March Mostra 2018 / Meet the artists…Gabriel Hartley

As we approach the March Mostra, our second exhibition of this academic year, we will be publishing a series of blogs taking a closer look at the individual practices of our seven resident artists and resident architecture fellow. The first to be interviewed is Gabriel Hartley, our Abbey Fellow in Painting.


Photo: Antonio Palmieri

It seems that you produce a lot of your images and paintings quickly. Could you tell us more about your process and how things unfold in your studio?

I have two different ways of making paintings. One for which I do a lot of drawings, sometimes from sight and sometimes from memory, and then these drawings are translated directly into the painting. These for example might be an architectural detail that I have seen or an object from a museum. I then translate these drawings and plan the painting.

The second approach is to find the image as I am making. I use an angle grinder to excavate the paint and reveal layers that have previously been covered. Through making I find what I am interested in and what I have been looking at, and then take these on board for the next painting.



Studio shot

There is an interesting interplay between abstraction and figuration within your paintings and sculptures. It usually seems that your surroundings influence the choices you make within your work.

For a while I’ve been responding to how one shapes oneself in response to a place or an environment. It’s been a challenge here in how to react to the classical architecture. How to deal with all the columns and arches. I’ve tried to be as open as possible to all that I’ve been looking at, perhaps more than I am normally, and have used painting as a way of processing all the visual overload that Rome has thrown at me. Looking around the studio there are things I can name and place as responses to specific things , be it the Vespas,  a Bernini alterpiece, artefacts from Etruscan Museums, the elegant tall pines , or graffiti of ships from Pompeii.

I picked up this book of Pompeiian graffiti from the BSR library and just really love the translations of the graffiti into drawings.


You have worked with a broad variety of materials, including resin, foam, and glass. Do you plan on working with new materials during your residency here?

In terms of working with new materials, my plan was to make sculptures with resin, which I’m gearing myself up to at the moment. There has been a slight change in process in some of the paintings  where I have been working on wood panels and carving out the forms of the paintings with a grinder. Since being here I have been drawn to the quality of the paint being part of the material in the frescoes. I’m not sure how that will manifest itself, or if it has,  but it will creep in somewhere I’m sure.


Close-up showing excavation technique

Do you think the experience of working in Rome will affect your work in any specific way?

I was particularly struck by the visit to the excavations under San Giovanni in Laterano with Ian Haynes (Newcastle).


Excavations under San Giovanni in Laterano

I am really drawn to the idea of different histories sitting on top of and alongside each other, how they interrelate and you discover things you didn’t expect.  I was struck by this on the tour as I realised that there was this labyrinth underneath the basilica and I had to work out how all these different layers fitted together. To understand the different timelines, you have to be really imaginative. This feeling is what I want to convey with my paintings, I want the viewer to have to be constantly active, to be re-focusing and looking and thinking in different ways to try to piece together the painting.

Gabriel’s work will be exhibited alongside the seven other resident artists in the March Mostra. The opening will take place on Friday 16 March 18.30-21.00. Opening hours 16.30-19.00 until Saturday 24 March 2018, closed Sundays.

Interview and photos by Alice Marsh (Communications & Events)


A look back at the December Mostra 2017

Last December the BSR saw the first mostra of our 2017–18 programme, in which our seven Fine Arts award-holders and resident architect put together an exhibition of works produced during the course of their residencies. Here we bring you a selection of photographs of works from the exhibition. You can read more about the practice of each artist by clicking on their name.

The exhibition was made possible with funding from Robin Hambro, with additional support from the Arts Council of Wales, the Augusta Charitable Trust, the Derek Hill Foundation, the Giles Worsley Fund (in collaboration with the RIBA), the Incorporated Edwin Austin Abbey Memorial Scholarships, the Linbury Trust and the Nicholas Berwin Charitable Trust.


