‘Counter Archive’: Black Lives in the Archives

by Devika

Peter Brathwaite FRSA is a British baritone, broadcaster, theatre artist, music columnist and a developer of music programming. Read more here. His photographic book project Rediscovering Black Portraiture highlights Black individuals in the history of visual arts, and in a similar but more personal vein Brathwaite has undertaken research to uncover Black histories in archives.

At a workshop with the Bodleian Libraries project ‘We Are Our History’ 24 October 2023, held at the Weston Library for Special Collections, Brathwaite led participants on a journey through archives connected with Codrington College, Barbados, and other historical documents of Britain’s Caribbean colonies during enslavement. For Brathwaite there were familial connections: he found his ancestors Edward/Addo and Margaret Brathwaite, as well as his enslaver ancestor John Brathwaite, referenced in the records.

A key part of the workshop was the ‘counter-archive’ of material that Brathwaite brought into the Library, curated by himself, in the form of photographs, maps, a Bible, and song. The group sang ‘The Breadfruit Song’ together, with Brathwaite prompting participants to think about the vitality of singing compared to the loss of magic, aura, materiality and perhaps of reality when dealing with words on paper. While singing in the Bodleian sounds impossible and almost sacrilegious, music, as Brathwaite explained, is a critical experience and archive. An archive created by the disempowered. When denied their identity beyond being owned as property on paper, the traditional archive, music communicates that experience instead. Traditional archives thus necessitate the use of counter-archives especially in contexts where historically people have been denied inclusion in official records.

Bringing expertise to archival research, including familial and community memories preserved outside of archival sources, was an important theme of the workshop. Brathwaite gave the example of spotting specific words in documents whose significance might be missed by individuals unfamiliar with the relevant context. He pointed out that historical records referred to rebellions by enslaved individuals as ‘mischief’.  Mischief was a shorthand for living, he declared, especially for the enslaved. Words like ‘mischief’ could be used to connote the infantilization of the body of colour, to justify regimes of control.

The workshop led to a very well-attended lecture by Peter Brathwaite … which led to a short film … which led to the temporary display mentioned below.

Collaboration with artists, storytellers, academics and more, as part of the ‘We Are Our History’ project, goes beyond one off events. We are keen on helping researchers discover and work with the archives. This facilitates relationships with the archives, especially beyond traditional treatments, as in this case, that help both the Bodleian and researchers learn from these narratives, stories, unconventional treatments and counter archives. For the library, the learning is about being more inclusive of stories traditionally not told, and more aware of practices that sedimented a lack of inclusion–and how we can change those practices to be more inclusive in the future. Working with artists like Peter Brathwaite is an incredible learning experience for those involved in the initiatives but also for the library as a whole, and that is the purpose of these collaborations as opposed to performative checks.

The temporary display, ‘Mischief in the Archives,’ at the Weston Library until 7 April, draws out the themes of Peter Brathwaite’s archival research.  https://visit.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/event/mischief-in-the-archives

For more on this story see: https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/features/hearing-through-overwhelming-silence-enslaved-ancestors-found-bodleian-archives-opera

Peter Brathwaite at the Bodleian LibraryAlso watch the short film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NVQU7El6EqI


accident of birth | Stars the cause

In this blogpost, artist Hermeet Gill shares the inspiration behind her work made in response to the major Bodleian exhibition, Melancholy: A New Anatomy. The work is on view during February 2022 at the Weston Library, Oxford

Type and blocks on a 19th-century cast-iron printing press, with a printed sheet
Printing the segments of a ‘star chart’ for ‘accident of birth | stars the cause,’ by Hermeet Gill, at the Bodleian Bibliographical Press workshop

This artwork, created in response to the exhibition Melancholy: A New Anatomy, is inspired by Robert Burton’s interest in astrology. In The Anatomy of Melancholy, Burton writes that “a physician without the knowledge of stars can neither understand the cause or cure of any disease”. Today, astrology is held in opposition to science and evidence-based approaches, nonetheless, it intrigues me – this system built upon scientific observation, geometry, and mathematics, to make sense of human lives.

Astrology claims to predict a person’s character and life path based on the position and alignment of planets at the time and place of their birth. However, the exact time and place of our birth also determines who we are born to and our wider circumstances, earthly constellations of contexts which also predict much about our experience of life, including our mental health. Predict, but not determine.

