Meet the artists: Eleni Odysseos

An interview with Eleni Odysseos, Abbey Fellow in Painting, in which she speaks about the works she has produced during her residency at the BSR from April–June 2021.

Photo by Antonio Pamieri.

Your research in Rome is inspired by art historian Anthi Andronikou’s article on the visual similarities in twelfth century medieval ecclesiastic painting in Cyprus and Puglia. Could you tell us more about this?

Anthi Andronikou maps similarities in ecclesiastical painting between Puglia, Cyprus, and Jerusalem, and suggests possible reasons for why those similarities exist.

The article suggests that these visual similarities were not circumstantial, but rather traces of collaboration, of a nomadic lifestyle where artists were borrowing from – and working with – one another. Even though their hagiographies would often address dissimilar audiences and different divisions of Christianity, they would do it using identical signs, therefore rendering their signifiers as “arbitrary”. 

Detail of wall painting, Abbazia di Sant’Angelo in Formis. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The rendering of those signifiers as “arbitrary” in the linguistic theory of signs, as Andronikou describes it, became a starting point for my interest in symbolic imagery. More specifically, it unfolded into an interest in how abstracted symbolic imagery becomes appropriated by different political systems, cults, and religions across time and space, to signify changing narratives. Symbolic imagery across the Roman period, through to the medieval and renaissance has accumulated in my studio, a process of embodying a language that is then materialised in painting, drawing, sound, and text.

Complesso Basilicale Paleocristiano in Cimitile. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Through this process, I am developing my own lexicon. It is a lexicon that addresses and embraces the fluidity of a present-day, surrealist femininity. Another section of Andronikou’s article I am drawn to, is the story of a group of nuns, organised by queen Alice of Champagne, who were relocated from Acre to Puglia, and who may have commissioned artists in that period – a possible reason that would explain why those visual similarities exist. Their tale triggered my curiosity, and I wanted to find out more about organised cults as well as the societal position of women in the medieval period. Rome offers many such stories, particularly from the Roman period, from Mithraism to the House of the Vestal Virgins. Dr. Maria Harvey, current fellow at the British School at Rome, prompted me to read Mary Wellesley’s This Place is Pryson published on the London Review of Books website in 2019.  The text describes the medieval ritual of an anchoress entering her cell as being very similar to a funeral procession. These medieval women would abandon their lives to reside in tiny cells until their death.  Wellesley’s description of this ritual opened new conversations within my practice: for example, how sacrifice is embedded in the female experience, how social structures and class feed these narratives, or how spirituality and wisdom are perceived differently when performed by different genders.

Detail of How Could I Forget You. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Your work seems to explore a transitional moment where anthropomorphic – mostly female – bodies are turning into entities with unclear and undefined outlines. Can you explain more?

Absolutely. My work explores desire, abjection, and isolation through symbolic figuration, choreographing a constellation of painting, text, sound, and light. I am interested in the fluid representation of hybrid creatures and the allegorical depiction of violence in medieval iconography. Animal-human identities are blurred, and creatures emerge from the fogginess of the mark-making process, from the flow of light and the luminosity of the paint. My time here in Rome has offered a wealth of symbolic references and styles of ornamentation. My studio walls and floor are filled with cut-outs, prints, drawings. The paintings are in a transitional moment, where their symbolic lexicon materialises in light, in figuration, or in the transparency of layered colours. The work is interested in entanglements. Moments of isolation, exchange, death and rebirth. Sacrifice, and companionship.

Eleni Odysseos’ studio. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).

BSR Alumni Profiles: Yasmin Fedda

Today marks the first day of Refugee Week (14-20 June 2021), a week to celebrate the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees and people seeking sanctuary. To mark the occasion, we caught up with Yasmin Fedda, for her thoughts on this year’s theme, We Cannot Walk Alone, her reflections on her time in Rome and an update on her current projects.

Yasmin is an award-winning filmmaker and artist based in London, and was The Creative Scotland document24 Fellow in 2012–13.

Yasmin Fedda

Refugee Week 2021 (14-20 June) looks to explore the theme: We Cannot Walk Alone. What does this statement mean to you, in light of recent events and as you reflect on your films that  explore the refugee experience? 

Refugee Week this year invites you ‘to extend your hand to someone new. Someone who is outside your current circle, has had an experience you haven’t, or is fighting for a cause you aren’t yet involved in.’ After over a year of having to isolate from others, not being able to socialize much, where serendipity was having a pause, and crucially a year where inequality and suffering were brought to the fore, this call is a beautiful gesture to re/connect with people. Let’s bring it on, and build on our networks and communities! I recently went on a Palestine demo in London walking with thousands of people, some friends, most strangers, and there was a strong emotion of solidarity.

One reason I have been drawn to representing and working with refugee experiences is that displacement is a topic I am very familiar with, firstly through family history – my family is Palestinian and also has Syrian connections, and secondly through the experiences of friends from many parts. Experiences of displacement, whether you are classified as, or move between, different legal labels such as ‘refugee’, ‘asylum seeker’, ‘migrant’, or other, are unfortunately not unique. Many individuals and communities all over the world have experienced being displaced. Yet while these experiences are collective, they are also personal. And for me, making films is one way in which I can extend my hand to someone, to carve out the time to listen and share. Films give me the opportunity to be in someone’s world for a while, to learn about their experiences and to find a way to share it with others. Films can capture us as an audience, transport us to different worlds, and allow us to live momentarily with someone we don’t know.

My films that have touched explicitly on refugee or displaced experiences, including Queens of Syria (2014), about a group of Syrian women displaced to Jordan re-enacting the ancient Greek play The Trojan Women, and A Tale of Two Syrias (2012), which in part focuses on the life of Salem, an Iraqi fashion designer and refugee in Syria as he struggles to survive and eventually gains resettlement to a third country, both gave me the chance to engage in a deeply personal way.

A key focus of your work has been to shed light on the stories of those affected by the war in Syria. As we mark the tenth year of the war, what perspectives can you share and how can we raise awareness for the ongoing plight of the Syrian people? 

Firstly I think it is important to mark and remember that what has happened in Syria is not only a war or conflict but also a social and political struggle against an authoritarian and brutal regime that continues till today. This struggle requires our continued international support and solidarity to work towards transitional justice and accountability.

I admittedly didn’t set out with the aim to shed light on these stories on purpose. Rather, it was an organic reaction to a context I am emotionally very close to. I had to make these films. I had to follow these stories, because of my personal entanglements with Syria. I didn’t always know the people I filmed before hand, but the drive was always personal. Even if it sometimes feels futile, making films is a sort of empowering process in the face of huge brutality, a small attempt to say ‘this happened’, ‘these people’s experiences matter’, to say that we will create the archives of the future where these stories will be heard and remembered, to fight the narrative of a regime that attempts to silence them.

