Curating Culture: A Student’s Perspective


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UCIL banner

‘Curating Culture’ is a module available to undergraduates at the University of Manchester via the University College of Interdisciplinary Learning (UCIL).  It is taught by the University of Manchester Library’s Special Collections in conjunction with the Whitworth Art Gallery and Manchester Museum.  Besides offering an insight into the type of work done by curators, archivists, librarians, conservators and other professionals, it enhances student employability by teaching transferable skills. One of our students, Rebecca Selby, writes:

Before studying on the Curating Culture programme, I was a self-conscious mature student trying my best to blend into the background. I wanted to share with you how the course helped me to break free of my own anxieties and begin to embrace what I had to offer.

For the first assessment on the course, we were tasked with curating an exhibition case that told the story of an individual through 4 objects.  Mine was called: ‘Juggling, balancing acts and other associated circus skills required for modern day multi-tasking!’. The four objects in my display case were: ‘A book of coincidence’,Feed, Pump, Work, Repeat’, ‘The education enabler, the future facilitator, the humble laptop’ and ‘The metaphorical spoon’. The objects were chosen to represent the roles that I fulfil in my life. As wife: a book about my wedding venue; as a mother: breast pump; as a student: a laptop; and a metaphorical spoon which is symbolic of my life as a ‘spoonie’ or a sufferer of chronic illness.

We wrote introductory panels for our exhibitions as well as labels for the individual objects. Condensing your thoughts into such a small word limit is more difficult than you may think!

My exhibition case:

Exhibition caption

Panel 1

Panel 2

Although the exhibition project was only a theoretical one, it still provided me with the opportunity to explore themes and surprising connections between objects. I enjoyed experimenting with ideas and the accompanying reflective essay gave me the opportunity to analyse my thought process – something I had not done previously. The Curating Culture unit provides a fabulous opportunity which should not be passed up! Studying at university is about more than merely attending lectures and taking notes. Curating Culture offers a fully immersive experience including presentations from experts, opportunities to explore some of the most beautiful buildings in the city and to get a real insight into the career opportunities in the arts and heritage sector.

Most of the sessions take place at the John Rylands Library which is an impressive building.  What better classroom could you possibly ask for? The opportunity to spend any amount of time in the building was enough for me –  with the behind the scenes tours and learning from members of the curatorial team the icing on the cake – just brilliant. We also got to explore a range of materials from special collections. One of my favourite groups of objects was a selection of books relating to the history of midwifery, ranging from an Elizabethan text, if I recall correctly, through to a text from the nineteenth century which was written by a ‘man-midwife’. These books document the medicalisation of childbirth through history, which is an area of personal interest to me and something which I hope to explore further in the future. The stories told through the objects of the collections at the John Rylands library are mind-blowing, and the passion and enthusiasm demonstrated by the curators, archivists and conservators are genuinely inspiring.

Another memorable sessions was an introduction to handling the books where we were told about things that never would have occurred to me before.  How we should be looking after and handling our books, how we should (and should not!) remove books from a shelf.  We were even fortunate enough to visit the conservation studio to learn about restoration techniques.

The course pushes you out of your comfort zone with assessments involving blog posts and curatorial projects. It is an entirely different experience to the more conventional units that I have taken at university, and all the better for it! As a student on the Biology with Science and Society programme, I take both science and history units.  Curating Culture complemented both aspects, and I believe that students on either of these pathways can benefit from the course.  The course is delivered within a genuinely supportive environment. Donna  Sherman and Janette Martin are the course leaders, and both are equally passionate about their area of expertise and sharing it with the students and the public.

For more information on the Curating Culture course, watch this YouTube video:

Rediscovered: The Tobias Theodores Papers


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Another in our occasional series describing work being undertaken on some of our less well-known collections.

