American Collections blog

What's on the mind of Team America?

Introduction

Find out more about our Americas Studies collections on the Americas blog, written by our curatorial team and guest posts from the Eccles Centre writers in residence. Our collections cover both North and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Read more

14 May 2020

Views from the shore

Changing the perspective on James Cook’s arrival in Australia: online resources offering a view from the shore 

At the end of April, 250 years ago, the Gweagal people, in Kurnell (Kamay Botany Bay, New South Wales) encountered strangers approaching their shore. The written versions of this initial contact in journals and letters have since been studied and commemorated in Western culture. Extensive celebrations of the bicentenary in 1970 were televised worldwide and included a lengthy royal tour, pageants, and multiple re-enactments of Cook's arrival. Yet, now in 2020, James Cook's legacy in Australia is often the subject of controversial debate with commemoration events considerably more subdued than those 50 years ago. Re-examination of the original journals, letters and documents from the voyages by scholars since the 1970s has offered glimpses of a different narrative, and we are now beginning to hear other views of the events in 1770 and subsequent encounters: those recorded through story, song and dance and passed down through descendants of the Gweagal people and other communities who witnessed Cook's voyage up the east coast of Australia.  

Protestors during the Melbourne Invasion Day march in Melbourne on 26 January 2020
'Ever stopped to look through our eyes?' placard at Australia Day protests in Melbourne on 26 January 2020. Image by Mark Hrkac 2020 on Flickr, Creative Commons BY 2.0

With many of the public events marking the 250th anniversary suspended due to the current global pandemic (see Maria Nugent's perspective on the thwarted anniversary plans in her article, Virtually Captain Cook), we can look to the wealth of online exhibitions and digital resources that have been made available to explore First People’s accounts of Cook’s arrival in Australia. One such exhibition is the National Museum of Australia’s Endeavour Voyage: The Untold Stories of Cook and the First Australians which will be releasing new digital content to follow the voyage up Australia’s east coast until August 2020. This exhibition looks at the missing voices from the Endeavour story and content includes The Message: The Story from the Shore, a film made in collaboration with Indigenous communities which re-imagines how the news of the arrival of strangers was passed along groups on the east coast.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

East Coast Encounter: Re-imagining 1770 from Aust National Maritime Museum on Vimeo.

The Australian National Maritime Museum's Encounters 2020 program includes resources designed to bring to life perspectives from the shore as well as those from the ship. Material here includes an animated short film, The Strange Big Canoe, which combines journal records and Indigenous histories to depict HMB Endeavour’s voyage along the east coast, and the film, East Coast Encounter: Re-imagining 1770, which tells the story of the East Coast Encounter project, where a group of artists re-visit key places where Cook landed on Australia's East Coast. The Australian Government's Shared Histories site, part of their Endeavour 250 anniversary program, draws on items from these national collections to reflect on the events of 1770, and the lasting impact of the voyages on Indigenous Australians.

We are still here protest sign, Melbourne 2019
'We are still here' placard. Image by Julian Meehan, 2019 on Flickr Creative Commons BY 2.0

In the UK, the Portico Museum in Manchester, have launched the online exhibition What it is to be here: Colonisation and Resistance which is running until July 2020. The exhibits here trace the First Peoples of Australia’s resistance to colonisation in seven stages, from the first encounters in ‘The view from the shore’ up to the present day in ‘What it is to be here 2020’. This exhibition builds on the connections which have developed between Manchester, AIATSIS and the First Nations people of Australia. This relationship also saw the return of 43 secret sacred and ceremonial objects to the Aranda people of Central Australia, Gangalidda Garawa peoples’ of northwest Queensland, Nyamal people of the Pilbara and Yawuru people of Broome in 2019.