Josephine Baker-Heaslip (Sainsbury Scholar in Painting & Sculpture)

Chances, mixed media, dimensions variable; Mediterranean landscape, charcoal, chalk and pencil on paper, 70x100cm; The gift, charcoal, chalk and pencil on paper, 90x70cm; Question, chalk on tiles, 218x180cm


Stephen Cooper (Abbey Fellow in Painting)


Robway, mixed media, dimensions variable (photos: Stephen Cooper)


James Epps (Augusta Scholar)

Head over heels, paper tablecloths and wallpaper paste, dimensions variable


Emily Motto (Derek Hill Foundation Scholar)


Towers for Skies, cardboard, cement, wood, string, acrylic, steel, paper, tape, dimensions variable (photos: Emily Motto)


Patrick O’Keeffe (Giles Worsley Rome Fellow)

Eye-tracking goggles and recordings, HD Video; Loek-Historian-26 seconds, inkjet prints, 40x19cm (2 prints); Loek-Historian-26 seconds, 3D print and silver leaf, 65x12x18cm



John Robertson (Abbey Scholar in Painting)

St Bartholomew, acrylic on paper on canvas, 200x120cm; Buccone, acrylic on paper on canvas, 59.4x42cm; Swift, acrylic on paper on canvas and wall, 32x60cm


Jennifer Taylor (Creative Wales–BSR Fellow)

Lupercalia, photographs from live performance (photos: Micheal Snelling)


Dominic Watson (Rome Fellow in Contemporary Art)

Posso! Pronto! Prego!, HD video, stills from video; installation view (photo: Michael Snelling)


Photos by Roberto Apa unless otherwise indicated.


The many faces of Ashby

The first time I came across Thomas Ashby – first student of the BSR and director from 1906 to 1925 – was nearly 20 years ago. I was a young archivist with little knowledge and experience of photographic collections and the power of their imagery.


The young Ashby in 1901-3 with his peculiar excursion uniform in a photo taken by George Joseph Pfeiffer at Carsioli. Courtesy of the BSR Photographic Archive.

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A portrait of a young Ashby. Courtesy of the BSR Photographic Archive.

Even after such a long time, I cannot claim to know everything about this fascinating personality. Many aspects of his public and private life are still to be unveiled through his incredible anthology of images, taken since he was a young student. His life can be read chronologically across over 8,000 photographs from eighteen albums, accompanied by just as many negatives, the whole set stored in the BSR Photographic Archive and cherished by all the Library and Archive staff.

Ashby was a man who travelled extensively and was driven by his curiosity. Not only was he one of the finest topographers of all time but also an avid bibliophile – his collection of rare books is one of the jewels of the BSR crown – and anthropologist, showing much interest in Italian festivals and everyday life.

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On the way to Cavamonte along the ancient Roman road Via Prenestina. Ashby is the one walking. Courtesy of the BSR Photographic Archive.

At the end of 2017, three events took place showcasing Ashby’s wide-ranging interests, all of which are connected by his passion for photography:

Ashby the archaeologist and topographer, visited Segni in three distinct trips (1895, 1898 and 1912), and it is these trips that prompted the publication of a catalogue on the use of the camera oscura and photography. The presentation of the catalogue Dalla camera oscura alla prima fotografia. Architetti e archeologi a Segni da Dodwell a Ashby e Mackey, launched on the occasion of the photographic exhibition held in Segni at the beginning of October, was followed by a conference at the Archaeological German Institute on the 21 October.

Ashby the anthropologist’s account of a procession taking place in the Abbey of San Giovanni in Argentella in June 1921 (Palombara Sabina), drew the attention of a local cultural association based in Palombara Sabina. A two-day conference on the historic and architectural importance of this ecclesiastical building was organised and the second day of the conference was hosted in the outstanding setting of the Abbey.



Some photographs from the Thomas Ashby and Bulwer collectinos on display in the Abbey of San Giovanni in Argentella (Palombara Sabina). Courtesy of Alessandra Giovenco.

Ashby the driver of the First Ambulance Unit on the Italian front (1915-18) – generously donated to the Italian government by the British Red Cross – led to an exhibition supported by the British Embassy in 2015 and, last November, to a beautiful publication with a selection of images of depicting the suffering and destruction of WWI. A copy of this publication was donated to every family of the small community of San Giovanni al Natisone that backed the initiative.


There are many more stories in this marvellous photographic collection still waiting for a dialogue to begin. Inspiring and inspired, Ashby will never fail to amaze me!