Miriam Wildermuth, an Erasmus student from the Humboldt University, Berlin, has recently been working on several projects in Special Collections, including a catalogue of the Tobias Theodores papers. The Theodores papers are almost entirely in German, and thanks to Miriam’s translating and interpretation skills, we now have a catalogue of this collection available on ELGAR.

Miriam describes some of the challenges involved in cataloguing this collection:

“Tobias Theodores (1808-1886) was born in Prussia. He moved to England when he was sixteen and soon began teaching languages. He was a prominent member of the Jewish Reform movement and a founding member of the Reform Synagogue in Manchester. Theodores was closely involved with many charitable causes, especially with the Manchester Jews’ School. He was a professor of modern and oriental languages at Owens College for thirty-three years.


Tobias Theodores (1808-1886)

For the past two months, I have slowly been cataloguing the correspondence from Tobias Theodores to Gustav Gottheil. Theodores started writing to Gottheil after the latter moved from Manchester to New York to take up a position as a preacher in a Reform synagogue there. In the first letter, Theodores writes characteristically: he congratulates Gottheil on having survived his journey “trotz Wirbelsturm u. Wogendrang” (“despite whirlwind and wild seas”: letter of 23 Sep. 1873) and wryly describes the chaos and strife into which the Reform Synagogue in Manchester has been plunged in the search for Gottheil’s replacement.

At first, reading the letters was a real challenge, because they are written in the German Kurrent script (an old form of German handwriting based on late medieval cursive writing), which I had never had to read before. Initially, I decoded the writing letter by letter, then word by word, and finally I was able to read whole sentences fluently. It was especially frustrating to discover a letter in which Theodores had included a short missive to Gottheil’s daughter Dora (26 Aug. 1874), written in English cursive, and that was beautifully readable! [see illustration] But the content was well worth the work I put into deciphering the handwriting. Theodores not only writes about his friends and about his work; he also frequently comments on current events, and so opens up a window into a time now long gone.


Letter  showing Theodores’ handwriting in German and English (TTP/1/8).

As a native German, Theodores remained interested in the affairs of his motherland, even though he was proud to be English as well (he had naturalised in 1845). There is a series of letters in which he writes about two assassination attempts against the German Emperor in 1878 with great concern. He writes: “Im J. 1870 lasen wir, daß der 75-jährige Mann 9 Stunden lang zu Pferde auf dem Schlachtfelde sein Leben den feindlichen Kugeln ausgesetzte, unversehrt kehrte er in die Heimat zurück; u. jetzt mitten in Berlin von Landeskindern meuchlings überfallen zu werden!” (“In the year 1870 we read that the 75-year-old man sat astride his horse for 9 hours on the battlefield, exposing his life to enemy bullets, and returned unharmed to the homeland; and now, in the middle of Berlin, he is treacherously set upon by citizens!”: letter of 5 June 1878).  

Theodores was ever vigilant about the situation of the Jewish community in Germany, and in the course of the fourteen years covered by these letters he comments on the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. Theodores constantly criticises the government of Germany for encouraging, or at least not discouraging, spreading anti-Semitism. This is made most clear in the case of Adolf Stoecker, who was the court chaplain to Emperor Wilhelm I, and the founder of the extremely anti-Semitic Christian Social Party. Theodores felt that Stoecker was dangerous because he had succeeded in making hatred of Jews respectable in society (letter of 17 Mar. 1881: “den Herren Stöcker […] ist es gelungen die Meinung zu accreditieren, daß die Juden jetzt überall gehaßt werden.” Nor was Theodores blind to the faults in his adopted English society: In a letter written on 28 November 1881, he mentions recent anti-Semitic agitation in Manchester, with accusations of blood libel being made.

The letters are also informative about contemporary discussions within Reform Judaism;  Theodores’ discusses theological issues, both  directly by outlining his own views and indirectly through criticism of texts with which he disagrees. Theodores was familiar with the work of the most prominent theologians in England and abroad, Jewish and Christian, and is quick to criticise them when he does not agree with them.

