English and Drama blog

5 posts from June 2014

27 June 2014

Performance Archives: SIBMAS TLA 2014 - New York City


I have recently returned from the biennial SIBMAS TLA conference, which took place in New York City, 10-13 June. SIBMAS stands for Société Internationale des Bibliothèques et des Musées des Arts du Spectacle (International Association of Libraries, Museums, Archives and Documentation Centres of the Performing Arts). TLA is the Theatre Library Association, USA.

SIBMAS connects professionals from thirty five countries around the world working on institutional and independent performing arts collections of all genres. The theme for this conference was Body, Mind, Artifact: Reimagining Collections, with a special focus on dance archives.

Most dance and performance archives hold a substantial amount of video and audio recordings. The collections are ongoing and are frequently accessed by performers, companies, researchers and enthusiasts. For this reason they are often credited as living archives or artist-driven archives. Capturing and documenting the creative process, working with artists and re-purposing legacy materials are core tasks for these archives.

At the SIBMAS conference, keynote speaker Marvin Taylor, Director of the Fales Library and Special Collections, made the following bold statement: ‘Stop making the digitization of paper a priority. Most of the paper from the last forty years will be OK in ten years. Video, audio, and digital files will not’.

Preserving video is a challenge for all archives. The main components of this challenge and how these compare with those for other media formats is what I am going to briefly highlight here.

Access to video and audio recordings requires machines to play a wide variety of formats. Playback machines quickly become obsolete and disappear from the market. Once this happens, finding spare parts for existing machines becomes the only option to keep them working. To palliate the shortage of machinery and spare parts eyes and hopes are now on 3D printing technologies, but this has not yet been implemented in an archival habitat and it wouldn’t solve the problem of obsolete electronics.

Hence, access and preservation needs make it mandatory that recordings are transferred into digital formats. Digitization resources are generally not extensive enough for the ideal purposes of most archives.

Archival standards regarding the transfer of analogue video and the archiving of born-digital video are in dispute and therefore inconclusive. For example, the short history of digital video has already generated a plethora of diverse file formats, and although there are principles, there is no formal agreement on which codec ought to be used.

So far archivists have narrowed codec choices to four compressed for long-term archiving and one for uncompressed. That is out of the three hundred plus available out there. Also, every manufacturer produces its own codec and format.

Intrinsic to all born-digital video archiving procedure is the question of storage. HD formats contain five times more data than standard definition videos and those proportions multiply by four when considering files on 4K (cinema and Ultra High Definition TV standard) resolution.

I thought Marvin Taylor’s statement pointing out what we are up against with video collections deserved attention. In his words once more: ‘If we do not act now, we will lose the ‘incunable’ period of born-digital and electronic media’.

The conference also coincided with the 60th anniversary of SIBMAS and to mark such a special occasion TLA New York hosts opened the doors to some of the most renowned performance collections of the city. It was very hard to choose which institutions to visit from a list composed of Brooklyn Academy of Music, Carnegie Hall, Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Mark Morris Dance Group, MoMa Archives, Museum of the City of New York, New York Philharmonic Archives, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, New York University Fales Library, Paul Taylor Dance Company, Roundabout Theatre Archive, and the Shubert Archive.

I visited the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the MoMa Archives. Both were very impressive, but I am sure that would have been the case for all the archives mentioned above.

Curators and archivists from the NYPL Performing Arts division had prepared a special display for delegates, which included drawings, prints, a scale model of the set of the Broadway show Cabaret, photographs, 3D paper objects, an actual Tony and an Oscar awards.

We also learnt that the NYPL Performing Arts has over 24,000 dance films and tapes which are currently being digitized. Due to copyright, the majority of the collection is accessible on the premises only. Please see here for more information.

The icing on the cake for me was the Library’s jaw-dropping video tool, which allows researchers to compare several videos at the same time and create a link to share the results with others. NYPL’s Digital Curator Doug Reside explained how they have developed this and other tools in the NYPL Labs. More about the Labs here.

At the MoMa archives we talked to Milan Hughston, Chief of Library and Museum Archives, and Michelle Elligott, Museum Archivist and regular contributor to Esopus Magazine. Their Department of Media and Performance Art  houses, among others, the Fluxus collection, which came to the Museum from a private collector. The Museum Archive provides researchers access by appointment; they have an onsite database of the collections and over 30.000 electronic images from MoMa exhibitions. Most of their collection materials are yet to be digitized.

The papers from the conference will eventually be published. For more information about the conference programme, publications and useful performance arts links please visit SIBMAS website. That’s all from now, to be continued at the next SIBMAS conference: ‘Freeze! Challenge the Hierarchy: Researcher, Artist, User!’, which will take place in Copenhagen 2016.