My personal and filmmaking relationship to Syria goes back further than 2011 and having known it for a long time I believe it is important to understand the context in Syria through it’s recent history and not only in relation to the last 10 years. The conflict did not happen in a void and it is important to recognise the historical context in which it began, alongside gaining awareness of the contemporary situation.

There are many ways to share perspectives and raise awareness particularly though engaging with the work of artists and writers from Syria, from readings books by Samar Yezbick, Yassin Al Haj Saleh, Madouh Azzam, or Dima Wannous, or the poetry of Golan Haji, to listening to music from Tanjaret Daghet, looking at the art of Tamman Azzam or Sulafa Hijazi, to supporting organisations such as The Syria Campaign, Families for Freedom, or Bassma & Zeitouneh.

As a filmmaker I have also tracked the amazing output of films from or about Syria since 2011. Before then there was a much smaller film output from the country, due to restrictive laws around the production of films, both fiction and documentary. Some of these films were very good, such as Flood in Ba’ath Country (Omar Amiralry, 2005), Sunduq al Dunya (Ossama Mohammed, 2002), or I am the one that brings flowers to her grave (2006, Hala Abdalla), but there were not many of them. The large output of films produced since 2011 have together painted segments of a complex picture of experiences, such as Dawwar Al Shams (Anonymous), For Sama (Waed Al Kateab Edward Watts), Last Men of Aleppo (Firas Fayyad & others), The Day I Lost my Shadow (Soudade Kaddan), La Dolce Siria (Ammar al Beik), and so many more.

Your recent film Ayouni was met with great acclaim: what are your reflections on the project now that the film has been shared internationally? 

Ayouni follows Noura and Machi they as search for answers about their loved ones – Bassel Safadi and Paolo Dall’Oglio, who are among the over 100,000 forcibly disappeared in Syria. Faced with the limbo of an overwhelming absence of information, hope is the only thing they have to hold on to. ‘Ayouni’ is a deeply resonant Arabic term of endearment – meaning ‘my eyes’ and understood as ‘my love’. Filmed over 6 years and across multiple countries in search of answers, Ayouni is an attempt to give numbers faces, to give silence a voice, and to make the invisible undeniably visible.

Film Still from Ayouni, 2020

Ayouni was released in 2020 during the pandemic, so it is still early days. We took part in screenings and advocacy events, with The Syria Campaign, and others, to highlight detention and forcible disappearance in Syria as these are key issues. Yet Ayouni is also about love, between a couple and between siblings. Forced disappearance is the opposite of love. It’s a tactic that aims to break families apart, to silence the disappeared and those close to them, to erase narratives that don’t fit with the dominant power structure. As a filmmaker, and with the release of the film, I found out that film does have a role. Film can fight the oblivion that forced disappearance aims for by keeping people visible and in our sights.

Has this film provoked responses and conversations with individuals or groups for whom it has a personal resonance? 

Film is made up of emotions, and at our one in person festival screening in 2020 in Florence, Machi, Paolo’s sister, told me something I hadn’t expected her to say. She said, ‘Our hearts need to keep feeling the pain and anger. And people new to these stories need to feel the pain of others,’ she said, because “as time moves on, this pain subsides and there is a danger when that happens that we begin to forget.” There is a danger that these stories might go into an oblivion. The emotional re/connection was key, even for her, as someone who had directly lived it, to keep the pain alive and present as a fuel for the struggle for answers. Film can bring Paolo and Bassel back to us momentarily, we can hear them, be with them for a while, feel their energy and passions, see their lives and the consequences of their decisions, but through the film we also feel their trace and absence.

Noura shared with me very intimate and special moments of her life, whether it was through the archive she had of herself and Bassel, a young couple in love, to allowing me to be with her through a difficult moment in her life as she faced the reality of Bassel’s disappearance and as she campaigns on the issues of detention and forced disappearance in Syria. For her the film also feels like a personal memory document, weaving together material of her and Bassel together.

I have shared the film at talks and screenings and some of the conversations have been really touching, whether someone shared their memories of visiting Mar Musa and meeting Paolo, to Bassel’s friends around the world, to sharing the film with Syrians whose loved ones have been disappeared and who are fighting for answers.

Bassel and Noura, Film Still from Ayouni (2020)

How important are personal connections or stories for our understanding of major global events? 

Major global events are made up of individual experiences, individuals come together for collective actions, so these things are an intrinsic part of each other. We need to hear the personal stories to understand major global events, and at the same time we need to understand the context about major global events to understand their effects on the personal.

Could you speak about your time in Italy as part of your research process for this film? 

I was not yet working on Ayouni while I was at the BSR but the seeds for the film were sown while I was there. Paolo Dall’Oglio is originally from Rome, his family live there and some of his community and networks are there so I connected with that. It was while I was at the BSR that I decided to reach out to Paolo to make a new film together, though at that point the idea was to make a film about a priest in the Syrian revolution, not about forcible disappearance.

While I was at the BSR I was particularly interested in squats which were being turned into community centres, arts centres, theatres, gyms and more. I made a short on a squatted boxing gym titled Siamo Tornati (2013). There was a lack of services that many people needed access to or wanted to protest from being closed down, from affordable sports centres, to childcare, to so much more. The DIY ethos was inspiring and it was great to see how people were finding community based solutions.

Do you think there is value in working in an inter-disciplinary context (like the BSR) for the creative process? 

I think it is difficult, if not impossible, to work in only one discipline or with only one approach. As I research and develop a project I explore and am inspired by multiple disciplines or approaches. Becoming too focussed in one area may limit our understandings or lines of enquiry. Working across disciplines makes so much sense. I recently heard a talk by Dr Omar Dewachi (see below) who was once a physician, now a medical anthropologist, and is also a musician, whose interests cross between history, biology, medicine, arts, and the social and political, who inspiringly said he is ‘anti- discipline’. Rather than work in silos we should cross-pollinate, share and learn from other perspectives. Not to take away from the importance of expertise in an area, but with that we must always talk to each other to get unexpected insight or questions for our work. The BSR is a great place for these crossovers!

Arriving at the BSR, 2013

Do you have plans in progress for your next project, or do ideas form organically based on your interactions with others?

I am in the very early days of two new projects and looking for support to get these off the ground, so any readers with suggestions, please let me know! Both are film/ art based projects – one exploring the legacy of British empire in Palestine through the story of my great-grandfather and the British pensions system; the other is exploring the work of medical anthropologist Omar Dewachi and a dangerous pathogen of war that thrives in the particular environments of conflict areas – which are the consequences of sanctions, invasions, artillery and more, such as in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Gaza, and which has far reaching consequences to ask the question – can we end all wars to save our health?  