Three star charts, one actual and two hypothetical, reflect a family history in which three previous generations (in the UK, Uganda and India) in turn designated a different place for my birth. Each unrealised life path left ink-smudge imprints on my life experience: in my genetic makeup, in the consequences of forced migration events, and in cultural legacies.

The tactile qualities of the process of letterpress printmaking inspired this work. Many thanks to Richard Lawrence, Superintendent of the Bodleian Bibliographical Press, where the piece was created.

Hermeet Gill is an Oxford-based artist, inspired by ideas, systems and data and how these can be structured and combined. She has recently completed commissions for the University of Oxford’s Wytham Woods, Arts at the Old Fire Station and Oxford’s Library of Things. Originally trained in engineering, she had a career advising organisations, including on innovation and has worked with the Science Museum, London and TED. Hermeet has been printing at the Bodleian Bibliographical Press since 2016.

Books as art and treasure: events from the Bodleian Libraries

The Bodleian Libraries award the Colin Franklin Prize for book collecting to a student of the University of Oxford every year. The competition for 2017 is now announced.  http://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/csb/fellowships/the-colin-franklin-book-collecting-prize Hazel Wilkinson (Cambridge/Carr-Thomas-Ovenden Fellow at the Bodleian Libraries), winner of the first Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize at the University of London in 2014, will speak about building a book collection, in

‘“best edit.”: Book Collecting and the Hierarchy of Editions’

Monday 7 November at 5:15 pm in the Visiting Scholars’ Centre, Level 2, Weston Library.Entrance with University card, via the readers’ entrance, Parks Road.For information: contact Alexandra Franklin alexandra.franklin@bodleian.ox.ac.uk

Lecture, 9 November 2016 1.00pm — 2.00pm, Lecture Theatre, Weston Library
Adeela Qureishi speaks about assembling the display of Mughal paintings depicting hunting scenes, from albums of paintings in the Bodleian collections.
The display is on view in the Proscholium, Old Bodleian Library.
This lunchtime lecture in the Lecture Theatre, Weston Library, is free but places are limited so please complete our booking form to reserve tickets in advance.

A Humument: fifty years
14 November 2016 4.30pm — 7.00pm   Lecture Theatre, Weston Library
In 1966, the artist Tom Phillips bought a copy of the forgotten Victorian novel A Human Document and started to work with it. With paint, cut-up and collage, he created a new story and a new kind of work: A Humument. The Bodleian is celebrating the final, fully revised, 50th anniversary edition with this book launch event.
Dr Gill Partington (University of Warwick) & Dr Julia Jordan (UCL); followed by dialogue between Adam Smyth (English Faculty) and Tom Phillips
This event is free but places are limited so please complete our booking form to reserve tickets in advance.



Shakespeare in 2016: podcasts of lectures in the Weston Library

Walter Colman, La danse machabre, or death's duell (1633) Bodleian Mal. 404

Four hundred years after his death, these talks by specialists revisit Shakespeare’s works, life, and times in the light of current research, as part of the Shakespeare Oxford 2016 festival and in connection with the Bodleian Libraries exhibition, ‘Shakespeare’s Dead’.

Bart van Es, 1594: Shakespeare’s most important year

In the summer of 1594 William Shakespeare decided to invest around £50 to become a shareholder in a newly formed acting company: the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. This lecture examines the consequences of this decision, unique in English theatrical history.

By examining the early modern theatrical marketplace and the artistic development of Shakespeare’s writing before and after this moment, it is hoped that this talk shows why 1594 was, by some measure, Shakespeare’s most important year.

Jonathan Bate, The Magic of Shakespeare

This lecture will celebrate Shakespeare’s immortality on the exact 400th anniversary of his burial. It will begin from Theseus’ famous speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream about the magical, transformative power of poetry.

It will argue that Shakespeare inherited from antiquity a fascination with the intimate association between erotic love, magic and the creative imagination, and that this is one of the keys to the enduring power of his plays.

Sir Jonathan Bate, Provost of Worcester College and Professor of English Literature at Oxford University, is one of the world’s most renowned Shakespeare scholars, the author of, among many other works, Shakespeare and Ovid, The Genius of Shakespeare, Soul of the Age and (as co-editor) The RSC Shakespeare: Complete Works. He co-curated Shakespeare Staging the World, the British Museum’s exhibition for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, and he is the author of Being Shakespeare: A One-Man Play for Simon Callow, which has toured nationally and internationally and had three runs in the West End.