With thanks to SIBMAS TLA  and to my colleague Andrew Pearson, our video expert here at the British Library.

26 June 2014

‘The most beautiful lyrical prose of the 20th century’: Happy birthday Laurie Lee

Laurie Lee in 1935 cropped

Laurie Lee in 1935

Laurie Lee was born one hundred years ago today in a house on the road that leads out of Stroud and climbs up through Slad, the Cotswold valley which he later immortalised in Cider With Rosie (1959). Gloucestershire is celebrating the centenary in style in a summer-long programme of events, but Laurie Lee’s popularity and significance goes far beyond the Cotswolds. Here at the Library, home to Laurie Lee’s archive, we held an early birthday celebration of sorts with an evening of readings and reflections from P J Kavanagh, Tim Dee, Brian Patten, Adam Horovitz and Louis de Bernières.

  Louis playing cropped
Brian Patten, Tim Dee and P J Kavanagh look on as Louis de Bernières plays the Spanish guitar

The centenary of Lee’s birth seems like an appropriate time to reconsider Lee’s literary legacy, not least because Lee seems to have felt that his work wasn’t fully appreciated by the literary establishment, hugely popular though it has always been.  After his overnight success with Cider With Rosie in 1959 Lee seemed to feel that his work was looked down upon in some quarters: ‘poor old Laurie, such a good poet, what a pity he’s now writing best-selling prose.’ Lee’s perception of his critical reputation was one of the points discussed by fellow poet and friend, P J Kavanagh:

Listen to P J Kavanagh remembering Laurie Lee

If Lee felt that he was regarded as a lightweight, it was perhaps a result of some of his early reviews. In response to criticism from the poet Roy Fuller who challenged Lee to leave aside nature writing, write about contemporary themes and use a greater range of verse forms, Lee responded: ‘You dare me to be more complicated, but I dare to achieve simplicity’. Luckily for us Lee was true to his word: he pursued his quest for the illusion of simplicity in prose and verse; his work continued to be infused with a sense of the past; and he proved himself to be one of the finest nature writers in the English language. This last point was the topic of naturalist Tim Dee’s talk:

Listen to Tim Dee on Laurie Lee's nature writing

Following a wonderfully humorous rendition of U A Fanthorpe’s poem ‘Dear Mr Lee’ by U A Fanthorpe, Louis de Bernières spoke about Lee’s last book and his own personal favourite, A Moment of War.

Listen to Louis de Bernières on A Moment of War

The full recording of Laurie Lee: A Celebration of his Life and Legacy will be available to listen to onsite at the Library shortly, but here are a few more clips of our guests reading from Lee’s work:

Listen to Brian Patten reading an extract from 'First Bite at the Apple', from Cider with Rosie

Listen to Tim Dee reading an extract from Cider with Rosie about the Slad Valley

Listen to Adam Horovitz reading an extract from 'The Kitchen', from Cider with Rosie

Listen to Adam Horovitz reading 'Edge of Day' by Laurie Lee

Listen to P J Kavanagh reading 'Home from Abroad' by Laurie Lee

If these clips have whetted your appetite to hear from Laurie Lee himself, you'll find a selection of recordings available on our recently released Laurie Lee CD, the latest in our spoken word series. And if you'd like to see material from his archive, a free exhibition on Lee and the Spanish Civil War is on display in the Treasures Gallery until 20 July. 

19 June 2014

Discover more about Jane Austen at the British Library

Jane Austen’s novels about life in Georgian England are now some of the most famous in the English language. The British Library holds two volumes of juvenilia created by Austen, a partial draft of Persuasion and a number of letters sent by the writer to her siblings. All of this material has been digitised as part of Discovering Literature along with contextual material such as published reviews of her work and a number of objects held at the Jane Austen House Museum.

The range of material on the website provides a real insight into both Austen’s life and her work. Austen was the seventh of eight children of Reverend George Austen and his wife, Cassandra Leigh. From an early age Austen wrote stories to amuse her family and friends. One example of this is her parody ‘The History of England’, a comic account of England from Henry IV to Charles I as told by ‘a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant historian’. Written when she was only 16 and including illustrations by her sister, Cassandra, it was a parody of published histories and in particular of the four volume The History of England from the Earliest Times to the Death of George II (1771) by Oliver Goldsmith. Cassandra’s sketches show the monarchs of England looking rather more like the common men and women than they would have wished with Henry VII looking particularly haggard!

