Friday, 13 January 2012

Landscapes and Environments: BSECS Conference January 2012

As usual the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (BSECS)  offered a rich menu of papers at its Annual Conference on 4-6 January  at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. This year’s theme was ‘Landscapes and Environments’ in 28 panel sessions, as well as interesting plenary talks.

The 18thC Concept of ‘Environment’
Professor David Fairer, of the School of English, kicked off with a talk on ‘Eco-Georgic: Organic Economies in the Eighteenth Century’. He stressed that the 18thC concept of environment was all embracing including the social, the political, the cultural, human relationships, human interaction with other forms of life, the economy of nature, needs, constraints and processes. He argued that there had been an over concentration with ‘environmental’/’green’ sensibilities of the Romantics from the 1790s, at the expense of those sensibilities throughout the Century.  A particularly useful point he made was that access to waste materials on common land enabled the poor to have access to resources and develop their own networks of exchange. These were diminished by the process of enclosure.
The State of the Discipline
Because of the number of parallel panels in each section of the timetable it is always a difficult choice to decide which one to attend. I went to the one considering the state of the discipline. This was designed to reflect on what had emerged from the excellent assessments of work on 18thC Studies that had appeared in the current issue of BSECS  Journal. The assessments cover a wide range of specialist disciplines from politics to music, to expansion of specialisms including medicine, and reviews of literature from other parts of the world. Developing trends in recent years have included the triumph of cultural history over political and economic history, a growing emphasis on material culture e.g. the history of the book as a physical object, and a growing emphasis on consumption rather than production  such as the way audiences reacted to music. There has been an emphasis on micro rather than macro history and a decline in theory. The big data base projects driven by funding  have opened up considerably more resources for historians, but have not yet shown to what extent they will change understanding. 
There has been a complete reassessment of the role of religion in what was supposed to be the Age of Enlightenment and the relationship between the Anglican Church and its parishioners. But all the work on religion needs to be integrated within the wider picture. This is certainly proving the case in the work I am involved in with the North East Popular Politics Project, in which religious sermons and controversies are proving a valuable source of understanding about the development of ideas of democracy and governance within the different religious groupings, and the degree to which ministers should be involved in political affairs.
There is clearly a tension between political and literary historians and the degree to which students of 18thC literature should be learning about the context in which novels were written or should concentrate on close reading.
Penny Corfield told the panel that 18thC history was in a confident state with growing student interest compared with a decline in the Tudor/Stuart period. She had identified about 20,000 items of output in recent years, which means that individual historians cannot keep up with the literature. The democratisation of history through the web and databases is also overwhelming historians.  
While the Panel Chair Matthew Grenby pressed the panellists very hard on the issue of whether 18thC Studies should continue to be a category, none of them  put up a solid defence of why the Long 18thC was an important time periodisation. The period 1688-1832 sees Britain between two constitutional crises, the first through a coup d’etat and the second a conservative gesture to reform, in between which it moves from being a marginal European to major international player.  The impact on the rest of the world was enormous, even if for other parts of the world the concept of the 18thC has no relevance. Large areas were affected by the globalistion of trade, colonisation, slavery and war, in which Britain was at the heart.
Democratisation and Archival Material and Databases
The second issue in the debate is the degree to which the ‘democratisation’ through the web and databases is real.  Much is only available on subscription or being attached to an academic institution. The army of local, family and non-academic specialist historians are at a great disadvantage.
There is the continuing problem of large amounts of archive material not being catalogued or print catalogues not being on the web. These last two points are of course not limited to 18thC studies.
Another concern is the long time it takes for the fantastic work that is done by non-academics to filter into academic books and new analyses of the period,  and the lack of close interaction between the academic  and non-academic history worlds (except where engagement is a funding requirement, and commitment of some academics as individuals).