Steven Gunn, Everyday death in Shakespeare’s England

Coroners’ inquest reports into accidental deaths tell us about the hazards of everyday life in Shakespeare’s day. There were dangerous jobs, not just building, mining and farming, but also fetching water, and travel was perilous whether by cart, horse or boat. Even relaxation had its risks, from football and wrestling to maypole-dancing or a game of bowls on the frozen River Cherwell.

Peter McCullough, Donne to Death

John Donne’s sermon, Death’s duell, was part of an early Stuart vogue for funeral sermons. Professor McCullough discusses Donne’s contribution to this genre, and looks at how this tradition is connected to the poetic and dramatic representations of death on display in the exhibition, Shakespeare’s Dead.

Katherine Duncan Jones, Venus and Adonis

Professor Katherine Duncan Jones, Senior Research Fellow, Somerville College, gives a talk on Shakespeare’s poem, Venus and Adonis.

In 1592-93, with London playhouses closed because of plague, Shakespeare wrote his most technically perfect work. Venus and Adonis (1593) is a highly original ‘take’ on the ancient Greek myth of the doomed Adonis – presented here as a pubertal boy incapable of responding to the goddess’s amorous advances. It was a tearaway success with Elizabethan readers.

Emma Smith, Memorialising Shakespeare: the First Folio and other elegies

Ben Jonson wrote in 1623 that Shakespeare ‘art a Moniment, without a tombe/ And art alive still, while thy Booke doth live’: centuries later Jorge Luis Borges observed that ‘when writers die, they become books’, adding, ‘which is, after all, not too bad an incarnation’. This lecture considers Shakespeare’s First Folio as a literary memorial to Shakespeare, alongside other elegies, epitaphs, and responses to the playwright’s death.

Part of the robe worn by Garrick as Richard III

Bodleian Vet. A6 c.172/1
A bound volume of playbills from 1815-16 contains ‘Part of the robe worn by Garrick as Rich III’

Two hundred years ago, Shakespeare’s birth/death day was marked by a performance at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, a pageant of characters from 16 of Shakespeare’s plays, and a recitation of the ‘Ode to Shakespeare’ written by David Garrick (1717-1779) for the Jubilee staged at Stratford in 1769.

A playbill for April 23, 1816, one in a bound volume [Vet. A6 c.172], shows that Mr Rae and Miss Grimani took the roles of the star-crossed lovers. The European Magazine was full of praise for Miss Grimani’s performance: of particular interest for the Bodleian’s exhibition, Shakespeare’s Dead, is the description of Juliet’s death: “Her last anxious effort to stagger to the dead body of her lord, after stabbing herself, and the sudden arrest of death, which compelled her to fall backwards, were finely conceived and beautifully executed.”

The owner of the volume attached to the back of the previous item a souvenir of Garrick himself: a piece of cloth, with sequins and silver embroidery, labelled ‘Part of the robe worn by Garrick as Rich. III’, a role for which the actor was famous, and in which he was famously portrayed in a painting by William Hogarth in 1745; though in the engraving by John Dixon from 1772 he wears a robe that more resembles the scrap preserved here.

Mathematical neckties and John Evelyn’s style notes

Men's Turkish jackets from Kars, plate 45, Max Tilke, Oriental Costumes: Their Designs and Colours, 1922. Copyright protected. Please do not use without permission.
Men’s Turkish jackets from Kars, plate 45, Max Tilke, Oriental Costumes: Their Designs and Colours, 1922. Copyright protected. Please do not use without permission.

The Art of Dress and the Reluctant Rejects

Verity Wilson, guest curator. The Art of Dress is on view in the Proscholium, Bodleian Library, until April 27 2015

Everyone wears clothes and so everyone has an opinion about them. Not everyone, of course, sets down their sartorial thoughts in writing but considerable numbers do as I found out when I curated The Art of Dress ( 26 February to 26 April 2015).  The exhibits in this Proscholium display represent just a few of the many western printed books about dress from the Bodleian’s rich collection. Over 400 years of publications about clothes, their different manifestations and many meanings, made the selection process woefully thorny so, as a way to make amends for leaving so much out, here are just four books that would have been included had there been space.