Alessandra Giovenco (BSR Archivist)


Please get in touch with Alessandra if you are interested in consulting our Photographic Archive.

Walking Rome: views from the streets and the sky

Recent site-visits and lectures at the BSR, which have converged on the theme of walking, are generating ways of thinking about movement through the city.

The 3 and 19 trams pass by the BSR so rarely that they warrant inclusion on the WWF Endangered Species list. Waddling irritably away from the tram-stop, now late for the morning presa at the archives, it takes some fortitude to see the amble ahead as an act of intellectual, and even spiritual, refreshment.

In Rome, however, this is doable, since walking has traditionally often been a religious exercise. Before Christmas, BSR award-holders traced the most celebrated pilgrimage route, the Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome’s great martyrs, in the company of Piers Baker-Bates, who discussed sacred art and architecture, and Emily Michelson, who spoke about the origins and importance of the giro as a counterpoint to the raucous misdeeds of the Carnival. Our group paused near the Cave di Fosse Ardeantine for a disquisition on the ongoing significance of martyrdom, looked in at the Chiesa del Domine Quo Vadis, and stopped in the grounds of the Villa Mattei for sandwiches and (partially) sacred discourse.


Domine Quo Vadis? A replica of the stone said to be marked with the footprints of Christ on a mock road traversing the church, and which rises into the painting of St Peter

It was Sixtus V who envisaged, and nearly completed, the street system linking these seven pilgrimage basilicas. Ambitious urbanism inevitably entails great destruction, but the man who razed the wondrous Septizodium to the ground would scarcely have winced as he laid out his master-plan for Rome, whose streets when seen from above crudely create the form of a star. It was a star that lit the way for the genesis of modern town planning, thought to have influenced Le Notre’s Versailles, Haussmann’s Paris, L’Enfant’s Washington and the Rome of Mussolini (who reputedly kept a copy of Bordini’s Roma di Sisto V next to his bed).

During the Renaissance, there was an impulse to control and rectify movement, from throwing regularizing façade-cloaks over wonky palaces; to Vasari’s ripping out rood screens from Florentine basilicas, to Leonardo’s quixotic scheme to straighten the river Arno. At the same time, the city was increasingly perceived as something viewed from above, spurred on by developments in the fields of cartography, surveying and navigation. Architects from Francesco di Giorgio to Michelangelo conjured with the radial or star-shaped ideal city, which spoke of absolutist power and sketched geometries echoing the celestial city.

But there is a vast gulf between the paradigmatic symbolism of the utopian city as conceived from above, and the pragmatic realties of walking the city on the ground.

This was one of many themes that Stephen Milner touched on in his inaugural lecture. He contrasted the totalizing bird’s eye view of Florence in a Medieval catasto with the fundamentally participatory reality of navigating the city on foot. Walking never offers the controlled perspective of the map, since there is always one point of entry to the street or the piazza, and there is always room for the imaginative turn off the routinized pathway. In walking, as in creative research, curiosity (and over-crowded routes) drive us down roads one would not necessarily go down.

Two other lecturers approached their subject from the perspective of movement through the city. Simon Ditchfield’s magisterial lecture linked the migration of the papal centre from the Borgo across the Tiber to the Quirinal, to the creation of a new curial geography and ceremonial dynamic in Rome. As the Pope and his retinue newly criss-crossed the city between these two poles, they developed new itineraries and generated significant new routeways across the capital.

Emily Michelson mapped routes walked by Jews on the way to forced conversionary sermons in 16th-century Rome. She demonstrated how Jews were marshalled past monuments embodying the starkest differences and antagonism between Christianity and Judaism. The Monte di Pietà, the loan organisation deliberately established to undermine Jewish banks and lending institutions, hulked over them en route, and they were led past triumphalist Catholic monuments celebrating miracles and charismatic saints. By considering the subject from the novel perspective of walking, Emily has opened up a deeper and more visceral understand of the conversionary experience.



