Alumni Profile: Helena Phillips-Robins on Dante

2021 is the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri and a myriad of projects, talks and exhibitions are being presented to celebrate the poet’s life and work across the globe. In this month’s Alumni Profile, we spoke to Dante expert Helena Phillips-Robins, to gain her recommendations for some of the best ways to learn about, and engage with, Dante this year.

Helena Phillips-Robins was the inaugural CRASSH–BSR Isaac Newton Fund Fellow in 2017–18 and is Teaching Associate in Medieval Italian Literature and Culture and Research Fellow at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge.

Helena Phillips-Robins speaking at the BSR in 2018. Photograph by Antonio Palmieri

BSR: 2021 is the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. What does Dante have to say to us today?

HP-R: So much! About hope, human society, desire, how we engage – or fail to engage – with those who are different to us, the possibility of change…

What are some ways of exploring Dante in 2021?

Here are a few, among many others:

‘A riveder le stelle’: the Uffizi’s online exhibition of Federico Zuccari’s drawings for the Commedia

In 1586-88, while away from Italy and working for Philip II at the Escorial, Federico Zuccari – one of the leading Mannerist painters – produced his Dante historiato, a cycle of 88 drawings to illustrate the Commedia. The drawings move from the horror and confusion of the ‘dark wood’ of Inferno to the final vision of God in Paradiso, which, in Zuccari’s rendition, is like looking up into a vast, light-filled cupola (Zuccari, in fact, painted the frescoes in the cupola in the Duomo in Florence). The drawings are fragile and have been exhibited only twice before.

Online exhibition: La Commedia Divina: 100 lithographs by Liam Ó Broin

Liam Ó Broin’s suite of lithographs explores Dante’s treatment of love, human community, and the search for a just society. Dante presents the Commedia as a text that seeks to transform its readers, and Ó Broin’s lithographs cast Dante’s journey as one deeply relevant to the viewer-reader, a journey that, in Ó Broin’s words, ‘can be created by ourselves and for others in the here and now’. The exhibition is curated by the Centre for Dante Studies in Ireland.

Canto per Canto: Conversations with Dante in Our Time

Academics and students of Dante, from all career stages, discuss how Dante speaks to us in our time, now. One aspect I’ve particularly enjoyed is that this is a collaborative – intergenerational, international – undertaking, and so it has put in dialogue many very different perspectives on Dante. Each episode in the series (run by the Dante Society of America) focuses on one of the 100 cantos of the Commedia.

Conversations on Dante (Leeds Dante Podcast)

Researchers discuss ongoing work on Dante, the cultural frameworks in which he lived, and his place in cultures across the world today. The series aspires to conversations about more diverse, and therefore richer, research on Dante; see, for example, the episodes on translating Dante, and Dante and Caribbean poetry.

Cambridge Vertical Readings in Dante’s Comedy

In this public lecture series, a group of researchers set out to explore what would happen if we read the Commedia not only in narrative sequence, from beginning to end (reading ‘horizontally’, as it were), but also ‘vertically’. What new perspectives might emerge if we read same-numbered cantos together (Inferno 1, Purgatorio 1 and Paradiso 1; Inferno 2, Purgatorio 2 and Paradiso 2, etc)? This was the first time this way of reading was systematically applied to the whole Commedia. Versions of the lectures have now been published in three open access volumes.

And finally: how did your time in Rome impact your work on Dante?

While in Rome I finished the manuscript for my book, Liturgical Song and Practice in Dante’s Commedia, which came out this year. The fellowship also gave me the chance to work on manuscripts in the Vatican Library and the Biblioteca Angelica, for a new project on medieval weeping. Conversations with other BSR award-holders and many wanderings around Rome opened up new lines of thought; I started working, for example, on relationships between texts and images. But what I valued most, and what underpinned all the rest, was the kindness and generosity – personal and professional – of the other award-holders and Research Fellows.

Thank you to Helena Phillips-Robins for taking part in this blog post. Liturgical Song and Practice in Dante’s Commedia was published in April 2021 by the University of Notre Dame Press.

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.

BSR Alumni Profiles: Oona Grimes

Welcome to the first post in our new series: Alumni Profiles. Throughout the year we will be putting the spotlight on alumni working in a wide range of fields, to find out what they’re up to, learn about their current projects, and hear how their time in Rome has impacted on their career.

For the first instalment of the series, we caught up with Oona Grimes, an artist based in London. Oona was The Bridget Riley Fellow 2017–18 and also sits on our Faculty of the Fine Arts.