  Add MS 59874

It is in the juvenilia that we first find the energetic, spirited heroines who can be seen as precursors for later characters created by Austen such as Emma Woodhouse, Elizabeth Bennett and Marianne Dashwood.

The letters shed light on Austen’s life and her relationships with her numerous siblings including Cassandra and her beloved brother, Frank, who she described as ‘considerate & kind’. In addition to family news Austen often wrote about her work including Sense and Sensibility of which she said that ‘I am never too busy to think of S[ense]&S[ensibility]. I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her sucking child; & I am much obliged to you for your enquiries’. Interestingly Austen also made a note of other people’s comments on her work including her mother and sister. Cassandra liked Emma ‘better than P[ride]&P[rejudice] – but not so well as M[ansfield].P[ark]'.

Such comments and contextual information about Austen provides an insight into contemporary views of her work and is particularly striking as the original manuscripts for many of her most famous novels do not survive. Happily the Library does have a draft of chapters 10 and 11 of Persuasion. The closely written, heavily annotated manuscript illustrates Austen’s creative process and hopefully its inclusion on Discovering Literature will enable more people to see Austen’s writing for themselves.

Egerton MS 3038

In addition to Jane Austen related content on Discovering Literature anyone with a particular interest in Austen should also look at the website, Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts, created by Professor Kathryn Sutherland, which includes digitised copies of all surviving Austen manuscripts and interesting articles for researchers. 

12 June 2014

Portraits Behaving Badly: Decadence, Degeneration and The Picture of Dorian Gray

In the very first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), a figure steps down from a painting and enters the action, instigating an enduring trend for portraits in Gothic novels to behave rather strangely. In Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), for example, written by Oscar Wilde's great uncle Charles Maturin, the eyes in a particular portrait appear to follow one of the characters around a room. Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of The Seven Gables (1851) contains a portrait that hides - quite literally - a family secret while Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Oval Portrait' (1842) features a model who becomes increasingly pale and still while her portrait blossoms with a lifelike radiance. Sensation fiction, which reached its peak in the 1860s joined in the pictorial mayhem - Mary Elizabeth Braddon's novel Lady Audley's Secret (1862) features a painting of the dazzling - and deadly - Lucy Graham with her lips twisted into a sneer; something the artist has unconsciously sensed rather than seen in Lucy's flawless beauty. Even poetry features the occasional disturbing portrait-related incident. In Christina Rossetti's 'In an Artist's Studio' the artist obsessively pores over the face of his model, gazing at her with an almost vampire-like intensity; something which leads to one of the most disturbing lines in all of Victorian poetry -  'He feeds upon her face by day and night'.

Then, of course, there is Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, a novel about a painting that bears the weight of its subject's debauchery and has to be hidden away from prying eyes.

Oscar Wilde Harry Keen 1925

(Above: Dorian Gray on his way to view the latest indications of disgraceful behaviour as manifested on the painting in his attic. Taken from a 1925 edition of the novel illustrated by Harry Keen)

The British Library's new Discovering Literature website features a wealth of material on both Oscar Wilde and The Picture of Dorian Gray, as well as articles on  Aestheticism and Decadence - schools of thought and ways of life that came to define so much of Wilde's work. The Picture of Dorian Gray, rather like Robert Louis Stevenson's slightly earlier novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) is a tale that reveals a great deal about the age in which it was written.

Many Victorians believed that sinful and shameful acts left a visible record upon the faces of those guilty of such activities. Dorian's ability to indulge every vice he dares to imagine while remaining forever youthful and unblemished frees him from suspicion. His soul may rot, in the form of the sodden and unclean painting, but he himself can maintain his position in society without so much as a single blemish on his visible character. This ability to lead a double life - respectable on the surface but disgraceful in private - was a notion that troubled many in Victorian society. What if politicians, clergymen, scientists and so on - so morally upstanding and  respectable when judged by their day-to-day appearances - were monsters of depravity behind their front doors? It was a terrifying idea, and one that came back to haunt Wilde himself.