Lupin joins pilgrimage group, seeking indulgence after stealing Fragolina’s food

We have also been thinking about the great roads of antiquity, with Janet Wade conducting a research project entitled Walking the Via Flaminia: following in the footsteps of Thomas Ashby and his companions, and Nick Hodgson leading a band of the most stout-hearted award-holders along the Via Appia all the way to Castel Gandolfo.


Tom True (Assistant Director)




Performing national sacrifice: remembering the Nasiriyah Massacre

In November 2017 Amy King, this year’s Pilkington Rome Awardee (funded by the Roger and Ingrid Pilkington Charitable Trust), attended the official commemoration for Italians who died in peace missions. Held at the Basilica di Santa Maria in Aracoeli in the heart of Rome, the ceremony combined national and religious rituals. Here she reflects on her findings.

On 18 November 2003, 50,000 Italians attended the funeral of the nineteen Italians killed in Nasiriyah, Iraq. Six days earlier, on 12 November, a suicide attack on the Italian military police headquarters in Nasiriyah, south of Baghdad, had caused Italy’s largest loss of life since World War II. Three days of national mourning ensued, and the caskets of Italy’s fallen soldiers, who had been in Iraq on a peace mission, lay in state in the Altare della Patria – the symbolic heart of Italy’s capital.

The following day, a number of newspapers printed the headline ‘The Massacre of Italians’[1] – indeed the tragedy would come to be known as the Nasiriyah Massacre – while others declared ‘Italy Struck at its Heart’,[2]  or simply ‘Our Martyrs.’[3]  Many publications carried the same image of a soldier standing in front of the burnt out remains of the headquarters, his head in his hands.

Figure 1: Many newspapers printed this image in the aftermath of the tragedy 

Many newspapers printed this image in the aftermath of the tragedy[4]

The state funeral was held in the Basilica Papale di San Paolo fuori le Mura and broadcast on national television; an estimated 50,000 Italians waited outside the basilica, and watched the funeral on large screens. The ceremony blended many of the markers of national, military and religious identity; the Tricolore flag was draped over each casket with a gun placed on top, the military salute was performed, and the presiding clergy contributed to the overarching religious ritual and iconography. Once the ceremony was over, the caskets were loaded into hearses as members of the carabinieri, the army, navy, air force and the president’s own horse-mounted honour guard stood to attention.

During my time in the city, I interviewed Virgilio Spano, president of an association of retired carabinieri, about his memories of the Nasiriyah funeral. ‘In some way, you felt Italian that day… Italian and that’s it,’ he said, emphasizing the dissolution of political divisions in the face of such national sacrifice. It was a question of ‘patria, rather than country,’ he added. ‘Country is a geographic term. Patria is the place that you feel. Patria is… is… it’s everything. [5]


Institutional mourning

Figure 2: The commemoration ceremony began on the Vittoriano steps
The commemoration ceremony began on the Vittoriano steps
Figure 3: The wreath on the Vittoriano

The wreath on the Vittoriano

The institutional support for commemoration continued on the various anniversaries of the tragedy, and in 2009 the 12 November was declared la Giornata del ricordo dei Caduti militari e civili nelle missioni internazionali. I attended the official commemoration ceremony at the Vittoriano monument and then the Basilica di Santa Maria in Aracoeli on the 12 November 2017 (on the day that an official plaque to the Nasiriyah victims was unveiled in the Italian Senate). Roberta Pinotti, the minster for defence, and Generale Graziano, head of the Italian army, attended the event alongside relatives of fallen soldiers and Italian civilians. The ceremony began at the Vittoriano; soldiers lined the steps leading to a wreath, and commemorative speeches were given.

Attendees then moved to the nearby Aracoeli Basilica for the religious ceremony. Uniformed forces filled the back half of the church, while relatives of the victims and the general public sat towards the front. Many uniformed attendees wore medals and rosettes, and military officers handed out the order of service. A military brass band opened the ceremony with the Last Post, and the cardinal entered the church, followed by three military figures in ceremonial dress, priests, and two carabinieri.