Thank you to Yasmin Fedda for taking part in this feature. Interview by Zoe Firth and Bryony Smith.

You can watch Ayouni here @ayounifilm.

A collection of Yasmin’s films titled Yasmin Fedda: An Ethnographic Eye has several of her films on it: Ayouni, Queens of Syria, Breadmakers, A Tale of Two Syrias, and some other shorts are available to view here for UK audiences:

Meet the artists: Bea Bonafini

An interview with Bea Bonafini, our Abbey Scholar in Painting, in which she speaks about the works she has produced during her residency at the BSR from April–June 2021.

Your work revolves around the body and its life after death. In a time of pandemic, in which proximity between bodies is dangerous and problematic, has your approach to your research changed?

Psychotherapist Esther Perel’s research around eroticism as an antidote to death anxiety has mixed with our current condition of mistrusting touch and proximity in my mind. My approach has been to activate the playfully sexy, part dangerous, part comforting intertwining of fluid bodies. I keep recording any anxieties lurking in my unconscious through dream journals, observing connections to the collective unconscious and mutations throughout this period of pandemic and personal loss. The pandemic has sometimes been framed as a fight against an invisible enemy, when it’s actually establishing a new balance with our changing environment and inventing methods for a safe coexistence with this new virus. If the unconscious is the space that elaborates death anxiety, then my recent research sightsees this space, capturing the resurfacing absurd monsters that normally swim in the abyss of our interior psychosphere.

What strikes me most about your works is the process of making. I saw you playing with textiles, cork and other materials in the manner of an expert artisan seeking to develop your own techniques and effects. Where does this interest in craftsmanship come from?

The fundamental magnetism I feel towards soft materiality is rooted in the inherent tenderness of these materials. For the same reason, I can extend this magnetism to craft techniques, which are entirely imbued with tenderness. The painstaking details that artisans pay attention to, their love for mastering precision, the infinite patience they learn to work with, is all included in the notion of tenderness. Artisanal practices have become an act of political resistance to society’s obsession with fast and quantitative productivity. Like the Slow Food movement that was founded in Italy in 1986, artisanal practices are a reminder that slow working methods, with extreme attention to detail and quality express an immense power of tenderness.

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).

Meet the artists: Milly Peck

An interview with Milly Peck, The Bridget Riley Fellow, in which she speaks about the works she has produced during her residency at the BSR from April–June 2021.

Photo by Antonio Palmieri.

Your practice might be located at the intersection between two and three-dimensions and you usually work with painting, sculpture and installations. Last year, during lockdown in London you started to make drawings. What made you settle on this technique and how do you intend to develop it during your six-month residency in Rome?

I think this shift in my work was partly prompted by the unpredicted restrictions on accessing my studio and my tools during lockdown but also served as a timely reaction to making work in quite a stubbornly graphic, reductive way for a number of years with a deliberately limited colour palette. I consider all of my work to be extended forms of drawing in some sense, whether it is with tools used for cutting sculptural materials such as a router which carves grooves into surfaces or using more traditional means. I began drawing on paper in the same way I approach making sculpture-by thinking about the drawn line as a physical cut which needs to be worked around. So most of my drawings using coloured pencil over the last year or so have these almost segmented sections which sit around the drawn line. In this way they become almost diagrammatic or seem to have the potential to be broken apart and be put back together. This attempts to draw attention to their flatness and prevents them being convincingly illusionistic.

Leather Goods, pencil on 220gsm paper.

Another important difference between my sculptural work and these drawings I have made over the last year or so is the shift in the scale of imagery. Ordinarily, I generally work with a one to one human scale whereas within the drawings, the pictorial scale varies which allows for a huge amount of freedom in terms of what I am depicting within a smaller rectilinear frame. My intention for my residency period at the British School at Rome was to develop my drawings on paper in direct relationship to my more sculptural work, allowing the two to overlap and feed into one another. Often my sculptures act as a framework or viewing device, either framing other aspects of an installation or the viewer themselves. In this way, I wanted to experiment with making sculpture which can directly act as a frame, stage or display system for drawings. Inevitably, on arriving in Rome, my drawing has expectedly shifted furthermore. I have been making detailed tonal, observational drawings of mostly mundane objects I have been encountering on a day to day basis at real scale. Drawing is functioning as a method of recording my time here and through amassing drawings, I am recognising commonalities between the objects I select. Objects which are fakes, mimicking or parodying other things, objects which themselves are packaged and framed and objects which have the potential to duplicate, inflate or collapse into themselves. Alongside these drawings, I have been looking at physical display systems within museological, touristic contexts as well as in commercial settings such as shop windows. I have also been photographing the facades of mainly residential apartment buildings looking at the architecture of the balconied exteriors and how these might relate to some of my research around the stage set design of early roman theatre.

Detail from display at Il Museo delle Cere. Photo by the artist.

Your prop-like constructions are reflective of your broader interests in the theatre and the stage. During our studio visit you mentioned your interest in Greek and Roman ancient theatres in Italy. What interests you in particular about them and which theatres do you want to visit during your residency?

I have grown increasingly more interested in the area of theatre over the last few years for a number of different reasons. Some areas of research in my previous work, for example Foley sound production (the recreation of sound effects made in post production in film and TV etc.) and also the comedies of British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, have been instrumental in helping me think about the apparatus of performance rather than performance itself whether that be focussing on the use of props or the physical structure of the stage and how these mechanisms can be used to position or frame the performer and audience. Ayckbourn’s plays are written to be performed in the round, much like early Greek theatre but his farcical and often satirical comedies feel somewhat inevitably reflective of early Roman comedic theatre as well as sharing qualities with other peripheral theatrical Italian traditions which informed and accompanied this such as Atellan farce, mime, pantomime and the Etruscan practice of Fescennine verse. Whilst I am researching the representation of these theatrical traditions I am paying particular attention to any clues of the design of the stages they took place on.

Theatrical mask from The Room Of Muses at The Vatican Museum. Photo by the artist.

I am also interested in how the progression of the physical stage in Western history has undergone a sort of flattening where the emphasis seems to have shifted away from the more open shape of Greek theatres and focused towards the embellishment of the scaenae frons (stage backdrop) more typical to the modern proscenium stage we see commonly today which functions more like a picture frame. Whilst it has been important for me to gain an understanding of the physical construction of early Roman theatres by visiting theatre remains at sites such as Ostia Antica or the theatre of Marcellus in Rome, I am most interested in the use of temporary wooden stage sets which existed prior to these permanent structures as well as the implementation of skenographia (scenic painting) within these stages. Whilst none of these temporary structures survive now, there are a number of frescoes which still exist either preserved in museums or in their original sites which depict parts of early wooden theatre sets or have direct reference to the theatre within them. This use of the theatre set as a subject for paintings which would have acted as a background within domestic spaces is especially interesting to me because these frescoes, especially of the Second style in this case, adeptly play with fictional, architectural illusionism. There is a comical perversity attached to truthfully imitating an already inherently artificial, temporary and architecturally false subject matter such as the stage set and so these frescoes become an incredibly multi-dimensional representation of both real and imagined space. 