Theodores was also very involved in Manchester society, and writes about local elections and charitable events, sprinkling his descriptions with gossip about prominent citizens. Alongside the more weighty topics of theology and international politics, Theodores also takes an interest in the normal life events happening around him: births, marriages, illnesses, and deaths. Even though Theodores often writes about the pleasure of a retired life, spent sitting alone in his cosy room, he was an enthusiastic contributor, through his correspondence, in important political and theological debates.

This correspondence is a treasure trove for those who are interested in Manchester in the late nineteenth century, its German and Jewish communities, relations between Christians and Jews in Britain and Germany, as well as Jewish, especially Reform, theology.”



DAFFODILS Service Update

1 April marks the first anniversary of the launch of our Drone Airborne Fast, Frequent Order and Delivery Inter-Library Service (DAFFODILS). In these days of fake news and social media manipulation, it is refreshing to report a genuine success story.


The service has proved a real hit with time-challenged students and academics, for whom the 20-minute journey to the John Rylands Library can prove an insuperable barrier. Instead, we fly the books to them.

Inevitably, the system has experienced a few teething troubles, especially during the recent storms. However, this particular cloud certainly did have a silver lining. Following a slight mishap with a crate of Greek ostraka (pot sherds), our collection has doubled in quantity, even if they are now a little more challenging to read. Only one consignment has gone astray during the year; staff at Chetham’s Library have strenuously denied rumours that “radio inteference” caused a batch of rare seventeenth-century tracts to be diverted into the precincts of the oldest public library in the English speaking world.

In a further exciting development, we can now report that, as part of the Library’s Books Right Here Right Now initiative, we will delivery incunables (books printed before 1501) direct to academics’ offices or to students’ halls of residence. Using the Inc-Readable app, registered members of the University of Manchester will be able to order an incunable for same-day delivery. If you don’t have a garden, drive or other convenient outdoor landing spot, the app will issue a five-minute warning of delivery, enabling you to open a window or door for the drone to enter your premises and deposit the book right at your desk.*

GB on stand

Gutenberg Bible, c.1455.

Watch this space for further exciting developments from the cutting-edge of library technology.

* Please check your insurance cover: the University of Manchester shall not be liable for any broken windows or other damage to your premises.



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Fran Horner, a postgraduate student studying the MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies, in her second blog post, tells us more about her internship at The John Rylands Library.

dsh Linga Chakra

dsh typestract ‘Linga Chakra’ in Artes Hispanicas, p.211. By kind permission of Prinknash Abbey Trustees.

Dom sylvester houédard (dsh) was a British Benedictine monk who spent the majority of his life at Prinknash Abbey in Gloucestershire, England. dsh is known for his theological writing, particularly his translation and editing work of the Jerusalem Bible in 1961, and his concrete poetry.

dsh was involved in many post-war avant-garde movements but he made considerable contributions to concrete poetry. Like other avant-garde movements Dada, Futurism and Surrealism, concrete poetry rejected the norm. It was a hybrid between poetry and typographical design, as the form and visual effect of the poem took precedence over conveying meaning through the syntax.

Concrete poetry had its origins in Sweden in 1953. However, it was the work of a group of Brazilian artists who really explored and evolved the movement. Artists such as Augusto de Campos, Haroldo de Campos and Décio Pignatari inspired poets and artists in Europe, particularly Ian Hamilton Finlay, John Furnival, Edwin Morgan and, of course, dsh in Britain.

dsh Chicago Review 2

dsh typestract in And little magazine edited by poet Bob Cobbing. By kind permission of Prinknash Abbey Trustees.

dsh Chicago Review 1

dsh typestract in And little magazine edited by poet Bob Cobbing. By kind permission of Prinknash Abbey Trustees.