John Evelyn’s Tyrannus or The Mode, published in London in 1661 is a small volume reprehending the English craving for French fashions. Penned by the diarist and garden writer, it maintains that a nation should have confidence in its own individual style of dressing and not copy others. Full of witticisms and erudite quotations, the Bodleian copy belonged to Evelyn himself. It is signed by him and there are corrections in his hand throughout the text.

My second ‘waiting in the wings’ book is the exquisitely illustrated Costumes of the Russia Empire, published in 1803 as the fourth in William Miller’s  costume series. It attests to the growing interest in scientific ethnographic scholarship and the full-page coloured engravings include A female Baschkirian, A Barabintzian girl, A Kirghis on horseback, A Yakut in his hunting dress, A woman of Esthonia, and A Circassian Prince.

On Cellular Cloth for the Clothing of the Body: The Theory and Practice produced by the Cellular Clothing Company Ltd in 1888 is another reluctantly discarded publication.  The seeming contradiction between holes and heat was reconciled when Lewis Haslam (1856-1922), an industrialist and Member of Parliament, put Aertex into production at his Manchester mill in 1888. This lightweight cotton fabric, widely and expensively advertised,  very quickly became the established fabric for sports shirts and service uniforms, and generations of school children have worn the three-button, short-sleeve, collared shirt made from this material.

‘Why do people tie their ties in only one of four ways?’ ask two Cambridge University physicists, Thomas Fink and Yong Mao, in The 85 Ways To Tie a Tie: The Science and Aesthetics of Tie Knots. In 1999, when the book was written, this male dress accessory was already becoming obsolete and today the tie is not an essential part of correct dressing. For many years, however, all men wore ties in business and formal situations; Fink and Mao’s strategies might have added a dash of brio to the knotting process. The book combines mathematics with stylish creativity and it was disappointing to exclude it from the display.


Poetry, politics and war in the archives

On June 18, the opening day of the Bodleian’s WWI centenary exhibition ‘The Great War: Personal stories from Downing Street to the trenches’, the curator, Mike Webb, joined in conversation with representatives of two other institutions staging similar exhibitions: Frank Druffner, from the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach; and Julien Collonges, from the Bibliothèque Nationale et Universitaire Strasbourg. They were joined by Chris Fletcher, Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian Libraries, and by Christophe Didier, director for development of collections of the BNU Strasbourg, for a panel discussion on the theme of exhibiting the history of WWI. A partnership between these three institutions has included some reciprocal loans of manuscripts for display in this centenary year, with the aim of exploring the connections between national histories and the archival collections that hold memories of the War.

The discussion on 18 June, moderated by Stuart Lee (English Faculty, and director of The First World War Poetry Digital Archive), considered questions including how much historical truth is conveyed through poetry; how to tell the story of individuals during the war, and whether at the same time to acknowledge their later reputations;  and the roles of libraries and archives as repositories for national memories of war.

Profound differences in the national attitudes to the memory of WWI and the historical debates that have been generated around the centenary were explored in this discussion. It was evident that the three exhibitions, primarily shaped by the available collections in each place, were also responding to different audiences and contexts. Mike Webb described his approach in the Bodleian exhibition, which traces the history of Oxford connections with the war up until 1916, as seeking immersion in the historical moment, maintaining the immediacy of the impressions of fast-moving events as captured in letters and diaries, such as the diary of Lewis Harcourt, a member of Cabinet during the War, who in July 1914 recorded his deep dislike of the belligerent attitude of Winston Churchill. This curatorial approach contrasted with the challenges described by Julien Collonges, who will use the Strasbourg exhibition opening in Autumn 2014 to explore the work and relationships of three poets: Ernst Stadler, Charles Péguy, and Wilfred Owen. Collonges found in planning the display that he had to tell the story not only of the days of 1914, but of the post-war reputation of the poets, and this was both rewarding and problematic in the case of Péguy, whose patriotic verses have been appropriated by right-wing nationalists, with resonances for the later history of France and Europe.

The shadow of later events also falls on the survival of material; asked what single item the Deutsches Literaturarchiv would have liked to display, Frank Druffner described an album of drawings by the writer Ernst Jünger, who was also a noted entomologist, of insects in the trenches. The album was lost during WWII.