Oona in her BSR Studio, 2017. Photo by Antonio Palmieri.

How have you been spending your time during lockdown?

In the early days of lockdown, a fragmented time of staying home – I drew incessantly, chomping through HB pencils, filling school exercise books with story boards which morphed into my first low tech animations.

Lockdown forced us all to take a step back and re-assess our lives, our daily practices, our routines. The enforced restrictions allowed me to focus inward, and the importance of ‘screen-free making’ was a preservation of sanity.

I worked on a series of story boards; murd feature Gelsomina, the central character from Fellini’s La Strada, and interpret her sense of empowerment through performance, her escape from a life of bullying and abuse. They are rapid-fire action notations, a series of flashing snippets from hand-drawn sketches, that re-imagine and mis-remember the films of my childhood.

Many generous invitations to show and share work online spun in. A lockdown project by Art Chaplaincy Spiritual Exercises 1 led to an indoor film, shot on and edited on a single house-bound day.

The mighty dead…woo woo’ conveys a darkly fluttering sensation or anxiety. A moth or shade ascends towards the light, blindly negotiating objects and defying gravity without release.

Film still from the mighty dead…woo woo, 2020

Who/what has been the greatest inspiration on your work?

Too many!

Flattist fuzzy felt drawing from the Etruscans to Ant and Bee; from Simone Martini and Lorenzetti to Otto Messner and Max Fleischer; Buster Keaton to Pasolini…

What are your favourite memories of your time in Rome?


I loved every second of my fellowship.

The much-appreciated time to focus solely on work; the eye-opening light and daily walks through such an extraordinary city; the unique experience of casual conversations with other fellows leading down rich rabbit holes of research.

The generous support of all the staff, unforgettable discoveries in the 24-hour library. Exploring their recent acquisitions of books of early etchings and engravings, their vast post card and photography collections…

My discovery of Toto and introduction to commedia dell’arte…

It was a time of much nurture and nourishment, a filling up of all the senses paralleled with a sharpening of output.

How did your time at the BSR impact on your subsequent career?

The Fellowship gave me confidence and a lifetime’s fodder which I am still digesting. In Rome I began to re-interpret film performatively; I was drawn into the moving image, shifting from the flat to the physical.

On my return to London in 2019, I was offered 4 solo shows exploring my Hail the new Etruscan series. Hail the new Etruscan #1 at Danielle Arnaud featured drawings and double page spreads informed by Italian cinema. It was followed by Hail the new Etruscan #2 at Matt’s Gallery: screenings of 4 iPad films made in Rome and the UK. Hail the new Etruscan #3 included a site-specific film, drawings, ceramics and a bird recipe book responding to Pasolini’s Uccellacci e uccellini; which was exhibited at The Bower.

What are you working on now?

I am currently working on ‘Horsepolish’ a film bringing de Sica’s ‘Sciuscia’ [1946] to the Ragged School Museum in East London. A conversation between the shoe shine street kids of Rome and impoverished Victorian children who were trained as shoe-shiners, newsboys and domestic workers.

Thank you to Oona Grimes for taking part in this feature.

Oona Grimes is represented by Danielle Arnaud. More information about Oona’s work, exhibitions and current projects can be explored on her website. Oona can also be found on Instagram at @grimesoona.

Meet the artists: Max Fletcher

An interview with Max Fletcher, Sainsbury Scholar in Painting & Sculpture, in which he speaks about the works he has produced during his residency at the BSR from January–March 2021.

The artist in his studio at the BSR. Photo by Antonio Palmieri.

One of the paintings that you will show in the March Mostra develops a specific moment of the novel News From Nowhere by William Morris. Can you tell us more about it?

One of the paintings that I’m showing in the March Mostra refers loosely to a moment from News From Nowhere. The painting is part image and part text. The image consists of a pile of manure and a horse with the caption ‘Manure For Sale’. Morris’ novel was published in 1890 and outlines a utopian future in which central London is unrecognisable. Revolution has been deferred by more than sixty years to 1952. Nelson’s Column, being a monument of imperialist conquest has been taken down and, in its place, sits an apricot orchard, taking up the entirety of Trafalgar Square. Morris, a keen anti-parliamentarian envisaged a similar substitution taking place at the site of Parliament, now a dung market.