In the 1960s, dsh created experimental concrete poetry on his Olivetti Lettera 22 Italian typewriter. The typewriter enabled him to experiment with the colour of the carbon and the placement of letters or symbols on paper, physically moving the paper around and rejecting typical straight lines of text. These experiments were named ‘typestracts’ by Edwin Morgan and dsh describes them as ‘typestracts- rhythm of typing- action poetry- as words grow on paper to see language grow- dictionary (convention as language-coffin- this word/poem means the WAY we use it- we (not them) convene its meaning-’. The typestracts have blurred the boundaries between poetry and abstract art, as the careful but sometimes chaotic composition and architecture of the poems are what transmits its meaning. dsh’s typestracts fully utilise the space in which they occupy, encouraging the viewer to read the poems more dynamically and with more movement over the whole page. dsh rightfully labelled himself a ‘kinetic’ poet.

dsh And 1

dsh typestract in And little magazine edited by poet Bob Cobbing. By kind permission of Prinknash Abbey Trustees.

dsh And 2

dsh typestract in And little magazine edited by poet Bob Cobbing. By kind permission of Prinknash Abbey Trustees.

I am really interested in the objectness of the typestracts, and I personally see them more as works of art than poems, almost like painting with typed forms. The typestracts have made me question what I believe poetry to be: the boundaries and functions of art, literature and typography all dissolve into one another. I think the typestracts perfectly embody the eccentric, intellectual and artistic personality of dsh, whilst also showing his many roles as poet, as designer, as artist, as monk.

To read more about dsh, I recommend Notes from The Cosmic Typewriter: The Life and Work of Dom Sylvester Houédard edited by Nicola Simpson. Available in the University of Manchester Special Collections at the John Rylands Library.

Anne Askew: Author, Martyr and proto-Feminist


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Guest post from Elisa Tersigni, John Rylands Research Institute Digital Humanities Fellow. Elisa recently completed her Phd on the role of women in the English Reformation.


Woodcut depicting the burning of Anne Askew from John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (1596 edition). JRL R33900

This week marks both the closing of our Reformation exhibition and International Women’s Day, so we thought it would be a perfect opportunity to highlight the ways in which women participated in the English Reformation by drawing attention to one woman who was particularly important: Anne Askew.

Almost everything we know about Askew’s life comes from her own writing and from the men who edited it for publication – she was one of the first published English women writers. Her autobiographical work has been widely read for the past 500 years and she is arguably the most famous Protestant woman martyr as a result.

Anne Askew was born in 1521 in Lincolnshire, England. Her father, William Askew, arranged a marriage between Thomas Kyme and Anne’s older sister, who, before being married, suddenly died. William offered Anne in her place. That Anne was a devout Protestant and her husband a Catholic made for an unhappy match. Anne’s editors report that, after having two children, her husband “violently drove her out of his house”. Anne went to London to seek a divorce – one of first English women to attempt to do so.

At the time that Askew came to London, tensions between Catholics and Protestants were high. While Henry VIII had broken from Rome a decade earlier, his Church of England prescribed beliefs that walked a fine line between traditional (Catholic) and radical (Protestant). Denying transubstantiation (the belief that bread and wine blessed by a priest is really and wholly Christ’s body and blood) was a felony punishable by death, and many Protestants died under this law. But denying that Henry VIII was head of the church was treason, also punishable by death. Many Catholics died under this law.

In London, Askew caught the attention of the authorities, who arrested her and interrogated her at least twice for her Protestant beliefs. Askew records her accounts of these interrogations – each of which takes place over several weeks – in The First Examination and The Latter Examination. In her accounts, she details the ways in which her interrogators intimidate her and attempt to trap her into confessing to heretical beliefs. She explains the ways in which she evades their questions, using her womanhood to her advantage. For instance, when one of her interlocutors, Doctor Standish, asks her to “say [her] mind, concerning the same text of Saint Paul” she responds with, “it [is] against Saint Paul’s learning, that I being a woman, should interpret the scriptures, specially where so many wise learned men [are]”. When another of her interrogators asks her why she has so few words, she replies, “God hath given me the gift of knowledge, but not of utterance. And Salomon sayth, that a woman of few words is a gift of God.” Askew’s various tactics are clever and reveal her nuanced understanding of theology and how to navigate the legal system as a woman.