Detail of research books in studio. Photo by the artist.

There are a number of frescoes in Pompeii which I am looking forward to visiting which include images of theatrical sets or references to theatre such as at the Villa of Oplontis but primarily, the aspect which interests me the most and which I feel is important in relation to my own work more broadly is the area between the real and the artificial and the points at which they overlap and can also become indistinguishable. As mentioned before, this research really serves as a background to my own examination of contemporary spaces which utilise theatrical techniques such as painted backdrops, props and dioramas such as within museums, shop window displays and other public establishments of entertainment.

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).

An interview with Charlie Fegan

Email interview with Marta Pellerini (Visual Art Residency and Programme Curator) and Charlie Fegan (Sainsbury Scholar in Painting & Sculpture, September 2020-September 2021)

And besides, in this case
there is no mistake.

Romans do hate (as I say)

a stranger. And
their reasoning is empirically

What is the holiness of empire?
It is to know collapse.

Everything can collapse.
Houses, bodies
and enemies

when their rhythm becomes

Anne Carson
The Fall of Rome: A Traveller’s Guide

Photo by the artist.

Marta Pellerini: Where does your interest in the architect Edwin Lutyens, who designed the façade of the BSR, come from? And how do you intend to develop this interest over the period of your award?

Charlie Fegan: The majority of ancient Roman aesthetics were Greek in origin, but the triumphal arch was a distinctly Roman invention. This makes sense given that their core cultural determination was militaristic expansion and domination. Lutyens put the triumphal arch through a kaleidoscope with his Memorial to the Missing of the Somme completed in 1932, commemorating just those whose bodies where obliterated during the exercise of industrialised slaughter called the ‘Great War’ of 1914-1918. The memorial’s complex descending arches and ziggurat refract a 2000 year old template and wouldn’t look out of place in The Fifth Element (1997). Futuristic not in the denuded stylistic sense but that which has the small shock of from the actual unknown. What are memorials supposed to do? If a death isn’t memorialised is it without meaning or importance? Is a materiality of memory an adequate approach to grief? War memorials tend to be macho physically and commemorate toxic masculine pursuits like murder and destruction. Where does this cultural particularity come from?

“The Romans have never been rivalled in their shrewd employment of cruelty […] Rome
was the first not only to threaten but to destroy the freedom of the world.” – Simone Weil, 1939.

Roman monuments made by those in power had untempered triumph in killing and
enslavement. War memorials post-1918 ape their renaissanced aesthetics but do so with a supposedly simmering introspection and apology, the need to copy ‘classical’ forms betrays a certain insecurity. The Cenotaph on Whitehall, London was originally a temporary structure hastily designed by Lutyens after the first World War. None of it’s horizontal and vertical lines are straight but subtle curves governed by a system of entasis or optical correction employed in ancient Greek temples. After its permanent stone sequel was erected the Catholic Herald dismissed the Cenotaph as “nothing more or less than a pagan monument, insulting to Christianity […] a disgrace in a so call Christian land” as it was for “Atheist, Mohammedan, Buddhist, Jew, men of any religion or none”. Influenced by his wife Lady Emily’s interest in Theosophy, Lutyens eschewed the cross.

“The Cenotaph is remarkable for the absence of any visible emblems or symbols on it
representing Triumph, or Heroism, or Victory; there are only carved wreaths and ribbons, and three flags along each flank. It speaks only of death, and loss. Nor are there any religious symbols: there is no cross, let alone a crucifix, nor representations of angels, of St George or St Micheal in armour. This is, perhaps, surprising in a nation with an established Church. The bishops, indeed were very unhappy about this and the burial of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey on Armistice Day 1920, when the permanent Cenotaph was unveiled, was the Church of England’s riposte to this official secularism. Stephen Graham later recalled Lutyens saying, ‘There was some horror in Church circles. What! A pagan monument in the midst of Whitehall! That is why we have a rival shrine in the Abbey, the Unknown Warrior, but even an unknown soldier might not have been a Christian, the more unknown the less sure you could be.” – Gavin Stamp.

Photo by the artist.

There is a cold violence to their design that resonates with those who now so often evoke the ‘memory’ of the two wars; English right-wing nationalists. The red poppy hegemony is queasy. World War 2 is now the more prominent narrative around Armistice Day, the battle between good and evil is a simple story. But these memorials were all made to commemorate the much more messy and less grandiose story of World War 1. ‘Never again’ was within only two decades broken and 1939-1945 carved into the same stone.

“To the British, it was and would remain their greatest military tragedy of the twentieth
century, indeed of their national military history…The Somme marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered.” – John Keegan

Photo by the artist.

Britain’s world domination was bankrupted by this war and it’s Empires’ decline rapidly
hastened. ‘England’s war is Ireland’s opportunity’. The function of these memorials has
morphed in recent years, they have become less about remembrance of the
incommensurable human toll and more sites of mourning for lost Empire and an imagined past now taken away. Armistice Day a pagan poll dance of post-colonial melancholia. This was made as clear as the planeless skies in the right wing reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests in Parliament Square June, 2020.


Was a Racist

Sprayed on the granite base of the big bronze. A picture circulated online of a kid trying to set the Cenotaph flags alight. Lutyens originally wanted the flags to be made of stone, a much more powerful poetic symbolism. Frozen flags permanently petrified in time, but was overruled by the armed forces. Charlie Gilmour wouldn’t have gone to prison for swinging off them if Lutyens’ design was implemented. A possible moment for accurate historical eduction to counter the dominant rose tinted hagiography of Churchill and the explicitly white supremacist ideology of the British Empire was instead used to create a culture war false binary. Rightly drawing attention to the fact that Churchill undoubtedly held racist beliefs was disingenuously seen as an attack on the war dead by ‘thugs and vandals’. The Cenotaph and Churchill statue were boarded up, groups of English nationalists formed counter protests and rushed to ‘protect’ war memorials across the country from a confected and non-existent threat. The memorials were used as rallying points against the powerful and vital ongoing BLM movement for racial equality, they became solely pilgrimage sites of white supremacy and the triumph of empire. This was always under the surface of the ‘Lest We Forget’ middle aged Facebook profile-picture brigade. It’s a nod to a certain set of political ideologies, not an untainted act of remembrance. This bitter melancholia for a time before World War I and the might of Empire is undoubtedly a major nostalgic emotion in the phyrric drive towards leaving the European Union, also against immigration and the duty of providing safety for refugees. In 1955, Churchill expressed his support for the slogan “Keep England White” in regards to immigration from the Caribbean that was desperately needed to rebuild the country after the war. His views were extreme for even some in the Conservative party at the time. One quote punctures the unshakeable ‘we shall fight them on the beaches’ mythos around him and was remembered by his doctor who treated his alcoholism and manic depression. Churchill confided in him one night:

“I want to sleep for a billion years. Stupendous issues are unfolding before our eyes yet we are only specs of dust that have settled in the night on the map of the world.”