Figure 4: Inside the Aracoeli Basilica during the service

Inside the Aracoeli Basilica during the service

Military and religious figures spoke to the congregation. The Cardinal Priest focused his address on the eternal life after sacrifice, and the hope that is born from sacrifice. Later in the ceremony, minister Pinotti gave an address directly to the relatives of the victims, who she had accompanied in times of deep pain but also of pride – pride in their relatives’ sacrifice, which is an ‘important part of the respectability Italy has deserved’ on an international stage. She closed her address with a declaration: ‘a life dedicated to others is a life that never ends.’

As in the funeral held in 2003, this ceremony enacted the notion of death at war as the ultimate sacrifice – a classic paradigm of secular martyrdom that has reinforced the Italian national narrative as far back as the Risorgimento. Through the conflation of religious and military ritual, and the blending of national and religious iconography, sacrifice in the name of the patria (and the subsequent eternal life) is performed in the heart of Rome.

Figure 5: A uniformed figure leaves the basilica

A uniformed figure leaves the basilica


Text and images by Amy King (University of Bristol/Bath), BSR Pilkington Rome Awardee (funded by the Roger and Ingrid Pilkington Charitable Trust)



[1]‘La Strage degli Italiani’, Il Giornale, 13 November 2003, p. 1, Biblioteca di Storia moderna e contemporanea; ‘La Strage degli Italiani’, La Stampa, 13 November 2003, p. 1, Biblioteca di Storia moderna e contemporanea; ‘La Strage degli Italiani’, La Repubblica, 13 November 2003, p. 1, Biblioteca di Storia moderna e contemporanea.
[2]‘L’Italia colpita al cuore’, Il Messaggero, 13 November 2003, p. 1.
[3]‘I Nostri Martiri’, Il Tempo, 13 November 2003, p. 1, Biblioteca di Storia moderna e contemporanea.
[4]‘La Strage degli Italiani’.
[5] Virgilio Spano, Interview by Amy King with Virgilio Spano, Presidente Associazione CCC Martiri di Nassiriya, 2017.



Softened by the strokes of Hephaistos: an interdisciplinary workshop on the archaeology, history and practice of glass

What is – and what was, historically – the significance of glass as an artistic material? What forms of knowledge are required for its making, and what aesthetic agency does it possess? These questions lie at the core of a workshop organised jointly by the British School at Rome’s Faculty of Archaeology, History and Letters and its Faculty of the Fine Arts, led by Rosamond McKitterick and Vivien Lovell in collaboration with Hugo Chapman, the Simon Sainsbury Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum.

Writing about the legendary origins of glassmaking, naturalist Pliny the Elder reported that a group of merchants gathered on the Syrian sea-shore to cook their meal on a fire. As they could not find any stones to support their cauldrons, the men employed for the purpose some lumps of nitre which they had taken from the boat: ‘upon its being subjected to the action of the fire, in combination with the sand of the sea-shore, they beheld transparent streams flowing forth of a liquid hitherto unknown: this, it is said, was the origin of glass.’ (Natural History, Book 36:65)

Since its legendary beginnings, glass and its industry have provoked reflections about the complex intersections between technical and natural knowledge, aesthetics and artistic practice, trading networks and material culture. They therefore represented an ideal case study to inaugurate a brand-new series of BSR events on the historicity of materials. The Glass Study Day, held at the British Museum on 2 November 2017, brought together an interdisciplinary group of scientists, humanities scholars and artists to discuss the history, archaeology and practice of glassmaking and consumption from a variety of perspectives and to showcase research developed by BSR scholars and practitioners in this field.


The visual qualities of glass – its translucency, transparency and polychromy– make it an aesthetically appealing, yet challenging material to display. In a series of fascinating gallery talks, curators Hugo Chapman, Dora Thornton and Lesley Fitton, glassmakers Mark Taylor and David Hill, and BSR faculty members Rosamond McKitterick and Susan Walker, stimulated a dialogue about the aesthetics of glass across the Mediterranean from antiquity to the Renaissance, and about the different historical and cultural narratives that glass artefacts contribute to articulate as museum displays.


A fragile artistic material, glass naturally invites questions about its conservation and physical care. A visit to the British Museum’s Ceramics, Glass and Metals Conservation Studio and Scientific Research Laboratory, introduced by Andrew Meek and led by the museum’s conservation specialists, illustrated the practices and technologies available for the scientific study of vitreous artefacts, and for their restoration.