In her recording of her second interrogation, Askew tells us that she decides to confess to her beliefs, which she knows will result in her death. Her interlocutors illegally torture her on the rack to try to obtain information about other gentlewoman who they are convinced have financially supported Askew; because she does not give any woman’s name, Askew says that her interrogators personally rack her in their frustration.

Askew was burned at the stake on 16 July 1546 at Smithfield with three Protestant men. Contemporary reports mention that her body was so broken from the torture that she had to be carried to the stake on a chair. She managed to record her story in spite of her pain.

Her accounts of examinations were reported to be smuggled out of England, printed in Germany, and smuggled back into England, where they were well received and re-printed at least six times in the sixteenth century alone. Her proto-feminist work continues to be read today.

The Delights of dsh (dom sylvester houédard)


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Hello! My name is Fran Horner and I am a postgraduate student at the University of Manchester studying the MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies. I am currently doing a placement at the John Rylands Library, which involves working with the archive of British Benedictine monk and poet dom sylvester houédard (dsh – he always referred to himself in lower case!). I am going to be regularly updating the John Rylands Library blog with my experiences and interesting discoveries!

dsh portrait

Photograph of dom sylvester houédard. By kind permission of Prinknash Abbey Trustees.

My placement will consist of researching dsh’s importance in the fields of literature and art. He was one of Britain’s pioneers of concrete poetry: a type of experimental visual poetry which had its origins in Brazil, then Europe and was concerned with rebelling against conventional forms of poetry by focussing on the architectural form of letters. dsh’s most celebrated poem is Frog-pond-plop, 1965, and he is famous for his experimental use of his Olivetti typewriter to create ‘typestracts’.


dsh, Frog-pond-plop, 1965. By kind permission of Prinknash Abbey Trustees.

The John Rylands Library holds dsh’s book collection, which is vast, but I will be concentrating on his collection of little poetry and art magazines from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. 

Before I could properly get stuck in with the items in the archive, I was preoccupied with creating a suitable method of cataloguing – something I have never done before! Thanks to Janette Martin (Archivist and Curator) and Julie Ramwell (Rare Books Librarian), I successfully created a spreadsheet with various categories of information that were to be recorded. It has been interesting learning about what categories of information are essential for the catalogue, for example: publisher, year published, volume and editor are all extremely important; whether I liked or disliked the poems… not so important. I have also discovered things about the appropriate type of language and structure I must use within the catalogue: the language must be succinct and consistent to ensure its reliability and usefulness as a finding aid. In the future, researchers may be using my catalogue!

Luckily for me, some wonderful library fairies had already alphabetised the collection of little magazines, saving me a big job, so I began cataloguing the ‘A’s. I must now get back to cataloguing in the Reading Room, where I am sat in five jumpers, but I’m eager to learn more about dsh and his wonderful world of concrete poetry.

sylvester houedart

Two typestracts by dsh published in Approches, 1966, no. 1, p.86. By kind permission of Prinknash Abbey Trustees.

Here are two typestracts by dsh that I found in French literary magazine Approches from 1966. Check back to this blog in the next couple of weeks where I will explore the conception and style of dsh’s typestracts in more detail.


Loose insert giving the title of the typestracts above.  By kind permission of Prinknash Abbey Trustees.

Commend me to your prayers




From Icones virorum illustrium (Images of famous men) Robert Boissard, Frankfurt, 1597

Martin Luther died on 18 February 1546 at the age of 62 in Eisleben, Saxony, the city where he was born. Luther’s actions had sparked a revolution that divided Europe and changed the course of history. Modern European identities were fundamentally shaped by the religious changes that he set in motion. The years of struggle, against the Catholic Church and amongst his fellow reformers, took their toll and Luther suffered from periods of depression and illness. One of the more poignant items in our Reformation exhibition is a letter written by Luther on 1 January 1528.