It shows in sharp relief the priorities of the current Conservative government who have
since have passed a law allowing a jail sentence of up to 10 years for defacing a memorial or statue when jail terms for those convicted of sexual offences such as rape start at just 5 years. War memorials can function in an important way, they can be received as warnings from previous generations now unable to speak. From those that lived through human inflicted unimaginable horror reminding us never again.

Photo by the artist.

Marta Pellerini: How have you combined your study and understanding of classical history, which you’ve been focusing on these past few years, with a contemporary approach?

Charlie Fegan: The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
Ecclesiastes 1:9-10

One of the things I find compelling about classical history is that this hulking unwavering system of life collapsed. The arrogant stares of deified emperors lay in river silt and dirt for centuries. The renaissance has a science fiction quality to it; the remnants of a technologically and culturally complex civilisation were dug up and used as an aesthetic and cultural template. We are all acutely aware of where we are heading if things don’t radically change. The ecocide continuing to take place on the planet could very easily bring about the same covering of dirt upon our own systems of life. In this moment of radical potential when the seemingly fixed structures of our lives were halted and questioned what are we going to do with it? What is more likely to happen once vaccinations have been delivered around the world? Are the yawning inequalities of race/gender/class going to be addressed and balanced? Will we stop the companies that destroy our ecosystem? Or will there be a Covid-19 memorial erected and back to business as usual?

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.” – Ursula K. Le Guin.

Photo by Antonio Palmieri.

A stroll through medieval Rome

Maria Harvey (Rome fellow, September 2020-June 2021) writes about her experience during a walking tour of Rome as part of the BSR’s Welcome Week activities.

As part of our Welcome Week events, we went on the traditional walk around Rome in late April (to allow for quarantines). It was a beautiful day, and with Rome still orange (no bars, no restaurants, no museums, no travel for leisure), the city was empty. After a tour of Renaissance and Baroque sites with Harriet O’Neill (Assistant Director for Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences), BSR Director Chris Wickham took us on a stroll though medieval Rome – the catch being that however central the BSR may be now, it was not in the Middle Ages, when the city centre was in the area of the Ghetto, Trastevere and Campo de’ Fiori. To get there, we imagined to be on a pilgrimage route from the north: walking down the Borghese Gardens, through Piazza del Popolo (‘the city wall was here, the square was not’), the Pantheon (‘this existed’) and Piazza Navona (‘This has been an open space since the 1st century AD; in the Middle Ages, it was used for jousting’).

Pilgrims about to enter the city of Rome. Photo by the author.
Piazza del Popolo, which did not exist in the Middle Ages. Photo by the author.
The Pantheon. Photo by the author.
Piazza Navona, used for jousting in the Middle Ages. Photo by the author.

From Piazza Navona, Chris took us through what were the main, processional roads of medieval Rome – roads like Via del Governo Vecchio – that seems tiny now, especially when compared to both the seventeenth-century and the fascist urban renovation. Like Chris, I am a medievalist, but an art historian, and I tend to focus (incorrectly, probably) on single monuments. Chris instead wanted us to experience where people lived and walked and experienced the city on a much more popular, quotidian level. To do this, he showed us some thirteenth-century houses, with their cortili and stairs made of reused classical marble. Houses where real people actually lived (and live). He pointed out the fragmentary remains of medieval towers, and of the very, very little that survives of the Palazzo Orsini, in Campo de’ Fiori. Later, in front of Sant’Angelo in Pescaria, he told us that the area had been a fish market before – archaeologists found 8th century fish bones – and may have always been one. We crossed only on bridges that existed at the time (like the Ponte Sisto – built in the late fifteenth century on Roman foundations), to go visit Santa Maria in Trastevere, before returning to this side of the Tiber to see the Casa de’ Crescenzi.

View of Rome. Photo by the author.
All that remains of Palazzo Orsini is the few visible bricks right at the top. Photo by the author.
View of Rome. Photo by the author.

The Casa de’ Crescenzi, now caught in the middle of a traffic crossing with its neighbours, the Temple of Vesta and Santa Maria in Cosmedin, was once a tower house, in what used to be the city’s urban centre. Although we were not allowed in, the house’ facade is a stunning example of the Middle Ages’ engagement with the Roman past and another demonstration that the Classical past was not discovered in the Renaissance. The spolia has clearly been chosen and arranged to create decorative patterns and borders, not to mention that it is responding specifically to the Roman temple next door. Although most towers were defensive, the Casa de’ Crescenzi was for show, the door is simply too large for it to provide any sort of protection. In fact, Nicola de’ Cencio, the patron, not only clearly memorialised himself through the inscription, but also placed a bust of himself in the window. The grandiosity of the construction becomes even clearer if we consider it in its original 12th century urban context, characterised by the presence of the tower houses of two Roman aristocratic families, the Corsi and the Normanni. But Nicola, of the Baronci, was not noble: the Casa de’ Crescenzi becomes in this way a ‘serious micropolitical intervention’.

From there, we ambled back to the BSR, through the Ghetto; Roscioli pizza in one hand, ice cream in the other.

Researching the English and Scots Colleges in Rome, c. 1603-1707: Archive Use and the Pandemic

BSR Rome Fellow Karie Schultz (September 2020-June 2021) writes about her time spent researching in Rome. She will be giving a lecture entitled ‘Education and identity: the Scots and English Colleges in Rome, c. 1603–1707’, on Monday 17 May 2021. For more information and to register, click here.

In September 2020, I arrived at the British School at Rome with a great deal of uncertainty about starting a new research project during the pandemic. I had applied for a long-term fellowship before COVID-19 struck, hoping to research the studies, networks, and experiences of English and Scottish students who attended their national colleges in Rome during the seventeenth century. The universities in England and Scotland were Protestant in teaching at the time, and students had to subscribe a Confession of Faith to attend. This meant that Catholic students needed to travel to continental Europe for their education. In my project, I planned to examine how the ideas these students learned in Rome (and the experiences they had while living abroad) informed their responses to the crisis of the Catholic church back home. Unsurprisingly, the pandemic disrupted my project plans when COVID numbers in Italy took a turn for the worse throughout the autumn. Many of my archives closed, and those that remained open required appointments to be booked far in advance, quarantined documents regularly, and restricted the number of people allowed in each day.

