Writing Britain trip review
In July staff and students of the MA in Literature, Landscape and Environment went to see the exhibition at the British Library, Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands. To say we were impressed would be an understatement, but I offer here a variety of comments and reactions.
“The presentation and layout of the whole exhibition was striking and inventive. For example, the layout of the ‘Beyond the city’ section in which large pillars of cut-up photos of suburbs contained slightly uncanny booth-like fragments of city hinterland. The combinations of printed material with visual material was stunning in the choice of illustrated editions and manuscripts and collaborations between artists and writers or works that combined the visual with the textual. For example: Clare Leighton’s The Farmer’s Year was a 20thC Georgic with amazing woodcuts from 1933 in which agrarian labour was represented as a kind of heroism set against 1930s depression; Blake’s Jerusalem is an amazing paean to London, plus you got to see his notebook; the manuscript (with gorgeous illustration) of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; photographs of Simon Armitage’s Stanza Stones in Yorkshire (Marsden to Ilkley Moor) which were an intriguing combination of situation, readership and materiality – carved like the best graffiti you’ve ever seen; Liz Matthews’s Thames to Dunkirk (?2011) – with bits from Woolf, this was a 20ft long swirling tapestry. Other intriguing bits included John Taylor’s The Sculler (1612): Taylor was Thames Waterman – is this earliest working-class poetry? Toni Harrison surprisingly admired John Dyer’s industrial Georgic poem The Fleece (from 1757). James Berry’s ms notes for Windrush Songs – a rush of poetry and textual doodles.”
“What I thought was most interesting was the vast range of material on show. So many different types of literature were included – children’s books, 21st century graphic novels, early printed books, manuscripts and maps – and the way they were exhibited was also varied. A particular winner as far as I am concerned was the use of an early modern map of London as a sort of table covering on some of the side tables. It was terrific seeing the handwriting of so many classic authors; so many of the pre-20th century examples showed tiny writing crammed into every corner of the page, perhaps reflecting the value of paper. This type of material is likely to disappear with the growth of electronic media, which makes these examples so much more precious, I feel.”
“I wholly agree: an astonishing range of material. The curators are to be applauded for putting together such an intellectually rigorous exhibition. Very thought-provoking juxtapositions. The exhibition certainly punched above its weight: it felt a lot more capacious than the actual space. Inspired some ideas for MA teaching!”