The letter is addressed to Gerhard Vilskamp, Rector of the community of Brethren of the Common Life at Herford in Westphalia. It is one of a number to survive from correspondence between the two men dating from 1527 to 1534.  Luther’s contact with the community began with Jacob Montanus, a friend of the German Lutheran reformer Philipp Melanchthon, who had moved there in 1522 to assist in their teaching activities. Vilskamp, along with his prorector, had been arrested in 1525 ‘as Lutherans and heretics’ by Bishop Eric of Paderborn and Osnabrück. After the city adopted the new faith in 1530, Luther supported the community in their appeals to the city authorities to maintain their communal life. The subject matter of the letter is particularly personal as Luther reflects on his recent struggles with depression and illness.


Ref. English MS 347/198

Grace and peace in Christ. I have received your most recent letter of consolation, my Gerard, with much pleasure and gratitude. May Christ reward you in eternity. In truth, this temptation was by far the most severe ever, and although it was not unknown to me from my youth, still so troublesome attack as this I had not expected. Nevertheless Christ triumphed, though my life was hanging by a most slender thread. I commend me to your prayers and [those] of your brothers. I have saved others, but I cannot save myself.  My blessed Christ, who passed through the depth of despair, death and blasphemy, will enable us to meet in his kingdom. In the meantime we must make sure that we serve Him in word and deed, but it is not in this that we are justified  – we are truly useless as servants , but our glory is to live in the world for Christ, forgetting our former evil life. What remains is that Christ is our life and our justification (ah, how hard and unknown to the flesh!), although hidden in God . Now I rejoice that I understand Peter  (with you as witness) that we must fulfill the experience of suffering that strikes our brethren in this world, however severe, until the end of this world.

Greetings to my Montanus and all the brothers. [Day] of the Circumcision, 1528.

Yours Martin Luther

Luther letter transcription and translation (with thanks especially to Professor Ulrich Bubenheimer and Dr Irene O’Daly).

Unfortunately we do not know the circumstances for the acquisition of the letter. However it does appear in a ‘List of Purchased Books 1893’, an alphabetical listing written by Mrs Rylands herself. It is one of two items under the heading ‘Luther’, the other being our copy of the 95 theses. You can see both of these treasures on display in our Reformation exhibition until Sunday 4 March.

Conservator’s Caviar: Isinglass Preparation

In January, the conservation team prepared some purified isinglass. Isinglass is a type of glue made of fish, more specifically the dried sturgeon swim-bladder membrane. This adhesive offers different qualities for conservation treatments, such as good ageing properties, flexibility and light fastness. Isinglass is widely used for conservation treatments, for example the consolidation of pigments, repair of parchment or prepared as remoistenable repair tissue.

Figure 1_Weighting isinglass

Figure 1: Weighing isinglass

However, isinglass can’t be used in its raw form. Starting with sheets of the fish membrane, the isinglass must be dissolved, purified and prepared in a form ready to use. The full procedure takes approximately 3 days.

After weighing the desired amount of dried glue, the sheet is carefully cut in small pieces of a few millimetres length. The pieces are covered and left to soak overnight in deionised water.

Figure 2_The membrane is cut out in small pieces

Figure 2: The membrane is cut out in small pieces

The glue is then sieved, gently massaged then, divided into equal parts, and put to dissolve in fresh deionised water. The water is gently warmed in a bain-marie at 29 degrees, and frequently stirred up to facilitate the dissolution. At higher temperatures, the gelatine of the glue starts to degrade and its structure and properties are then altered.

When the dissolution is completed, the isinglass is sieved twice through a thin muslin cloth to remove any impurities. The discs can then be prepared!

Using pipettes, small drops of glue are carefully spaced out on a sheet of Melinex©.