A view of St Peter’s Basilica from my daily walk to the Propaganda Fide. Photo by the author.

Despite the logistical problems posed by the pandemic, I was able to complete some fascinating research, even if my project ended up looking different than I first anticipated. While I initially planned to only use the archives at the Scots and English Colleges, I quickly discovered that a wealth of material existed in other institutions throughout Rome. In March of this year, I therefore began a series of alternating archive visits to the Archivio Storico de Propaganda Fide and the Historical Archive of the Pontificia Università Gregoriana. The significant amount of previously unexamined material held in these two archives has become the foundation for my project. I have spent my time in the Propaganda Fide sifting through, transcribing, and translating ten volumes of material related to seventeenth-century English and Scottish missionaries, many of whom trained at English and Scots Colleges across Europe.

The entrance to the grounds of the Collegio Urbano where the Propaganda Fide archive is based. Photo by the author.

At the Gregorian University, I have focused on evidence of curriculum and teaching for English and Scottish students who took their courses at the Jesuit-run Collegio Romano. The archive includes lecture notes and manuscript treatises written by professors at the Roman College, in addition to philosophical theses which were defended publicly by students. Together, these sources have given me a better picture of the education and networks of students who came to Rome for their education and who sought to convert England and Scotland to Catholicism when they returned home.

The site of one of my main archives (the Historical Archive at the Pontifical Gregorian University). Photo by the author.

To my surprise, the easiest part of my archive trips has been navigating COVID restrictions and walking upwards of five miles each day to avoid public transport. Instead, my archival sources have caused me the greatest difficulty. Much of this material is uncatalogued, meaning that is always a surprise what you might find each day. While the potential for a new discovery is exciting, it also poses challenges. Often it means spending an entire day sorting through material that ends up being irrelevant to the project. Some of these sources are in poor physical condition, while others were written in a terrible and illegible hand.

One of the sources I have used includes the rules of the Scots College from 1615-1616. Photo by the author.

There is also no internet in the Propaganda Fide which makes translating multiple languages into English difficult. Finally, both archives do not allow researchers to take photographs, so I have spent most of my time simply transcribing over 30,000 words of material. As a result, I have to ensure that my transcriptions are flawless before I leave the archive since I cannot rely on photographs to help me out later! Nevertheless, I am so grateful to be able to enter an archive at all (a true novelty in pandemic times), and I am looking forward to spending the next month finishing up this project before I leave Rome. Although my experience at the BSR has certainly looked different to that of past Rome Fellows, I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to start a new research project while living in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

My lunchtime view over the Vatican from the grounds of the Propaganda Fide archive. Photo by the author.

Archival windows into life at the BSR. The case of Eugénie Sellers Strong and Alexandrina Makin. (Part 2)

Eugénie Strong at centre, surrounded by BSR scholars, artists and staff.
Back row: Unknown, Unknown, Unknown, Eugénie Strong, Colin Gill (Rome Scholar in Painting), Mrs Hardiman, Alfred Hardiman (Rome Scholar in Sculpture), Unknown.
Middle row: Miss Jamison, Miss Makin, Winifred Knights (Rome Scholar in Painting).
Front row: F.O. Lawrence (Rome Scholar in Architecture), Job Nixon (Rome Scholar in Engraving), Unknown.

During the later months of 1919 and early 1920, Eugénie Sellers Strong was tirelessly pushing to reorganise the structure and expand the services of the BSR Library. We learn from several letters in our miscellaneous box that there was a shared incentive to incorporate the BSR’s students into this restructure. New collections were acquired and catalogued while new rules were drafted, including such policies as strict silence and no writing of letters or private correspondence (one wonders what Strong would have made of our handheld, instantaneous portals to the digital world!). Correspondence between Strong, Ashby and the BSR administrators in the UK during these months revolved around alleviating the directors’ workloads via the appointment of an assistant librarian. Eventually, Miss Enole M. Hake was appointed – who we might find in the circle around Strong, above Makin to the left. Following this, Strong wrote to Edgar John Forsdyke, the BSR FAHL secretary:

13th August 1919. Eugénie Strong writes to Edgar John Forsdyke, FAHL Secretary of the British School at Rome. The discussion of Miss Makin is at point 3. Strong often structured her correspondence around such numbered points. Image courtesy of the Author.

Strong was eager to “help [Makin] to eke out her rather slender scholarship by doing private secretarial work.” We get a sense here of both Strong’s desire to support the lives of students coming to the School as well as the close working relationships she fostered with them. This attention to the lives of the School’s students, during and beyond life at the School, is a consistent trend coming out of these boxes. Makin and Strong worked together in Rome for the next year, alongside Miss Hake, the newly appointed assistant librarian. An idea of how this year was spent is found in Makin’s application to the Gilchrist Studentship for 1920-21, a common path to study at the BSR in the early twentieth century, complete with a referral letter from Strong:

We learn that Makin developed her knowledge of the ancient city of Rome through peripatetic study with Ashby and began research on the topic of the Roman ‘Triumphus’: that religiously sanctified and politically loaded urban procession whereby a Roman military commander and his forces ritually re-entered civic life and paraded through the city of Rome, displaying the spoils of wars fought near and far to the spectating city. Ultimately, Makin was unsuccessful (and indeed for the second time), the award instead going to on Mr. O. K. Struckmeyer – an English literature scholar. Testament to Strong’s admirable investment into the lives of her students and specifically her desire to keep Makin involved at the School, not least for her intellectual contributions, we find in another letter her supporting Makin’s application to the post of assistant librarian:

9th September 1920. Strong writes to Forsdyke. This extract includes a wonderful insight into the character of Miss Makin, paragraph 2. Image courtesy of the Author.

As Strong puts it: “I am delighted at this and hope that the committee will ratify the appointment, for Miss Makin has already worked with me in the Library and I come to like her more and more in spite of a Scotch temper which at first seemed cantankerous, but she is really very nice and a hard worker – as Dr. Ashby knows – and you can imagine how glad I should be if she could stay on here as part Librarian and part student, working at her “Triumphus.” We should at least have an Archaeologist who stays some time.”

Makin was appointed and began her work in the Library after Christmas 1920, taking over from Miss Hake. She continued to study the Roman triumph. Her findings were eventually published in the Journal of Roman Studies in 1921. In the first footnote, Makin writes: “To this subject my attention was first directed by Mrs. S. Arthur Strong, to whom, as to the Director of the British School at Rome, Dr. Ashby, I am grateful for constant help and guidance. In questions of topography and in the construction of the map the help of Dr. Ashby was invaluable. I have to acknowledge also my indebtedness to Mr. F. O. Lawrence, Rome Scholar in Architecture for 1920, for his kindness in drawing the map.”