The Debate in 2010
Interestingly some of the above issues were discussed were the same as those at the Long 18thC Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in February 2010. Most of those attending were postgraduate students or those who had recently completed their PhDs. Their topics ranged over public order control ion the second half of the 18thC, disorderly neighbourhoods in the East End, charity and poverty, 18thC tickets as illustrative of social relationships, the use of the cottage idea to improve the poor and the poor’s reaction, shoplifting, women travellers to and from the Caribbean and Central America, divorce cases as illustrative of power relationships, crowd formation at public punishment sites, and textiles for babies left at the Foundlings Hospital. Interestingly mature postgraduates were critical of some academics who do not know how the real world works and make assumptions about what things may have been in the past. The questions arising from the discussion included whether the big data based projects enable a re-interpretation of the lives of ordinary people, their place in society, the reactions of the upper and middle classes, of the Anglican Church and other Protestant faith groups and of Government. On slavery the question was posed as to whether the new work had begun to provide the basis for a re-examination of the 18thC British economy, and whether the work of English Heritage and the National Trust on the English country house and slavery and the UCL Slave ownership project make for the further need for re-interpretation. To what extent can the growth of the anti-slavery movement be linked to other changes in social attitudes about the problems facing the poor crime, and other social problems, and to the analysis of concepts such as ‘civility’; and the control of human passions,  the importance of education and self-education, the development of civil society, the development of self-regulated professions, the typing of different peoples as savages? Do some of the disorderly neighbourhoods continue through the 19th and 20thC to be ones characterised by social and economic disadvantage and disorderliness? How many family and business archive collections which have not be fully catalogued are full of tickets, leaflets and programmes giving details of ticketed events? In the nature of the timescales of research and publication it is clearly too soon to have answers, but these might be interesting issues to feature at future BSECS Conferences and an annual assessment of the state of 18thC studies in the Journal or on the BSECS website.
The Art of Gardens
The Art of Gardens Panel comprised three papers. Laurent Chatel discussed environment, conservation and utopia in 18thC English Gardens, Felix Vogel, Hirschfield’s ‘Theory of Garden’ and the politics of a ‘healthy landscape’ and James Stevens Curl ‘Transformations: 18th Century Landscape-Garden to Garden Cemetery’.
Chalel argued that there was too much concentration of the aesthetics of nature on the picturesque and the sublime. He addressed the same issue as in Fairer’s lecture, the extent to which there was a kind of commitment to nature, a kind of environment/green awareness throughout the 18thC.  He said that according to Roy Porter it was Thomas Carlyle who first coined the word ‘environment’ in 1820.  He argued that the Georgian period laid the foundation of a ‘green discourse’. 
Vogel’s talk about Hirschfield, a German writer (1742-92), concentrated on his emphasis on the health aspects of gardens, the importance of fresh air and breezes and being on higher ground away from pockets of dampness. He argued the importance of plants and natural areas in urban settings, and the need for public gardens to meet the needs of assembly, health, exercise and walking,  to recoup from the day’s labour. 
Death and Gardens
It was the reaction to the unhealthy state of many church burial grounds that led to the development of cemeteries separate from churches, argued James Curl. He pointed out the importance for those who travelled to India of seeing the Calcutta Necropolis Cemetery from the 1760s.   He discussed the way in which particularly French freemasons developed the idea of putting tombs in gardens partly as a political statement e.g. the creation of an island for Rosseau’s tomb, and memorials to massacred Huguenots. The development of cemeteries not attached to particular churches helped to loosen the hold of the Church.
Curl did not draw attention to Jonathan Tyers, the owner and manager of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens (1728-1762) whose sombre, religious, death-fixated theme of his Denbies country estate garden  with its Temple of Death, an 8-acre grove 'Il Penseroso', a monument to Lord Petrie, a garden called the 'Valley of the Shadow of Death, a gateway in the form of coffins on their ends topped with skulls, contrasted with Vauxhall Gardens.
It was good to see Curl’s emphasis on the importance of the freemasons, and his new book was on sale at the Conference. The closure of the Centre of Research into Freemasonry at Sheffield University was a blow to the opening up beyond masonic circles of a new understanding about the history of freemasonry in Britain. In  response to a question he explained that French freemasonry had particularly developed from the connection with the exiled  Jacobites, while in Britain it was purged of its Jacobite elements and became very pro-Whig and Hanoverian. Of course by the 1790s many freemasons were abolitionists, free blacks could be members, and (black) Prince Hall freemasonry was developing in the United States whose members have ever since been in the forefront for black rights.