Following such close-up analysis of artefacts in the galleries and study rooms of the museum, in the afternoon our workshop participants gathered in the British Museum’s Stevenson Lecture Theatre for a final session of lectures open to the public. Following an introductory speech by BSR Director Stephen Milner, John Shepherd and John Mitchell respectively exposed the key contribution made by BSR scholars to the archaeology of glass, and the significance of glass excavations and study at the early medieval site of San Vincenzo in Volturno. Art historians Paul Hills and Stefania Gerevini turned to medieval portable artefacts and Renaissance paintings to illuminate the role played by glass and by other translucent materials in the definition of Venetian visual culture. They were followed by artists Antoni Malinowski and Liz Rideal, who bore witness to the enduring aesthetic potential of transparency and translucency by discussing their recent work with glass at the BSR and across the UK. Finally, material scientist Lindsay Greer surprised and charmed us all with his exposé on the material and chemical structures of glass – fun fact: who knew there was a frog that vitrifies in order to survive the chill of winter…


Stefania Gerevini (BSR Research Fellow and Assistant Professor of Art History at Bocconi University)

Photos by Claire Burridge.


Ding Dong Merrily On High… inaugural poet in residence Pele Cox reflects on her time in Rome

Inaugural poet in residence Pele Cox, the John Murray / Keats-Shelley Memorial Association Creative Writing Resident, reflects on her two months spent in Rome at the BSR.


(Photo: Micheal Snelling)

I’m back now- looking out over the Clee Hill in Shropshire. ‘Was I ever in Rome!’ I think as I walk out past the sheep and drive up to Ludlow through the lanes littered with oaks and hedges. Two months is not a long time and it is green here, replete with grass and low barns- ‘how full of stone Rome is,’ I think. The counterpoint of  the UK to Rome in October, now living in its opposite as Christmas comes. I think, our relationship, our trajectory with the place is metronomic, relationship as rhythm and music – Stephen is right about footsteps. Every night I dream about the BSR and wake up and hear everybody like I’m still there, I think, the sheep can’t compete with that and this year the BSR will be my nativity.

Of course, like the canary going down the mine of return – and being the poet in the mix – I wonder whether it is a dreamlike state being at the BSR? How it is constellated internally after one gets back ‘Home’: how do the cube of green shutters, the gravel and statues lilting as one walks to the long wooden tables for sustenance stay real and coexist with the idea of return.  All the time Rome whispers, ‘I will not leave you,’ after all it is the ‘Eternal City.’  But can this travel? Can it sustain itself, find its realism and gravity after an easyJet journey back to what is even more familiar, more inscribed? Well what can I say to this apart from write out the last line of Lou’s performance –‘it’s always there even when you can’t see it.’  

While at the BSR I ran a series of weekly poetry workshops. One was on the subject of Dante and we really got our teeth into it. Every week I asked participants to bring a poem according to a theme and this week I asked everyone to bring a canto and image from Inferno. It was very interesting, not just because of the ekphrastic nature of the gesture, or because we were sitting there incanting ‘abandon all hope all ye who enter here’ and grappling with an epic with little time but because there were more salient parallels to the theme than I originally thought: Dante alludes to a dreamlike state, being half asleep in the lucid mechanisms -almost hypnagogic, he finds a soul to be guided by, a great thinker and poet who takes him into a terrain, a meta reality where things that are hidden or not realised are suddenly writ large – the first cartoon? Maybe. But to me more a place of symbolism, release and awakening. Each choice made was a guide to the individual, bringing the text into the room. As a reflection not just of themselves but their work, the direction of their study, the essence, in a way, of these trajectories. Perhaps Rome became our Virgil and becomes a place where we find a ‘language’ that can unpeel us and gives us juice, gravity – the privacy of our skin and brains inscribed against the stone, a message to ourselves. I realise now that is one of the reasons I wanted so much to be at the BSR. Poets live on the edges and sometimes they are given the chance to bring the edge in.

