Through a series of Leverhulme lectures and workshops, Kristin Bluemel will bring her knowledge of how the rural has been represented and debated across three centuries in literature and art into dynamic conversation with scholars from across the North East who are interested in ‘rural Britain’ from a range of disciplinary perspectives
Eighteenth-century Newcastle was a thriving metropolitan centre, with its coal trade driving the industrial as well as cultural revolutions of the English Enlightenment. In 1767, the artist, writer and naturalist Thomas Bewick entered the city as a 14-year old apprentice in a busy engraving workshop. Newly arrived from the small family homestead of Cherryburn in the Tyne Valley, the young Bewick was assigned a low-status job of engraving wood blocks for illustrations to Charles Hutton’s mathematical Treatise on Mensuration. An obsessive doodler since early childhood, Bewick delighted both author and master with his innovative illustrations. This early project launched his extraordinary career as the region’s and then country’s leading illustrator. Most famous for his wood engraved books of natural history, especially his two volume A History of British Birds, Bewick won the hearts of children with his tail-pieces (“tale-pieces”) of rural life which appeared in the white spaces at the ends of his book chapters. These miniature portraits of young and old, engaged in the ordinary pursuits of country life and produced by an artisan in one of the burgeoning cities at the start of the Industrial Revolution, provide a perfect jumping-off point for this Leverhulme Visiting Professorship, to be held at Newcastle University. The project’s aim is to put the rural back at the heart of our thinking about culture, by convening a diverse range of researchers and expertise to develop the emerging, interdisciplinary field of ‘rural humanities’.
Despite what many might think in this post-industrial and technological age, the rural remains fundamental to how the UK works. England’s rural enterprises contribute over £250 billion to the economy, equivalent to the value of the output of the country’s ten leading cities outside of London. Researchers at Newcastle University are already well-known for their work in this sector, with a long-standing Centre for Rural Economy and a new National Innovation Centre for Rural Enterprise. Individual researchers in the humanities also study many aspects of rural history and culture: changes to how the land is owned and used, its landscapes and its buildings, its representation in literature, music and art and the cultural forms that flourish there today. What has not been attempted before is to join up these different approaches. But this is exactly what I hope to take forward while I am in the UK.
Much of my own work up until now has been on rural modernity in the early twentieth century, thinking about how the countryside, even at the moment when Modernism was extolling everything that was urban and industrial, could still be understood as important, complex and alive. This Visiting Professorship will give me the opportunity to expand my work backwards, to the age of Thomas Bewick and to think about how his illustrations and in particular the appeal of his work to children, was fundamental in establishing ideas of the rural in the nineteenth century. Newcastle University is the ideal academic host for this work. I will be working with Matthew Grenby, Professor of Eighteenth-Century Studies, who is part of the University’s world-leading Children’s Literature Unit. But also with experts on literary modernism, rural landscapes, the ‘Rural’ research cluster within the Newcastle Institute for Creative Arts Practice and colleagues from the natural sciences, agriculture and business. I will also be able to draw on the city’s Bewick archives in the Lit & Phil Library, Hancock Library of the Natural History Society of Northumbria, Laing Art Gallery and Newcastle City Library. Plus I will be working with Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books located in Newcastle and at Cherryburn, Bewick’s birthplace, now owned by the National Trust, a short bus ride away along the Tyne Valley. Through a series of Leverhulme lectures, workshops, archival research, and public engagement projects, I will bring my knowledge of rural modernity, derived in part from feminist research on four twentieth-century women wood engravers who were inspired by Bewick, into dynamic and interdisciplinary conversations with scholars from across the North East who are engaged in rural studies, children’s literature and print culture. So, quite apart from the huge benefits this will bring to my own research, I am confident that my visit will make a valuable contribution to an emerging academic discourse about rural Britain that currently fragments along disciplinary lines.