1952 acts as an interesting pivot between the 19th century and the present. E.P. Thompson details how Morris was greatly influenced by the Paris Commune and initially hoped that radical societal change was imminent. Indeed, the Communards’ dismantling of the Vendome Column, a monument to Napoleonic conquest, was surely the inspiration for Morris’ reconfigured view of London. Yet the postponement of the revolution by over sixty years demonstrates Morris’ shift towards a view where years of struggle would lead to “demi-semi socialism”, improving the material conditions of many but leaving the make-up society essentially unchanged. In many ways, Morris was proved right. Better social housing and the introduction of the NHS improved life for many, but exploitation remained.

Years of slow progress did not lead to revolution in England and if we jump from 1952 to 2021, many of the critiques produced in News From Nowhere remain. Even the motif of parliament as a dung market seems pertinent and seemingly has sway across the political spectrum. Trust in politicians is arguably at an all-time low and many of the public sector goods and services that were in place in 1952 have now been privatised. The painting of the horse is a collaboration with a friend, Cole Denyer. The image of the horse is placed next to a poem by Cole. The poem is titled Parliament House or Dung Market, a nod to News From Nowhere. It uses history as a means of addressing the present, utilising both text and image to structure painting, while considering the continued resonance of Morris’ work today.

Renato Guttuso, Bozzetto per La Vucciria, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna.

Is Gramsci’s prison journey to Turi still present in your works for the March Mostra? If so, how are you expanding your research on it?

Antonio Gramsci’s journey to Turi remains central to the work that I am showing in the March Mostra. At the December Mostra, I showed a series of paintings that were based upon Gramsci’s journey from Rome to Turi. In 1928, upon the Public Prosecutor’s now-famous declaration that “for twenty years we must stop that brain from working”, Gramsci was transported across Italy while chained in such a way to prevent him from either lying down or standing. The journey itself ought to have taken no more than a day but in Gramsci’s case, it lasted over two weeks and took place during the sweltering Italian summer. Having been denied the medical care that he urgently needed before the journey, Gramsci arrived at the prison in Turi in an almost complete state of physical collapse.

I asked friends to respond to this journey in form of short written pieces. The texts that I received formed the basis for a series of collaborative text/image paintings. I would paint the image of a cattle truck and pair it with a short text on Gramsci’s prison journey. The only condition for the texts was that they must not refer to Gramsci by name, while the painted cattle trucks would be based on models that I had bought, generally online. These were not necessarily Italian and indeed were often models of English trains used in the 1920s. As such, the associations that the paintings bring to mind are likely numerous and not necessarily of Gramsci’s journey to Turi.

Over the past month, I have been working with an artist in Rome, Mahsa Razavi, to make some sculptural casts of one of the model cattle trucks. The sculptures are a 3:1 scale enlargement of the original model and are all cast from a mould made by Mahsa. There are five casts in total, each coloured differently and scattered around the gallery space.

Casa del Bimbo, Colonia Marina Umbra Pio XII, Rimini. Photo by the artist.

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).

Meet the artists: Beth Collar

An interview with Beth Collar, Augusta Scholar, in which she speaks about the works she has produced during her residency at the BSR from September–December 2020.

The text for your recent show in Munich (Bildhauer*in der Sinne, opened at GiG until 1 January 2021) states: “in Beth Collar’s work, sculpture does not always respond to the image of a closed work, but also of a performative event’s marginalia. For this reason, the artist does not define herself as a sculptor, but as a performer, since sculpture is for her a double-track instrument of investigation”. Can you tell us more about this, particularly in relation to the block of lime wood you are carving in your studio at the BSR?

As a roughly female-identifying person, or, I could say, as someone who has been identified as female, for a long time I’ve struggled with the idea of actually making sculpture. It has always struck me as impossible. Too presumptuous. Absurd. Sticky, in a swamp of pure men, with a peat layer of Man, with a core-sample of Mankind beneath it. I’m being silly, but also, that is to say, it’s just there all your life. Everywhere.

So to make work for me, especially early when I was at art school it always felt like going through the motions – performing some role that wasn’t really for me. Eventually I realised that that was what I was doing when I tried to make something. And that’s where my practice became a performance one. And eventually I found that the only way to have a ‘studio practice’ was to begin to perform the role of the male master craftsman – someone un-identified from a time before the era of the (male) artist genius. I had to become the Master of fill in the blank. That’s where I could find crawl-space.

I’m drawn to objects produced for ritual, from and for devotion. The art from times both in the Christian heritage and the pagan and pre-historic. Because of their pure use; functional art; art that makes a living off the people who need it’s services. I’m drawn to art produced in a time where the art is decoupled from the maker – from long enough ago that it feels decoupled from gender too. It’s a collective endeavour.