Figure 7_Isinglass drops on Melinex©

Figure 7: Isinglass drops on Melinex©

The drops need to dry whilst covered, protected from dust and impurities. This takes usually between 12 to 24 hours depending on the weather conditions.

Figure 8_Drying under a plastic cover

Figure 8: Drying under a plastic cover

The discs can finally be peeled out of the Melinex and stored in a jar.

The discs are now ready to be diluted in water, warmed up in a bain-marie and used as an adhesive in a conservation treatment. Keep an eye out for our next blog to see it in action!

Norman Nicholson’s ‘Topographical Notes’ in the John Rylands Library


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Max Long, an English MPhil student at Cambridge University, visited the Library recently and has written a guest blog post for us about his discoveries in Norman Nicholson’s Archive:

The John Rylands Library is home to the Norman Nicholson Archive, which holds a comprehensive collection of the writer’s manuscripts and correspondence. Nicholson was first and foremost a poet, and his books, from his first collection Five Rivers (1944) to The Pot Geranium (1954) and Sea to the West (1981) sought to paint an intimate, honest picture of his local Cumbrian landscape, one in which rocks, people and industry were inextricably linked. This vision of the landscape was expressed too in his topographical works, which include Cumberland and Westmorland (1949), Portrait of the Lakes (1963) and Greater Lakeland (1968). Nicholson remained rooted throughout his life in his hometown of Millom, and his poetry reflects the often difficult experience of a struggling industrial town in the post-war years. Norman Nicholson has long been neglected by critics, who are often irritated by his religious preoccupations, his perceived provincialism and his sharp, uncomplicated verse which favours the palpable and the concrete over the abstract and ambiguous. However, the last decade has seen a much-deserved reappraisal of his poetry. The Norman Nicholson Society was established in 2006, and recently two biographies have been written about Nicholson, as well as several academic articles.

Nicholson’s archive is an entertaining collection to read through, given his unusual practice of constantly re-purposing old scraps of paper for new uses. Thus, drafts of poems are frequently written on the back of typed letters or bills addressed to him. The back sides of scribbled and notated typescript drafts of his own, too, were used for writing out poems, rough lists or even bits of topographical manuscript. Nicholson was reluctant to keep his manuscripts and correspondence. In a April 1963 letter, also conserved at the John Rylands Library, Lawrence S. Thompson, then-librarian at Kentucky University Library, wrote to Norman Nicholson requesting a “manuscript poem in your hand”. Nicholson replied that, “I am afraid that practically the whole of my manuscripts have been destroyed. It did not occur to me that anybody would be interested in them”.  He offered instead to send a manuscript of the topographical book he was then drafting, A Portrait of the Lakes:

You may feel that a topographical work will be of littel ineterst [sic] to American students, but the whole key to to [sic] imagery of my poetry can be found in this volume.

copy letter from N. Nicholson to Mr Thompson

Copy letter from Nicholson to Lawrence S. Thompson

My own visit to the John Rylands was motivated by the hope of finding a notebook kept by Nicholson which might shed some light on how he wrote down his thoughts and ideas. The archive includes two folders called “Poetry in Progress”, which contain poetical drafts, mostly written on the back of rough pieces of paper. There are also two notebooks from Nicholson’s school years, which were re-used to write clean copies of his very earliest poetry, most of it unpublished. Another small notebook, with the title Wordsworth in Lakeland, is a compendium of information relating to William Wordsworth’s relationship to specific locations in the Lake District, drawing mainly from Dorothy Wordsworth’s diaries and The Prelude. However, there is only one notebook surviving in the archive which suggests continual and repeated use over time, recording immediate impressions of his surroundings and also scraps of reading and interesting anecdotes.