'Do you know the history of the land you walk?' placard at Australia Day protests in Melbourne, 2018.
'Do you know the history of the land you walk?' placard at Australia Day protests in Melbourne, 2018. Image by John Englart 2018 on Flickr, Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0

Online material is also available through previous exhibitions on the voyages, including Dr Shayne T. Williams’ article An Indigenous Australian perspective on Cook's arrival and Responses from across the Pacific from the the British Library's James Cook: The Voyages exhibition in 2018. The National Library of Australia held the exhibition Cook and the Pacific from 22 September 2018 to 10 February 2019 and material is still available online, including a useful overview of the exhibition. Resources from this exhibition include First Nation Voices, where contemporary responses to objects from the exhibition were provided by First Nation peoples from the communities visited by Cook on his voyages in the Pacific, and John Maynard's essay, “I’m Captain Cooked”: Aboriginal Perspectives on James Cook, 1770–2020. See also the blog post written during the exhibition which explores the relationships First Nation peoples have now with the Indigenous word-lists that were compiled during the voyages. The National Library of Australia have also created a collection of webpages on the 250th anniversary, captured for posterity through their web archive, which includes many of the sites mentioned in this post.

'Listen to Indigenous Voices' placard at Australia Day protests on Melbourne, 2019
'Listen to Indigenous Voices' placard at Australia Day protests in Melbourne, 2019.Andrew Arch 2019 on Flickr Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0

Further digital resources which offer Indigenous perspectives on the 250th anniversary include articles from a variety of media sources. National Indigenous Television (NITV) features a piece from a Wuthathi man who considers why the anniversary can be seen as reason for celebration, award-winning journalist, Paul Daley, reflects on the Cook legacy in his essay On Cook in the literary journal, Meanjin, and ABC News looks at the first sighting of the Endeavour as remembered by the Yuin people of south-eastern Australia as part of their Walking Together series. The Conversation, an online source of viewpoints from the research community, has released a series of articles from Australian and UK academics which reflect on the impact of Cook’s arrival in the Pacific 250 years ago. The articles, 19 at the time of writing, cover a variety of topics from teaching Cook in the classroom to the impact of the voyages on Indigenous women. Maria Nugent, Co-Director, Australian Centre for Indigenous History, Australian National University, considers the Aboriginal Australian viewpoints on Cook collected during the bicentenary in 1970 which continue to shape the way we understand Cook today, while Bruce Buchan (Griffith University) and Eddie Synot (Indigenous Law Centre, University of NSW) explore how First Nations people are using art to challenge and confront Cook's legacies in Australia.

These 'views from the shore' are vital in helping to build a shared and balanced narrative of the encounters in 1770, and allow a deeper understanding of Australia's history: a perspective that, 250 years later, is reflected in the ethos of the official anniversary activities in 2020:

It is an opportunity for Australians of all backgrounds to listen to and learn from each other’s stories, to understand what took place, and to discuss what it means for our future. It is a chance to reflect on our histories and to connect our cultures. (Australian Government, 2020)

 

Lucy Rowland, Curator of Oceania Published Collections post-1850

 

References and further reading:

Australian Government (2020) 250th anniversary of Captain Cook's voyage to Australia [online] Available at: https://www.arts.gov.au/what-we-do/cultural-heritage/250th-anniversary-captain-cooks-voyage-australia

Hokari, M. (2011). Gurindji journey : A Japanese historian in the outback. Kensington, N.S.W.: University of New South Wales Press. BL shelfmark YD.2011.a.4474

Konishi, S., Nugent, M, & Shellam, T. (2015). Indigenous intermediaries : New perspectives on exploration archives. Acton, A.C.T. : Australian National University Press. BL shelfmark YD.2017.b.161

Pascoe, B. (2018). Dark emu : Aboriginal Australia and the birth of agriculture. Melbourne : Scribe. BL shelfmark YK.2019.a.662

Rose, D.B. (1991). Hidden histories. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies. BL shelfmark YA.1994.b.5340

 

 

 

 

12 May 2020

A brief history of nursing in the US

It's international nursing day.  We're not ones to miss an opportunity to discuss nursing history: it is a fascinating field that has evolved massively since early narratives that related 'great deeds' and celebrated nurses as angels and saints.  By taking a nuanced approach informed by cultural and sociological theories, nursing history has instead redirected its attention onto nursing practice, and recovering the experiences of nurses and patients who have been excluded from mainstream histories.  With this in mind, we'd like to quickly look at a few works in our collections that you can access from home that give an insight into often overlooked aspects of nursing history.

