’s most popular features. In their totality, this corpus of material provides a potted cultural history of the world narrated through the lens of stamps, postal history and collecting.
Wedd’s Stamp News work comprises of three distinct categories. First, ‘Postmen in other lands’ being a potted global history of postal communication from ancient times to modernity. Each instalment comprises a single illustration accompanied with a short body of text as illustrated by shown by these two instalments on the Sleigh Posts of North West Canada and Pony Express of the U.S. Mail (Figures 4-5).
His second, longer-lasting series ‘Stamp Oddities’ developed on the previous format, each one devoted to a particular stamp design or historical vignettes from postal history as well as stamp collecting. These generally comprised several connected or independent illustrations, accompanied with a short paragraph of relevant information. This ‘The Inca Post’ strip takes inspiration from the six-peseta stamp depicting an ‘El Chasqui’ issued as part of Spain’s 1966 ‘Explorers and Colonisers of America’ issue (Figure 6).
Another example, ‘Long Legged Lady’ provides a description of a popular masquerade character performed by the Mother Sally Dance Troupe depicted upon Guyana’s 1969 ‘Christmas’ stamp (Figure 7).
In ‘Fake Signature’ Wedd recalls the public uproar occasioned by the US Post Office’s announcement that it amended George Washington’s signature on the design on the USA 1960 4c stamp of its ‘American Credo’ issue to make it more legible (Figure 8).
‘Women Pirates!!’ was inspired by two stamps from Grenada’s 1970 ‘Pirates’ issue to raise awareness of famous female pirates once active in the Caribbean (Figure 9).
However, Wedd’s most developed contributions comprised single-page comic strips, narrating the cultural contexts of particular stamps or philatelic themes. ‘First Born’ recounts the story of the first baby of English parentage born in America via the United States of America’s 18 August 1937 ‘Virginia Dare’ 5-cent stamp (Figure 10).
‘The Pitch Lake’ based on Trinidad and Tobago’s 1953-1959 ‘Definitive’ issue 6-pence stamp looks into the historic, geological and economic background of this world famous geological landmark (Figure 11).
‘The Legend of Toivita Tapaivita’ was part of of a series commemorating myths and legends of Papua New Guinea (Figure 12). This particular instalment was based on 60-cent stamp of Papua New Guinea’s, 8 June 1966 ‘Folklore, Elema Art’ (1st Series) issue.
The story of how Tierra Del Fuego issued a set of local stamps in 1891 forms the crux of the narrative in ‘Tierra Del Fuego: Land of Fire’ (Figure 13).
Finally, ‘The First Fleet’ focuses on the establishment of Britain’s penal colony in Botany Bay as seen through a couple of Australia’s commemorative postage stamps from 1938 (Figure 14).
Inspired by various texts and illustrations as well as postage stamps, the intertextual nature of Wedd’s work effectively culminated in the generation of creative new cultural meanings. Influencing mid-twentieth century western worldviews, Wedd’s work provides a powerful example of response to postage stamp design from a highly talented artist and influencer.
By Richard Scott Morel, FRPSL
Curator, British Library’s Philatelic Collections
The British Library’s Philatelic Collections: Stamp News Australia.
Toby Burrows and Grant Stone. Comics in Australia and New Zealand. Routledge, 1994.
Monty Wedd. Australian Military Uniforms 1800-1982. Kangaroo Press, 1982.
Monty Wedd. Captain Justice. Sydney, Australia: New Currency Press.
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