This term above – “double-track instrument of investigation” – isn’t mine, but I see what he (the curator Beniamino Foschini) means: making sculpture is both a performance that I make and simultaneously it’s a way to discover and then to scrutinise. 

A tool of intuition – and then later a tool to examine that intuition and work out what the product of that performance says or does. For me, art is a tool to investigate the forces acting upon me that produce the ‘intuition’.

Troccola found by the artist in Rome. Photo by the artist.

Your work seems to engage with religious art. What are the qualities you are drawn to?

I’m currently carving sculptures out of a long, thick slice of a Lime tree – AKA Linden wood. The wood has a significance for me as it’s a material I associate with ecclesiastical sculpture from the northern part of Europe. There is an absence of religious sculpture in the UK. I am from Cambridge and Oliver Cromwell was from Ely which is very close by. East Anglia was a centre of the Protestant iconoclasm during the Reformation. I grew up visiting churches (though I come from a long line of agnostics): as a general rule, in my family, if you go on a walk you pop into the parish church that you walk past to see if there is anything in there of interest.

I remember being particularly bored by this when I was little but eventually it wore me down, and I perpetuate it with evangelical zeal. More than 90% of the sculpture in medieval churches in England was destroyed during the Reformation (and almost all of the painting was whitewashed) so England is sort of filled with a blank. Catholicism just covered in Tipex. A blank over the power of sculpture, the power of art – specifically the graven image of course: it’s a slipped-out admission of its awesomeness. A back-handed compliment.

So, this absence or this yearning-for is something that has motivated my work for a very long time. And it’s one of the reasons I wanted to come to Rome. This place is full. This place is over-saturated, overflowing. This place is the opposite, and in a way it can be a mirror.

In my work, that loss and absence resulting from this quite straightforward historic event stands in for other, more human, personal, micro-level absences and losses: about family, about love, about authenticity, alienation and about presence. I’ve been using these absent substances of the burnt and bashed to think these things through.

Finally, to bring the mistletoe in here, as it turned up erroneously in your original question as well as in my drawings while I’ve been here: I guess with the mistletoe I’ve been looking at Natural History in the same way as I do art history, or material culture/archaeology – it’s a thing – a cultural artefact – that means something now, that meant something then. And therefore holds mysteries of human relation and of loss. It wants something of us, much like the art objects I’m interested in from Catholicism and Paganism.

Work in progress. Photo by the artist.

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).

The artist in her studio at the BSR. Photo by the artist.

Meet the artists: Paul Eastwood

An interview with Paul Eastwood, Creative Wales-BSR Fellow, in which he speaks about the works he has produced during his residency at the BSR from September–December 2020.

Work in progress. Photo by the artist.

Dyfodiaith, your 2019 video work, explores wild tongues, severed tongues and the historic and future context of indigenous languages in the UK. In this work you reflect on constructs of language, notions of otherness and the potential of multilingualism. The narrative of the video is sung in a speculative language based on the ancient Brythonic language, as if it has remained alive, evolving throughout the centuries. How have you expanded on the topic of language in Rome?

Potentially, writing and text have a permanence. In ancient Rome it was used for inscriptions in stone; a hard material, that stands the test of time. Even as fragments, these end up giving us a glimpse onto the past, making it more tangible. We don’t get this in most other early European languages, such as indigenous British languages. We might see it on the curse tablets from Bath, where a few words of, supposedly, Brythonic are mixed into the Latin – but they’re as rare as hens’ teeth. I was particularly drawn to Rome because of the commemorative spaces and objects surviving in various guises, sometimes scattered and strewn about; again there’s little of this in what we know of Celtic culture in Britain. In previous works and writings, I’ve thought about imagined spaces, including museums and libraries, but there I used the spoken word and the written text in the form of video narrative and scripts for film and performance. My stay in Rome has given me the opportunity to consider text as inscriptions, and the monuments or memorials that may have been associated with these. My initial plan for my time at the BSR was to write a script and to make drawings. In fact I seem to have combined several of my interests into a project centred around fragmentary inscriptions from a fictive Celtic city and its monuments. The size of the drawings, in this case the rubbings, alludes to the proportions of that imagined architecture.

Work in progress. Photo by the Artist.

How have Roman funeral inscriptions influenced your recent projects?