In the United States, as in the UK, nursing became a more formalised profession in the 19th Century.  Some key factors led to this shift in tending to the sick, in particular the rise of urbanisation, the associated spread of disease, and awareness of the importance of public sanitation; military conflicts with escalating numbers of casualties; and the broader growth in medical knowledge which included specific development of education provisions for nurses. 

Nonetheless, it must be recognised that while most early nursing was done informally by families in the home and community setting, with knowledge passed on inter-generationally, nurses also formed an important component of earlier medical establishments and practices. 

Charter for establishing an hospital
Charter for establishing an Hospital in the City of New York (Rules and Regulations for the government of the New York Hospital, etc.). New York, 1794.  Digital Store T.33.(4.)   http://access.bl.uk/item/viewer/ark:/81055/vdc_100033821481.0x000001

The above royal charter of 1771 passed by King George III established the Society of the New York Hospital, and outlines the rules and regulations for its running.  The charter instructs the President to appoint "Physicians and Surgeons as they shall judge necessary to attend the said Hospital... and also to appoint an Apothecary, a Steward, and Matron, of and for the said Hospital".  Clearly the role of the matron was deemed sufficiently important to warrant mentioning alongside the Hospital's key medical personnel, and its specific responsibilities were outlined further.

Matron duties Charter for establishing an hospital
"Duty of the matron"

Some of the above might sound familiar to anyone who has had a stay in hospital.  While consisting mainly of overseeing nursing staff, housekeeping, and public order, these routines were, and to a large degree continue to be, essential to the maintenance of hospital hygiene and proper care of patients.  Nonetheless, differences remained: many of the 'nurses' overseen by the matron were actually patients who were well enough to tend to others, their own linen "and such other Service as the Matron or Steward shall require."

By 1839, the New York Hospital was well established and had a large library of reference materials, some of which can be explored in this volume.

Supplementaryand analytic cataogue
Supplementary and Analytic Catalogue of the New York Hospital Library. August, 1939.  Digital Store 823.g.31.   http://access.bl.uk/item/viewer/ark:/81055/vdc_100063965657.0x000001

Within this, one can find the following titles:

Detail Supplementaryand analytic cataogue

and

Detail Supplementaryand analytic cataogue 2

and

Detail Supplementaryand analytic cataogue 3

In the intervening decades nursing and particularly midwifery particularly had become roles with clearly outlined sets of practices and key knowledge that could be passed on via a more formal route.  Indeed, in 1839 a Quaker, Dr Joseph Warrington founded the Nurse Society of Philadelphia with the aim of improving obstetrical care for poor women.  These early efforts had limited success as many still regarded nursing as a familial duty, and could not afford to pay for either the education or the care that they could receive from family and acquaintances for free.[1]  Nonetheless, early programmes provided a framework for subsequent education efforts.

This process of formalisation of the profession was substantially accelerated by the outbreak of the Civil War.  There are many records by and about nurses and nursing during the war, perhaps the best known of which are Clara Barton's works (many of her papers are available digitally on the Library of Congress' website), Louisa May Alcott's Hospital Sketches and Amanda Akin's The Lady Nurse of Ward E.  Both are understandably popular.  A lesser known work is this account by A.H. Hoge.

Boys in Blue
A.H. Hoge, The Boys in Blue; or Heroes of the 'Rank and File.' Comprising incidents and reminiscences from Camp, Battle-Field, and Hosptial, with narratives of the sacrifice, suffering, and triumps of the Soldiers of the Republic. 1867.  Digital Store 9602.ee.12.   http://access.bl.uk/item/viewer/ark:/81055/vdc_100038561496.0x000001

Mrs Abraham Holmes Hoge played a key role in fundraising for the US Sanitary Commission throughout the war.  Thanks to her efforts, the Commission was able to supply battlefront hospitals with much needed medical supplies that were regularly delivered by Mrs Hoge, who also volunteered as a nurse at many key battles.  She would later relate these experiences at salon talks, in order to fundraise for further efforts.  Her work also brought her into close contact with politicians and military personnel.  This volume is thus heavily propagandistic in tone, but provides an insight into the administration of wartime hospitals, as well as accounts from numerous hospitals, with a range of nursing personnel, at different points in the war.  Similar information can also be gleaned from the papers of Mary Ann Bickerdyke who acted as an agent for the Sanitary Commission, which are available to read on the Library of Congress website

The war proved a turning point in the profession: over 20,000 nurses served as nurses across the north and south.  Subsequently, a number of key training programmes based in hospitals secured the future of the profession and by the turn of the century there were over four hundred nurse training programmes in hospitals across the United States.  Thereafter, professional organisations began to rise exponentially, some of the most noteworthy include the National League for Nursing Education, American Nurses Association, and the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, as well as many local organisations.