I was anxious to open up a room in this way, I have done this a lot in London but to do it in Rome with my adored and respected peer group of whom I was in awe, made me a little nervous! And I want to write about everyone but Paloma’s quiet dedication, John’s passionate sincerity and Kresho’s power of understanding, Dom’s kooky alert wit with his subject, Alice’s support – I cannot shake.  Most of all Josie- who writes very good poetry herself , and used poetry in her work for the Mostra -would stand at the window with a cigarette and read her work. It still weaves through my memory: Josie reading to us the poem by Pasolini about Gramsci’s grave…which is at the protestant cemetery where Keats is buried.. it came over us like a performance piece as the sounds of Rome moved through the open window of the BSR.

pele and al

(Photo: Micheal Snelling)

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BSR award-holders following Pele’s talk at the Keats-Shelley House (Photo: Micheal Snelling)

Of course this feeds into an idea of collaboration, which I am passionate about.  And to work with Lou True on a piece I had written before I came was a treat. I had tried to produce it in London but couldn’t find a space or an actress to perform it. It is testament to the BSR that it has these things available on a plate. Something from England woven through the heart and mind of the BSR, through the heart and mind of an actress whose luminosity and openness is testament to the idea of the potential of poetry and poetry in performance. Our piece was an inscription, a palimpsest set against all the living inscriptions and lectures that happen in that space, like all the words spoken there: the lecture theatre as vital space, it reminds the world that the BSR, like Rome, is hot, a living, organic thing.  A cultural conductor, an instructor.

Pele Cox Mistress poem performance by Lou True at BSR Theatre

Lou True performing ‘The Mistress Account’  (Photo: Micheal Snelling)

Pele Cox Mistress poem performance by Lou True at BSR Theatre

Lou True performing ‘The Mistress Account’  (Photo: Micheal Snelling)


Lou brought the canto of Beatrice to the poetry workshop – and after we had seen her perform we knew why. I thought what I had written had ‘life’- but Lou’s performance gave it that paradisal quality of truth-telling: as Keats says – ‘truth is beauty and beauty is truth’. I know the audience (and Keats) would agree – this idea was running through Lou’s veins when she set us alight that night and this to me is a metaphor for the power and potential of the gift of those spaces – between us, inside that square courtyard, the bell, the director, the people, the staff, the visitors – and the lecture theatre – I suppose you could say this was our lecture on the emotion of experience: drawn through my experience; the gift of that space, the audience and Lou. And ‘production’ is a simple thing if you have talent at your fingertips: the work was already there and we were given the resources thanks to Tom and Christine. We had quietly just rehearsed it each week and Lou learned the poems on the plane on her way to and from London. She would arrive back and we would go through and through it until it was right – poet and actress. The week before the performance we had paced the basilicas on Piers’ pilgrimage tour and we rehearsed the lines – as we walked along the cobbles, up the Basilica steps, outside with Lupin, past the confession boxes, past the Bernini statues staring up at the ceilings… Lou took these basilicas into her performance and those spaces were running through the poems as the lines came into her and out of her during the performance. I’m sure I could hear the churches’ echo in the spaces of the applause.

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Post performance of ‘The Mistress Account’  (Photo: Micheal Snelling)

The BSR is a fabulous space – and is a standard bearer for culture in the UK – an engine of thought, with a simple agenda, no corporate creative idea, or political agenda, all mantras allowed in. It is historic and contemporary, as a simple structure, a template, it can act as a leitmotif for being. So I must thank all of you so much for being so open to my project, for being such inspiring participants and friends in the spaces. Thank you to Christopher Smith’s vision, the Murrays, Giuseppe and Stephen for ‘getting it’ and letting me do the things I wanted to do, and also to Tom. Keats-Shelley House, of course was and always will be the setting off point for me – I wrote tweets during my residency there, in the spaces between, on my walk from the BSR through the Borghese Gardens to the KSH. Giuseppe is an inspiration, the lecture he came to see with me was about glass, I think how fragile this all is- how it is kept safe in the footsteps.

Text written by Pele Cox (John Murray / Keats-Shelley Memorial Association Creative Writing Resident). Click here to watch the talk Pele delivered at Keats-Shelley House.