Topographical - Lakeland Notebook

Front cover of Nicholson’s ‘Topographical Notes’

This is a small blue notebook which is labelled ‘Topographical Notes: Morecambe Bay etc.’ (NCN3/1/8). The notebook, which has a list of quotes about William Wordsworth in a very different hand on the back pastedown, as well as a quote from Matthew Arnold at the front, was probably also an old school exercise book of Nicholson’s. Several leaves have been torn from the front of the notebook, which are likely to have contained pages devoted to its previous use as school notes. A quick glance at its contents, which were indexed by Nicholson himself on the first page, suggests that the notebook was used largely to prepare for writing his topographical book Greater Lakeland (1969), which would place the notebook’s use in the late 1960s, in the immediate years before the book’s publication.

Topographical - Lakeland Notebook

First opening of the notebook, showing Nicholson’s index

Nicholson’s notes are written in light blue ink, and are fiercely difficult to decipher. The writer’s rough notation, together with his abbreviations (including using a single vertical line to mean ‘the’) and the frequent rough sketches he includes beside his notes to describe buildings, mountains and other features of the land, suggests that the book was either carried around with him on short expeditions, or was used to record impressions immediately on his return. The contrast with the neat, organized notes from his Wordsworth in Lakeland notebook could not be starker.

Topographical - Lakeland Notebook

This page includes some sketches of Cartmel Priory made by Nicholson

Although the tone of the notebook is characterized by an impersonal form of observation, there are a few moments where Nicholson allows a glimpse into his presence as note-taker. At Great Salkeld, after briefly mentioning the church’s fortified tower, he writes of a “road to river [..] Place where we picnicked”. The “we” here refers to Nicholson’s wife Yvonne, who helped him in his travels by driving him across the region during the preparation of Greater Lakeland. Nicholson never fully recovered from the tuberculosis that confined him to a sanatorium for two years when he was sixteen, and he struggled to walk long distances.

The notebook also includes a few rough notes from his reading, which are duly referenced with an underlined title of the book and its author. Writing about Eskdale Railway, for example, he includes notes taken from a book called Small Talk at Wreyland by Cecil Torr, as well as some information about Lancaster Canal drawn from Jack Simmons’s Journeys in England. What is interesting about these reading notes is that they are very sparse – when references from the Topographical Notes overlap with the content in Greater Lakeland, Nicholson usually adds much more detailed information. Perhaps the Topographical Notes were intended only for very quick notation, with Nicholson resorting to more detailed notes located elsewhere.

What is most fascinating about the notebook, however, is that it shows Nicholson’s note-taking to have served both his topographical and his poetical modes of writing. As Nicholson’s letter to Lawrence S. Thompson indicated, he clearly thought of both as closely related. The Notebook was in use towards the end of an eighteen-year hiatus in Nicholson’s poetic career, and some of the notes appear to show him looking at the landscape with the kind of poetic eye that dominated his later poetry. In his notes about Burgh-by-Sands, for example, he notes that there,

seems to be
1 single cooling tower over the water (overhead)
but, as you move over sands, you
see the tower slowly gets wider,
then splits into two, two – This,
is subdivided + you see four towers
side by side over four parallel
leeks of smor snot steam wh, before,
had appeared only to be one.

Topographical - Lakeland Notebook

Nicholson’s notes about Burgh-by-Sands

Nicholson’s focus here, as at a number of other sections of the notebook, is with how elements of the landscape appear changed depending on the position of the viewer. As he moves across the sands, what seemed to be one tower, is in fact four. David Cooper has written recently about how Nicholson’s later poetry shows a deep concern with light and vision, and his last Faber collection, Sea to the West (1981), contains several poems addressing the changing view of Black Combe, a mountain overlooking his Millom home. As Nicholson’s only working notebook to survive in his archive, the Topographical Notes are a valuable asset in the John Rylands Library for researchers interested in Norman Nicholson’s poetry, his unique way of reading and describing the landscape, and twentieth century note-taking practices more generally.

We are grateful to the Trustees of the Estate of Norman Nicholson for their permission to reproduce the images in this blog post.