Lippincott's Monthly Magazine. July 1890

(Above: Lippincott's Monthly Magazine for July 1890, the first appearance in print of The Picture of Dorian Gray)

When The Picture of Dorian Gray first appeared in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine reviews were harsh. The story was described as 'effeminate', 'unmanly' and - most damningly of all in the opinion of the British press - openly French in its aesthetic. Nothing, in late-Victorian conservative opinion, reeked quite so potently of filthy decadent practices as French literature. The yellow book, given to Dorian by his friend Lord Henry and which aids in his corruption is usually thought to be Against Nature, a novel first published in 1884 by the French author Joris-Karl Huysmans depicting the activities of a dissolute aristocrat, Des Esseintes. At one point Des Esseintes encrusts jewels onto the surface of a tortoise's shell so he can watch the dazzling rays of reflected light as the creature crawls across his carpets.  Des Esseintes, with his desire for perverse private pleasures was, whatever else, certainly not a prime example of healthy behaviour. No wonder, then, that the Scots Observer review of Dorian Gray denounced the book as fit 'for none but outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys', a reference to a homosexual brothel recently raided by the police on London's Cleveland Street.

Just as Dorian Gray becomes doubled with his portrait, and just as the Lippincott's version of the novel became doubled with the toned-down volume edition published the following year, then so did Wilde's public image become doubled with his private life.

Bard of Beauty 1880. Time Magazine 1880

(Above: The Bard of Beauty, by Alfred Thompson. Time Magazine, 1880)

Oscar Wilde played up, and played up brilliantly, to the idea of 'art for art's sake'. In an early cartoon The Bard of Beauty, which appeared ten years before the publication of Dorian Gray, Wilde was caricatured as being every inch the dandy. When scandal caught up with him in the form of allegations about his private life Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, and especially its first incarnation as published in Lippincott's, was used in evidence against him. Just as Dorian's portrait revealed the real nature of the man then so was Oscar Wilde's brilliant but troubling novel regarded by prosecuting counsel as revealing the true nature of its creator. Wilde's preface to the book, which included the lines - 'There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all'  - sadly cut no ice.

Art and the artist remain, for good or ill, two sides of the same coin in the eyes of many.

05 June 2014

Reading Shelley’s Ashes and Byron’s Hair

By guest blogger Julian Walker

The ashes of Percy Bysshe Shelley, contained within a British Library manuscript (Ashley MS 5022)

Ten years of being a reader have not blunted my delight in handling important editions of major literary works; the delight is even more noticeable when handling manuscripts. It is widely recognised that there is a particular kind of excitement when handling manuscripts by the major figures of the past - a letter written by Shelley to Byron, a notebook kept by Jane Austen, a draft made by H G Wells. But what exactly is the nature of that physical contact, and how does it affect our reading of the words? What happens when the ink and paper as ‘thing’ meets the words as ‘literature’?

As part of the research for the Discovering Literature website published by the British Library I recently examined a letter written by Byron to his publisher, John Murray, (Ashley 4753) from February 1824, two months before Byron’s death. The letter shows the signs of having been baked in transit for the purposes of disinfection; on the outside of the letter are the words, ‘Zante 25 February 1824 Received from our quarantine officer, resealed and forwarded by your very obedient servant, Samuel Carff.’ The object that proposes the desirable thrill of touching what Byron touched simultaneously presents the concept of contagion by disease, which both counters and mirrors that thrill. 

DL Ash 4753

Byron's letter to John Murray showing the signs of having been baked in transit for the purposes of disinfection (Ashley MS 4753).

Two other volumes take this idea forward, Ashley Ms 4752 and Ashley Ms 5022. The first contains letters to Murray from Byron, to Byron from Claire Clairmont (his onetime lover, and step-sister of Mary Shelley), to Claire Clairmont from Edward Trelawny, witness to Shelley’s cremation and perennial supporter to the Byron/Shelley circle, and from Augusta Leigh, Byron’s half-sister, to the Countess of Blessington. It also contains a lock of the hair of Byron, a lock of Claire Clairmont’s hair, and a lock of hair from their daughter, Allegra.

Byrons hair
A lock of Byron's hair (Ashley MS 4752)

C clairmont and allegras hair
Locks of hair from Byron's daughter Allegra, and Allegra's mother Claire (Clara Mary Jane) Clairmont (Ashley MS 4752)

The second volume contains letters from Mary Shelley to her friend Maria Gisborne, from Trelawny to Claire Clairmont, and a deed of conveyance, together with various certifying documents. What the documents certify is that the enclosures in Ashley 5022 contain a lock of the hair and some of the ashes of Percy Shelley, and a lock of the hair of Mary Shelley.

Hair of PB Shelley

A lock of P B Shelley's hair, enclosed in a British Library manuscript (Ashley MS 5022)


Shelley hair cartouche
Mary Shelley's hair is contained in the same manuscript as that of her husband. Her lock of hair appears beneath that of P B Shelley (Ashley MS 5022).

How are we to read these items, in the context of the elaborately finished volumes in which they lie together with handwritten documents?