Writing and Reading the Landscape
At the Panel on ‘Writing and Reading the Landscape’, Amelia Dale, a postgraduate from Sydney, talked about ‘Mr Shenston’s sluices, souls and ‘The Spiritual Quixote’’, a satire on Methodism,  tensions within Methodism between spiritual and bodily senses, and the experience of God through nature. Laura Giacomini from Torino discussed the way in which the Veronese architect Luigi Tezza portrayed the landscape in his Italian travel journal of 1795, showing illustrations covering natural features, bridges, roads, industries, urban streets and ruins, and uses as well as natural environments.  He had a concept of beauty linked to usefulness.
Rebecca Ford  discussed the references to landscape in the correspondence of Bernardin de Saint-Piere, a French writer, novelist and friend of Rousseau. Rebecca is working on a project to make  the correspondence available in English. Many women were inspired by his ideas. One woman rejected the idea of having her copy of his  book bound because it would make it more difficult to take with her on walks with friends during which passages would be read out loud.  
Politics of Place
At the Politics of Place panel I gave a talk on the politics of landscape and environment in the North East. The other two speakers were Beccie Randhawa on Tobias Smollett’s Humphrey Clinker, and Robert Sayre on William Barton’s proto-environmentalist vision of the American wilderness. Beccie concentrated on the concept of ‘creolisation’ of how emigrants to other parts of the world become different by their experiences and when they and their descendents visit back to their original country they are regarded as different. This is an interesting analysis, because the multiple meanings of ‘creole’ do create problems of interpretation, like the group of West Indian creoles mentioned in an account of the 18thC Horn Fair. If Beccie is right then Edward Moulton Barratt was an example of being ‘a creole’. Because she was born in Britain his daughter Elizabeth Barratt Browning was not; her mother being the English daughter of John Graham Clarke, a leading Newcastle industrialist and owner of Jamaica slave plantations.
Bartram was the son of a Quaker botanist who became a botanist himself and travelled through the Carolinas in 1773-7, though his book about them was not published until 1791. Bartram was adopted by the emerging eco-movement in the 1970s as a pre-romantic. Bartram saw all creatures as interlinked, that the native Americans were not ‘savages’. He was against cruelty to animals and waste of resources. Interestingly Robert did not mention whether he made any comments on the slave economies of the Carolinas. Many English North Easterners had gone to the Carolinas and become slave plantation owners, and have been described by John Charlton, author of Hidden Chains, as a kind of mafia, who retained family and friendship links back in Britain even after the Revolution.
Loyalism and Radicalism
At the Loyalism and Radicalism panel Bill Speck gave a fascinating talk discussing at what point Paine became radical, as before he went to America he had been  a defender of Lord Clive of India. Frank O’Gorman suggested that loyalism of the 1790s was much more embedded in society, more communal and more rooted in the middle and artisan classes than has previously been thought, partly because it had long origin going back to the Tudor and Stuart times. He summarised the history of oaths of allegiance and bonds of association, the associations established to support the Crown and in the Civil War period Parliament, the role of militias in binding the population into defending the Crown, and the Loyal Association to protect the King in 1696.  In the 18thC the Jacobite Rebellions of 1715 and 1745 and the war with the American colonists all contributed to the further development  of loyalism.  Frank suggested that the Protestant Association was a manifestation of loyalism leading to the Gordon Riots and that loyalism peters out by the mid-19thC.  The third paper was by a postgraduate Jonathan Atherton on Birmingham Nonconformity and the impact of the Priestley Riots of 1791.
Some of the issues raised in the discussion on the papers related to what is meant by ‘loyalism’ and ‘patriotism’ and the way in which Tories took ownership of the concepts, while there were other definitions, and that loyalism continued on through such things as the Primrose League and popular Toryism, and the celebration of Empire Day. Riots normally start because a spark ignites an existing tinder-box. The interesting question is why other areas with tinder boxes lacked the spark to trigger riots. Given the severity of the Gordon Riots an issue to be explored is what effect they had on the ruling elite in terms of the potential dangers of mass loyalist mobilisation.
Art and Music
Other plenary sessions were a lecture by Ann Lewis, (French Studies,  Birkbeck), talking about landscape and environment in the illustrations of Rousseau’s La Nouvelle, and Mark Hallett, Professor of History of Art at York, on Sir Joshua Reynolds’ paintings Streatham Worthies for Hesta Thrale and her husband’s library. The concert on the Thursday evening had The Parley of Instruments play a series of pieces of music interspersed by readings under the title ‘The Genius of the Place’.