I’d already started developing some text-based works that were using rubbing and worked on paper. I showed these to Hester, the Balsdon fellow, and we discussed collaborating because she wanted to make a fake Latin inscription related to her work – this was for the weekly mini-expositions that we were doing in the BSR snack bar. I said it would be nice to add a sculptural object, so she designed an ‘Etruscan’ urn with an inscription, and I supported the production. This introduction to classical inscriptions and fragments inspired me to start wandering the city looking for broken inscriptions with Latin text in churches, porticoes and in the street, where I made a suite of research rubbings. These informed my work for the Mostra, which consists of large fake rubbings of the epigraphical remnants, in forms of the Welsh language, of imagined monumental buildings.

Work in Progress. Photo by the artist.

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).

The artist in his studio at the BSR. Photo by Antonio Palmieri

Meet the artists: Max Fletcher

An interview with Max Fletcher, Sainsbury Scholar in Painting & Sculpture, in which he speaks about the works he has produced during his residency at the BSR from September–December 2020.

What led you to the correspondence between Antonio Gramsci and Piero Sraffa? Was your new body of work inspired by those letters?

Piero Sraffa was an Italian economist. He studied in Turin with Antonio Gramsci and when Gramsci was imprisoned, Sraffa opened an unlimited account with a Milanese bookstore in the name of Gramsci. Any bill was to be settled by Sraffa. He also provided Gramsci with the physical materials, the pens and paper, with which he would write the prison notebooks. Not only had Sraffa studied with Gramsci, but also while at the London School of Economics in 1921-22, he twice met John Maynard Keynes in Cambridge. In 1926, Gramsci was arrested by the fascist government. The following year, Keynes, having realised the risk that Sraffa faced in Italy, invited him to Cambridge where he received a lectureship.

Once in Cambridge, Sraffa sought to bring wider attention to Gramsci’s plight, publishing a letter in the Guardian and launching with Gramsci’s sister-in-law, Tatiana Schucht, an international campaign for his release. Throughout the early and mid-twenties, Gramsci and Sraffa were in regular contact, and their relationship intensified with Gramsci in prison. Gramsci’s last direct letter to Sraffa was written in January 1927, after which the correspondence between the two was mediated through Schucht, to whom half of some 500 prison letters, providing cultural and political analysis while also detailing his health conditions and day-to-day prison life, were addressed. Sraffa visited Gramsci eight times in person between January 1935 and March 1937 after Gramsci had been transferred from Turi to Formia and later Rome. He died days after his release from prison in April 1937. Both Sraffa and Schucht were instrumental in the posthumous publication of the Prison Notebooks.

Grave of Antonio Gramsci in the Non-Catholic Cemetery, Rome. Photo by the artist.

My interest in Sraffa comes initially from his friendship with Gramsci, and from his proximity to Keynes. These days, Sraffa is a barely known twentieth century economist from Turin. Yet he was someone that both Keynes and Gramsci trusted and worked with. Even before Sraffa was at Cambridge, Keynes had sought to collaborate. In the thirties, when Keynesian economics were in competition with Friedrick Hayek’s more conservative world-view, Keynes asked Sraffa to write a rebuttal of Hayekian economics. Sraffa obliged. Keynesian thinking would, of course, provide the prevailing economic world-view for much of the Western world during the Great Depression, up until Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan revived Hayek’s ideas, giving new momentum to neo-liberal policy. Interestingly, it was around this time that Sraffa’s thought seems to have had a particular resonance on the left; a 1978 edition of the New Left Review produced a ‘special dossier’ on ‘the unknown Sraffa’. One article, Keynes, Sraffa and Capitalist Crisis, details how both Sraffa and Keynes realised that the capitalist system was on its knees during the 1920s. Equally, it seemed likely that ‘organised’ or ‘regulated’ capitalism had plenty of capacity for survival. Yet, while Keynes would not reject the politics of Liberalism, Sraffa, like Gramsci, believed that social transformation would never be possible under the liberal ruling class which, exerted hegemonic control over the rest of the population. As such, for Sraffa, economic struggle had to be allied with political struggle.

I came across Sraffa through his friendship with Gramsci. In many ways, Sraffa seems to have provided a possibility for the future that was never taken up: new economics in contrast to both those of Keynes and Hayek. On the other hand, Gramsci’s ideas seem to be alive and well in contemporary thought. The inability to speak of hegemony without contemplating Gramsci is the most obvious example, yet it is just one facet of Gramscian thought. My recent work does not directly reference the letters between Gramsci and Sraffa, but it does focus on Gramsci’s prison journey to Turi. In this sense they are hovering in the background of the work. Essentially for me, Sraffa provides a bridge between Keynesian economics which now appear to be something of the past, and Gramsci, whose ideas are still capable of providing an analysis to the problems of the present.