Map of the Roman triumph, from Makin, E. (1921) ‘The Triumphal route, with special reference to the Flavian triumph’, Journal of Roman Studies 11, 25-36. Image courtesy of the Author

Interpersonal, collegial working environments are one of the most rewarding elements of professional life. Here we notice how that very same principle was a feature of Makin’s experience at the School: working closely with the architect F. O. Lawrence, also found in our opening photograph, who helped to produce an illustration of her arguments. With the recent revival of the Scholar’s Prize in Architecture, it is exciting that we may yet see similar collaborations again in the coming years. While much of our topographical understanding of the ancient city has changed in the past century, and not least in the now more fluid approach to the triumphal route,[1] Makin’s study remains, even a century on, a key reference point on the topic and certainly does justice to herself, the tutelage of Ashby and Strong, and also to the community at the BSR in which she worked.

This miscellaneous box, then, has helped to enliven the photo with which we began. Strong surrounds herself with a wonderful cohort of artists and scholars: Winifred Knights, Colin Gill, Alfred Hardiman, and more besides. With the help of our box, we are also able to remember Enole Hake and Alexandrina Makin, that Library support team so critical to the daily running of the School which Strong nurtured and, in the case of Makin, cultivated a passion for the ancient world and provided a platform for research.

This is but one of many stories contained in the miscellaneous box, a box that is hidden away in the basement of the School. It is tantalising to consider who else we might discover by delving into the rich, multihued collections housed in the BSR Archives.

Ben White

[1] See, for instance: M. Beard (2007) The Roman Triumph (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press); D. Favro, (2018) ‘Urban Commemoration: the pompa triumphalis in Rome’, in C. Holleran and A. Claridge (eds.) A Companion to the City of Rome (London: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd), 599-618.


Marta Pellerini (Visual Art Residency and Programme Curator), Max Fletcher (Sainsbury Scholar in Painting and Sculpture 20192020) and Mick Finch (Professor of Visual Art Practice, Central Saint Martins) reflect on the March Mostra 2021. The text takes the form of an imagined conversation in the absence of a physical audience due to Covid-19 restrictions.

M. PELLERINI: On March 12, the March Mostra 2021 at the British School at Rome opened, with works by Charlie Fegan and Max Fletcher. Just that morning I had read the news that our region would become a red zone and go into lockdown from Monday 15 March for a minimum of two weeks. And so it was. The exhibition opened to the public for three hours. With almost 27,000 Covid-19 cases and 380 deaths (data as of March 12) the announcement was no surprise.

Charlie Fegan and Max Fletcher, both Sainsbury Award holders, had been the only artists-in-residence at the BSR for three months. Max Fletcher returned to the BSR in September 2020 to complete the remaining six months of his residency which had been cut short by the onset of Covid-19, just as Charlie began his. For the first time ever, the March Mostra took the form of two solo shows / a duo show / a duet. Although distinct, both artists have, in their own way, dealt with what they describe as ‘uncoordinated temporality’ and ‘historical summonings’.

In his project for the March Mostra, Charlie Fegan designs a future memorial that takes the war memorials of architect Edwin Lutyens as a starting point, developing a structure that recalls the linearity of Carlo Scarpa’s architecture and the transparency of Lauretta Vinciarelli’s architectural drawings. The artist’s gaze shifts from the past to the present by emphasizing the relationship between death and ecology. 

One of the most debated topics of the last year has been the link between the pandemic and our planet’s health. What we are facing is a consequence of the Anthropocene and a warning to human beings who consider nature to be a nurturing mother that can be endlessly exploited. This patriarchal model is old and in crisis. Ecologists and ecofeminists are fighting it for the survival of the planet.

Activating a gaze towards the future involves looking critically at the past to negotiate the present.

Equally, Max Fletcher’s works for the March Mostra evoke a temporal path that begins with Antonio Gramsci’s journey to Turi prison in 1926 and ends with a painting of Matteo Salvini eating a hamburger. A canvas which represents the avidity of the political class. Next to it, hangs a triptych inspired by William Morris’s utopian novel News from Nowhere in which the narrator, a late 19th-century man and clearly the author’s alter-ego, is magically transported into a distant future (1952). England is free from capital, Trafalgar Square is no longer chaotic, but a peaceful area of ​​London, with elegant houses, overflowing gardens and audible bird song. Morris’ themes still resonate in 2021; the desire to create a world where work is creative and joyful, necessary criticism of the excessive power of science and technology, realisation of the importance of the natural environment, the victim, together with human beings, of environmental degradation and capitalist exploitation. One of Morris’s great admirers, Oscar Wilde, recalled a comment made by Morris: “I tried to make every worker an artist, and when I say an artist, I mean a man”

Max Fletcher, Parliament House or Dung Market (with Cole Denyer), oil and acrylic on canvas, 312×152 cm, 2021

M. FLETCHER: A popular far right politician is spotted in a chain restaurant eating a hamburger. While such an event is in no way remarkable, or even really of note, it is a good opportunity for the press photographers. After all, the best photographs are often of commonplace occurrences. A politician scoffing a patty of processed meat serves as a metaphor for greed. A newspaper clipping of the published image, tacked to a public notice board, has been given a caption. Prima Io, Dopo Voi, Forse. First Me, Then You, Maybe. A painting of this text/image combination was shown on the far wall of the gallery, immediately visible to the viewer upon entering the space. 

The politician eating the hamburger is Matteo Salvini. As an image it is a simple one and is rooted very much in the present day. This being so, it provides a counterpoint to the other work that I showed in the mostra, which was based on Antonio Gramsci’s time imprisoned in Turi and William Morris’ novel News From Nowhere, drawing lines between history and the present. The subject of the painting both is and is not Salvini. On one hand it is unmistakably the current leader of Lega Nord, yet the figure eating the hamburger could be any number of far right populist political figures currently enjoying a resurgence. The mostra came a year on from Italy’s first lockdown, and only this week, Boris Johnson declared to backbench conservative MPs that the UK’s relative vaccine success is down due to “greed” and “capitalism”. Prima Io, Dopo Voi, Forse. 

M. FINCH: I met remotely with Charlie and Max during the latter part of their tenure at the British School at Rome. I had chaired the committee of the Sainsbury/Lindbury Trust panel that had selected them for the residency and, as the effect of the pandemic dug deeper, support seemed appropriate. They coped well with the extraordinary conditions of being at the British School and in Rome at this time. This was not the usual experience of an award holder. Access to the cultural resources of the city and to the normally thriving community of the School was limited. The centre of Rome was emptied of its usual traffic of tourists, a strange pause in Rome’s burden of its geological time spans, manifest as endless seams of cultural artefacts.