After their deaths parts of the bodies of Byron and Shelley were separated, used as symbols, even sold. The lock of Byron’s hair was given by Augusta Leigh as a gift in recognition of help, while Claire Clairmont’s niece Paola sold Shelley’s hair in 1879. Byron’s larynx and lungs were removed from his corpse for interment in Greece, with the claim that these signified how the poet had ‘used his breath and voice for Greece’, according to Pietro Capsali, one of his comrades-in-arms in the Greek War of Independence. Byron feared this happening, asking, ‘Let not my body be hacked …’

Despite Fournier’s celebrated painting of the funeral of Shelley, his face and hands were unidentifiable after ten days in the water, a circumstance that perhaps intensified the value of his heart and skull. According to one of Trelawny’s accounts (there were several, with contradictions) Byron, present at Shelley’s cremation, had wanted to keep Shelley’s skull. Byron’s corpse, minus the lungs and larynx, was transported to Britain for burial, while the separated ashes and other remains of Shelley’s corpse lie in a number of sites; Mary was presented by Trelawny with Shelley’s heart, or its ashes, which she kept for the rest of her life preserved in a copy of Shelley’s Adonais, itself now in the Bodleian Library. Are these keepsakes, mementoes, attempts to preserve the physical in order to retain the past, objects to concentrate mourning, ways of acknowledging or of cheating death?

The hair, instantly recognisable as such, allows the projection of some kind of animation onto the personas of the people. These are things which ‘have been alive’, and therefore serve as proof of the people’s ‘aliveness’ - they make the person real rather than just a name in a book. The ashes of Shelley animate the myth of Shelley, so strongly energised by his mysterious death and the myths that sprang from it. Locks of Byron’s hair became as desirable as the single lock of Lucrezia Borgia’s hair evidently was to him (he stole it from a reliquary in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in 1816). But if the hair animates Byron the person, is this anything to do with the poetry – can it in fact divert our attention from Byron the body of work towards Byron the person? Does the myth of Shelley, so real on seeing the ashes, detract from the Shelley corpus. Even the available English words show how difficult it is to avoid mixing the two aspects.

We may not now touch the living people, but we can touch the things they touched with so great an effect – the manuscripts of The Masque of Anarchy or Don Juan. We cannot touch the hair or ashes, but we can touch the volumes in which they lie, and we can touch the glass bubbles holding the hair and ashes. Within the context of relics the number of links in the chain of contact between saint and supplicant, reader and genius, is largely irrelevant, provided the individual links can be known. Medieval relics were ‘created’ by laying cloths on the bones of saints – the cloths would have the same power as the bones. Pilgrims kiss reliquaries, with the same effect as would be gained from kissing the relics themselves. Bede, writing in the eighth century, tells the story of the death in battle of the Christian king Oswald, whose body was mutilated and set on a stake; people took soil from the place, put it in water, and used this to relieve the sick. Maybe it cured people, maybe it made them very much worse, but in providing an exact mirror to germ theory (the concept of infection by germs rather than poisoned air), it proposes that contagion and healing walk side by side.



The first page of Shelley's draft of 'The Masque of Anarchy' (Ashley MS 4086)

Just as healing and contagion cancel each other, and merge in the process of inoculation, Byron’s and Shelley’s bodies – their lives – merge into their work. Byron is the superlative Byronic hero, acknowledging in the preface to Childe Harold Canto 4 the minimal difference between himself and his hero – ‘slightly, if at all, separated from the author speaking in his own person’; Trelawny’s retelling of the cremation of Shelley’s body, 36 years after the event, has the drowned body as ‘entire’, tying in with Matthew Arnold’s assessment of Shelley the poet as ‘beautiful and ineffectual angel’. Our physical contact, at one remove, with their bodies simultaneously obstructs, mirrors and merges with our engagement with their work.

Byron Childe Harold
Byron's manuscript for Childe Harold, (Egerton MS 2027)

One last thought - a meeting in 1816 between four of the people whose body parts are mentioned above – Byron, Claire Clairmont, Mary and Percy Shelley (and Claire Clairmont was pregnant with the fifth, Allegra) - produced a famous story in which a whole extraordinary being is made up of disparate body parts: Frankenstein.

Ashley MS 5022 and Ashley MS 4752 can both be seen on the Discovering Literature website, alongwith other important literary manuscripts, including a letter from Shelley to Byron, praising his Don Juan, Leigh Hunt’s account of the death and cremation of Shelley, and parts of the manuscript of Byron’s Childe Harold.


This is the third in our Discovering Literature blog series, introducing the British Library's new website for Romantic and Victorian literature. Read our previous blogs here.