This event was supported by the Institut Français, the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Oxford German Network, the Fonds culturel franco-allemand, the Maison Française Oxford, and the Bodleian Libraries

Objects in the Lives of Writers: 19 September 2013

A one-day display in the Proscholium, Bodleian Library to coincide with the conference, The Lives of Objects, at the Oxford Centre for Life Writing, Wolfson College

Objects in Bodleian collections carry the memories of the lives and works of writers. Locks of hair, a traditional means of preserving the memory of the beloved, are shown in an ornate case that is part of the ‘Shelley Relics’, from the great Abinger Collection of manuscripts of Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, and their family. The supposed death mask of Dante (a severe visage that contrasts with contemporary descriptions of the living man) inspired later generations to believe they were in closer contact with the great author, at only one remove from viewing the face of genius.

At the outset, the writer confronts a blank page; in library collections, the inscribed pages of manuscripts are the destination of scholars who come to study every aspect – including the shape and quality of the paper – with meticulous care. A blank notebook of the type filled by Jane Austen with her juvenile writings is presented in this display. The pen is a tangible connection with the physical activity of writing. A pen from the Shelley collection, and one used more recently by Alan Bennett, will be on display.

A china figurine of a traveller, owned by Bruce Chatwin, is one of those privately treasured items that provided the material anchor to a story which took flight with the writer’s imagination. The bill estimating (at £38.19.6) the cost of repairs to T.E. Lawrence’s prized Brough Superior motorcycle, after the fatal accident in 1935, is a reminder of the power of objects, not only in the imagination.

The Bodleian Library Proscholium is open on weekdays at 9 am. The display can be seen in the Proscholium on Thursday, 19 September, until 5:30 pm.

Oxford’s other treasures: from Mill to Milligan

from Owen McKnight, Jesus College Library

The Bodleian Libraries are currently celebrating their long history of collecting with an exhibition of ‘Treasures’. Venerable as it is, the Bodleian was not the first library in Oxford: at least a quarter of the 44 colleges and halls had established libraries by the time the Bodleian opened in November 1602.

The college libraries have a continuous tradition of serving their members. They provide textbooks for today’s undergraduates at the same time as preserving and interpreting the historic books and manuscripts which have now become ‘special’ collections. The Committee of College Librarians has now published a new guide to the special collections in the care of Oxford’s colleges. [8 pages, PDF format].

Brasenose and Lincoln Colleges drawn by John Bereblock in 1566 (Bodleian Library, MS. Bodl. 13)

Previously, the only guide to such material in college libraries was the late Paul Morgan’s compilation Oxford libraries outside the Bodleian. This has long been out of print, but it remains a valuable reference for its detailed survey of early printed books, manuscripts, and archives. The new document is intended as an accessible and up-to-date complement.

Among many diverse holdings, the guide reveals collections of Civil War tracts across Oxford, in Christ Church, Lady Margaret Hall, Lincoln, and Worcester. Somerville has the library of John Stuart Mill – and St John’s has the papers of Spike Milligan. Many Old Members have presented their literary papers, and other donations have created collections of books and manuscripts predating colleges’ foundations.

Each of the colleges and halls remains independent, both of the University and of one another. There is, nonetheless, close collaboration, notably in 2008 when the Bodleian mounted an exhibition under the title Beyond the Work of One: Oxford College Libraries and Their Benefactors , still available to visit online.

Researchers who wish to explore these collections are welcome on application in advance.

Gatherings: a display

A ‘gathering’ (or ‘quire’) is made of one or more large sheets of paper, folded one or more times to make a single ‘booklet’ of leaves; these are then bound together in a sequence to make a book. Gatherings have been the basic building blocks of manuscript and printed books for centuries. The items in this display date from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. They show that gatherings can reveal much about the print culture of this period, from the ways in which books were constructed by printers and binders to broader, cultural questions about the composition, marketing and censorship of early modern texts.

See a report of The Gathered Text, a symposium on the subject of gatherings in book history.

Rebecca Bullard (University of Reading), Ian Gadd (Bath Spa University), Andrew Honey (Bodleian Library) and Randall McLeod (University of Toronto) selected the items for this display.

Click on any image to enter the gallery.