A Pasolini poem behind smashed glass. Lungotevere, Rome. Photo by the artist.

Your work in the last year has been characterized by collaboration with other artists. Why? Can you tell us more about the works you have made at the BSR recently, which include contribution from your friends?

Last year at the BSR I collaborated with the artist Andrea Celeste La Forgia on several pieces. This was in some ways a consequence of being in Rome and started with the desire to translate a nineteenth century Milanese play, Carlo Bertolazzi’s El Nost Milan, from Italian to English. As the play had been written in dialect, this wasn’t a straightforward task and Andrea asked a friend (Andrea Bertuzzi) to translate some passages from Milanese dialect into Italian, thereafter Andrea translated them into English. These translated play scripts formed the basis for a series of paintings, one of which was shown in the March Mostra. I have also worked with Andrea on several other projects over the past year. Collaboration has been a means of problem solving, finding a solution to something that I cannot address on my own.

Some of my recent work has similarly involved collaboration. Being in Rome with Covid restrictions has provided several challenges, not least the closure of museums and archives for the past month. As a result, I have asked friends to provide me with short texts of no more than 250 words referring in some way to Gramsci’s prison journey from Rome to Turi. These texts are then translated into paintings as part of an ongoing series that I am currently working on. They provide a number of iterations, with the writing taking different forms and offering different accounts of the same event.

The artist in his studio at the BSR. Photo by Antonio Palmieri.

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).

Meet the artists: Jeff McMillan

An interview with Jeff McMillan, Abbey Fellow in Painting, in which he speaks about the works he has produced during his residency at the BSR from September–December 2020.

Old objects found on street corners or in flea markets have often been the starting point for your work. How were you inspired by what you found in Rome? How are those materials different from ones you would usually find in London? 

I knew about the Porta Portese market before I came to Rome, it is famous and historic if you are interested in flea markets – a little like Brick Lane or Portobello in London. I think it’s probably not as interesting as it once was and there is now less secondhand material, but I still visited many times and found things that became part of my finished work here. For example, I bought a beautiful old briefcase made entirely of plywood, and I used it to make a block print, it has a lovely grain along with scars and scrapes from use.

Studio, woodblock printing. Work in progress. Photo by the artist.

At the beginning of my residency I set myself the task of trying to represent the whole of Rome through the wood I might find on its streets, and it was a good excuse for getting out and seeing the city and its many sites. Once I bought a bicycle (another purchase from Porta Portese!) it allowed me to explore pretty much any part of the city, and so I attempted to do that. I would often locate a faraway church or a museum and on my way to visit I would keep my eyes open for any discarded wood, like furniture, pallets, or building materials. I think this way of working allows you to look at the city through a different lens, it makes you notice the textures of buildings and street surfaces, sometimes colours of pigments against one another. If you think about the way you can switch a Google map from simply street layout to a satellite image – it’s the same place but you see it completely differently – it all of a sudden has detail and nuance.  

Studio works in progress. Photo by the artist.

A term that architects sometimes use to describe a city is to refer to its urban grain, and that sort of fits into thinking about its surfaces and textures on an almost granular level. I think that is reflected in the works I am making, block printing with wood is nothing if not an expression of the surface, how it has been treated, or neglected, or weathered starts to tell its own story. In the case of the prints I am making at the BSR I am adding to this my own subjective composition and colours which in fact are based on the colour combinations I have seen in marble in many of the churches.

Studio, woodblock printing. Works in progress. Photo by the artist.

How has your art evolved over time, especially after you moved from Texas to Europe? Do you think that everyone owns a sort of mnemonic archive/inventory of shapes that influence his/her imagination?

After working for many years (and I have been working in London for more than 20 years now) you get to a point where you can look back and see how everything connects up.  I think I recognise I have my own ‘default settings’, that is to say I keep returning to the same sort of aesthetic. For me that is probably based in some way on the flat, unending landscape where I come from and perhaps by extension is connected to American Minimalism – so an attention to materiality for it’s own sake, and a reductive approach where I am looking for the simplest way to achieve or depict something. I sometimes think I am trying to make non-fiction works, images that convey a truth or reality, a straight-forwardness about object or form. 

The artist in his studio at the BSR. Photo by Antonio Palmieri.

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).