Tensions at the Conference
The Conference had many enjoyable components and it is always good to renew acquaintances and meet new people. Sometimes these lead to on-going interaction; sometimes not.
There are a number of tensions within the format of the Annual Conference. The attempt to have inter-disciplinary dialogue does not seem to work as each discipline talks in its own language that often means little to the others. Political and social historians seem to have to struggle to be listened to within what seems to be the dominance of cultural historians. Science and engineer historians were noticeably absent illustrating the continued ‘Two Cultures’ divide.
There are too many panel sessions meaning that those attending cannot attend all the ones they would like to. There does not seem to be any logic behind the grouping of some papers in the same session. It is also very embarrassing when some panel sessions have small numbers, 5 or 6 especially when some of the presenters are from abroad.
While the opening plenary talk was a very interesting and useful contribution, it did not give an overview of the range of papers to be delivered and the interconnections. The Conference faded out with people drifting off before lunch or after lunch. 
It is possible that some papers had been prepared in a hurry because of the late acceptance of proposals. 20 minute papers do not allow speakers to do enough justice to their topic.
Overcoming These Tensions
It would be very helpful if the BSECS Committee would consider taking the decisions on which paper proposals to accept earlier in the year to enable speakers more time to prepare. More guidance should be issued to potential speakers as to what the main areas the Conference organisers want to see covered in proposals are, particularly emphasising why the contributions from different disciplines are useful to others, and high-highlighting cross-disciplinary themes.
The opening plenary could be in two parts. Firstly, an introduction to the range of papers that are to be presented and the key inter-disciplinary issues that arise from them, and secondly a talk on an aspect of the theme. There should be fewer panel sessions and fewer papers, perhaps two papers of 30 minutes each. It would be helpful to Panel chairs if they were given the reasons  why the papers were put together in the same panel and the details of the paper proposals.
To ensure higher attendances at some panels Conference attendees could be asked to make a 1-3 choice of which ones in each session they want to go to with a limit of say 20 being allowed to attend any particular panel. The Conference could usefully end with a plenary session either before or after lunch at which e.g. an assessment of the issues and themes that have emerged should be discussed and at which final thanks should be given.
Finally papers or summaries of them could be usefully placed on the BSCECS  website after the Conference where presenters give permission, and later there could be  2/3 articles in the Journal reviewing all the papers that were given.
2013 Conference Theme: Credit, Money and the Market
In relation to the thinking about the themes and the explanation given in the 2012 programme I wonder whether more detailed guidance should be given.
Should a four page contextual  overview be prepared so that people proposing papers have to show how their proposal fits in?
Could the Panels be divided into the following sections. (a) How the economics operated: inc: (merchant trading, slave plantations, industrial enterprise, agriculture, estate development, financing cultural activities, urban development, the development of the market: roads, shops, distribution systems, the rise and fall of specialist trades, the movement of centres of trades around the country. (b) The banking credit/deficit crises, inc: South Sea Bubble, regional banks. (c) Polemics inc. in religious sermons. (d) Issues of capital and credit represented in literature. ( e) The role of Non-Conformists in the development of credit and markets. (f) The class differences in access to credit and having market choice. (g) The financing of books and pamphlets, inc: the role of subscribers and the experiences of publishers and booksellers. (h) The financing of art, drama and music, inc: purchasing art in/from Europe, and valuations of art. (i) ‘Popular’ reactions to problems of credit, money and markets, inc. (j) Regional comparisons. (k) Autobiographies and diaries dealing with issues of capital, money and the market. (l) Bankruptcies: estate and businesses. (m) International aspects of credit,  money and markets, inc: the use of non-monies as mediums of exchange e.g. cowrie shells; the situation in other countries and the impact of conflicts between different countries.
Given the problems more and more people are having financially, and with questions over their jobs, there may well be a drop in registrations for the 1913 Conference especially if people have consider that the tensions discussed above reduce the value given the cost.
Although the above analysis may appear to be critical, my suggestions are aimed at increasing the value of attending future Conferences. Taking into account my own experience in Conference organisation,  a big thanks to all the people involved in organising the 2012 event.

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