They strangely shared much in this time. They both work into a past whose where and when is at first unclear. This displacement works as temporal mechanisms, possibly to engage an intangible present and an even more slippery future. The references, the working processes and the exhibition dispositifs they both employ are intriguing and complimentary.

Max Fletcher’s references, so well described by himself, are brought to together both in the processes by which his work is made and through their juxtaposition in the gallery, as constellations and collisions, precipitating an opening onto a present. Gramsci’s incarceration in Turi, the ceramic cattle trucks scattered around the gallery, edge the viewer toward associations with the railway cattle wagons of fascist entangled histories. A similar wagon is represented in a painting bearing the letters LNER, London North Eastern Railway and ‘First Me, Then You, Maybe’ finds a chilling place in the present unfolding before us, here and now. His reference to William Morris compounds his working process. Reaching back into historical aporia from which he pulls far flung coordinates that assemble around a vanishing point within the present.

Charlie Fegan’s work is a proposition for a memorial. It unfolds into a perpetual moment rather than that of an historic event.  He does this through a series of works on paper. The source of the thinking of the structure[HO6]  goes back to a Lutyens’ Thiepval Memorial to those lost in the Somme with no grave, that in itself is an extraordinary sculptural form. Charlie situates his memorial upon a sea within an eternal sunset. He counterposes these totalised, object-based views with those from within the memorial, the mortal and the eternal in a mode of point and measure. The works on paper are finally pinned onto massive black boards, gathering them synoptically together within a space that all but engulfs them.

Charlie Fegan, the last memorial, gouache, ink, watercolor, laser print on paper, 2021

Archival windows into life at the BSR. The case of Eugénie Sellers Strong and Alexandrina Makin. (Part 1)

An Archive is not a careful selection of materials, like a Library. A few days ago I heard this observation from Charlotte Roueché, Honorary Archivist at the Society for Libyan Studies, and it immediately caught my interest. Indeed, an Archive happens serendipitously, and the majority of its content is unpredictable, especially in the early phases of its gestation. The most fascinating boxes you may find in an archive, on a shelf, neatly arranged with other apparently similar boxes, are perhaps those labelled as miscellanea. The name itself may conjure all sorts of content ranging from the ‘quite’ trivial to the ‘absolutely’ inspiring and, more often, you do not know what to expect. Whether this box is completely irrelevant to your research or a door opening up a new unexpected path in your field of study, the surprise is around the corner.

In the following blog on the riches of the BSR Archives, our attempt is to turn the spotlight onto this particular set of materials and show the potential of its content by guiding you through multiple research strands. After all, everything depends on the way you look at these records and the perspective from which you are interrogating them. Research into archives might be compared to an archaeological excavation and sometimes, during the digging process, you do not know what you are going to find, to quote Charlotte Roueché again.

Ben White, a PhD student currently writing up his thesis on colonnades in ancient Rome, has been working as part of the archive team for several months on four such miscellaneous boxes. Now in this series of two posts, he will recount one of the stories emerging from these boxes.

Alessandra Giovenco, Archivist

Ben working in the archive. Photo by Alessandra Giovenco.

This archival box comprises c. 290 individual letters, telegrams and reports, as well as c. 50 postcards. Taken together, the materials constitute a veritable window into the British School as an institution during the years of 1919 and 1920. The primary content pertains to administration. While miscellaneous, and indeed regarding matters that are sometimes tedious and not immediately interesting, delving into this corpus of handwritten notes, laboriously typed-out reports, and plain financial receipts, affords a delicate proximity to life among an interconnected, vibrant community during the challenging post-war period.

Eugénie Sellers Strong, the Librarian and then Assistant Director (1909-1925), features in c. 45 letters, many of which composed in her typically cryptic script. What emanates from Strong’s writings is a remarkable attention to detail coupled with a resounding work ethic (herself often lecturing and networking whilst ‘on holiday’ touring the UK), a distinct appetite for the expansion of the Library’s resources and accessibility, and the cultivation of a compassionate network of diligent Library staff formed from the BSR’s alumni.

Strong was pivotal. A real focal point of the School who was responsible for so much of what endures today. A feeling of her personality can be testified in the mass of little postcards she penned ( Such documents reveal the laborious processes of communication in the 1920s, especially, for instance, in the means of editing a publication such as the PBSR, for we often find scrawled annotations, corrections and illustration sources being discussed throughout these personal communications. One does wonder how they ever understood each other, even despite their training in traditions of palaeography! We can nevertheless picture Strong fervently answering messages day-by-day, finding the time when she could to write replies all over these small surfaces, suddenly finding that in her enthusiasm there was not enough space to finish the message.

In integrating the box’s miscellaneous materials with the BSR’s extensive multimedia archives, it is possible to animate photos such as this one, populating these monochrome snapshots with the conversations and interactions taking place in the School’s research community.

Eugénie Strong at centre, surrounded by BSR scholars, artists and staff.
Back row: Unknown, Unknown, Unknown, Eugénie Strong, Colin Gill (Rome Scholar in Painting), Mrs Hardiman, Alfred Hardiman (Rome Scholar in Sculpture), Unknown.
Middle row: Miss Jamison, Miss Makin, Winifred Knights (Rome Scholar in Painting).
Front row: F.O. Lawrence (Rome Scholar in Architecture), Job Nixon (Rome Scholar in Engraving), Unknown.

Seated at Strong’s right is Miss Alexandrina Makin, fondly known as Ena. We can come to know Makin through a series of references in applications and letters found in our box. In 1914, at the age of 22, Makin graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a Masters of Second-Class Honours in Classics, in which Makin tuned her grasp of ancient Latin and Greek alongside her knowledge of archaeology. After the war, in 1919, Makin was awarded a George Scott Travelling Scholarship from Edinburgh which helped fund part of the journey to Rome and to begin research at the BSR. To supplement her modest studentship, Makin corresponded with the BSR’s administrators in London who suggested assisting Strong, following the advocacy of Thomas Ashby, the Director, who was sensitive to the need “for help in the Library, where there is plenty of work to be done.”[1]

8th June, 1919. Miss Makin writes to Arthur Hamilton Smith, Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum, later president of the Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies (1924-29) and Director of the BSR (1928-30).

In our next post, we will follow the experiences of Makin as she first entered life at the School, including her appointment to a position in the Library and her close working relationship with Strong as she fostered a collegial network of women in the early 1920s: a core interpersonal pillar of the School which this series attempts to remember. Our box allows us to give life to an otherwise hidden character and reconstruct the personality of a dedicated, tenacious member of the BSR’s academic and professional community.

Ben White

[1] Letter to Edgar John Forsdyke, 19th June, 1919.