The war also inevitably also radically changed how nurses were perceived by the public - tropes such as patient, self-sacrificing saints who tend to fallen heroes in a battle against an enemy were popularised in print and songs such as 'Our Lady of the Hospital'.

Our Lady of the Hospital
Millard, H, and Miles O'Reilly. Our Lady of the Hospital. Wm. Hall & Son, New York, 1864. Notated Music. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200001684/
 
The ward is silent again
As our lady resumes her place,
And I see, as I watch her, a patient pain
That is pitiful in her face;
Lily of beauty, too bright for a camp,
O, saint! That ever our sorrows will share!
Now I see by the light of the shaded lamp,
Tears fall on the page of her prayer

The above is the final chorus in a stark depiction of a night spent on a Civil War hospital ward, from the perspective of a patient.  Sanitised versions of such sentiments continued to circulate, sometimes obscuring the long history of a complex profession, the skills and knowledge of those employed within it, the unpaid and unrecognised care provided by relatives at home, and the autonomy of patients.  Thankfully, historians continue to look beyond the popular platitudes and well-visited narratives to help us understand the multiple facets of a fascinating and rich history of nursing.

 

[1] Michelle C. Hehman, “The Rise of a Profession: ‘An Art and a Science’ 1873 – 1901” in Arlene W. Keeling et al. (eds.) History of Professional Nursing in the United States: Toward a Culture of Health.

 

 

01 May 2020

On "American Foreign-Born Workers"

It is International Worker's Day (also known as Labor Day or May Day) in most of the world today (though not for another week in the UK).  It's now becoming a bit of an BL Americas fixture to share some of our workers' related materials at this time of year.  Given the recent news about the presidential pause placed on issuing green cards, it felt particularly appropriate to bring this pamphlet to your attention:

Clarissa S. Ware
BL shelfmark RF.2019.a.157

Published in 1923 by the Workers Party of America, this pamphlet breaks down in statistical detail the contributions that immigrants and their offspring have made to American life.  In particular, it shows how they formed a large political force in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, and made an enormous contribution to US industry and the wider economy.

The pamphlet's author Clarissa S. Ware was a central figure of the party who was in charge of its research office, on the editorial staff for its publication The Liberator, and authored numerous other pamphlets.  Following her tragic early death as the result of complications from an abortion, the Workers' Party obituary described her as "the woman of the Communist society of tomorrow-- frank, unafraid, intellectually capable, yet glorious in her womanhood."[1]  And indeed, her voice and passion for the workers' cause comes across clearly in the pamphlet.

Much of the text is condensed statistical research collated from various sources, but this is broken by punchy and heartfelt political prose and poetry. A particularly memorable section quotes 'The Immigrant' by Frederik J. Haskins

But my brawn is woven into the warp and woof

of the fabric of your national.

My children shall be your children and your land

shall be my land because my sweat and

my blood will cement the foundations

of the America of Tomorrow

The author subsequently extols the poor working conditions and oppression that many faced, arguing that it constituted a concerted effort to weaken organised labor, and ends with a clarion call to all 'foreign-born' to wield their political influence alongside the wider labor force.

Down with the laws oppressing and enslaving the workers, foreign-born as well as native! 

Away with the outrageous capitalist plans to register, fingerprint and photograph foreign-born workers like criminals!

...All for the solidarity of the workers against the solidarity of the exploiters!

Let there be one mighty army of labor!

 

You can read "The American Foreign-Born Workers" in full as a digital copy on Harvard Library's website.

 

[1] Bryan D. Palmer, James Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928.  The University of Illinois Press, 2007.

28 April 2020

The Library Quest: Andrés Bello (1781-1865)

Image of the bust of Andrés Bello photographed at the window of a conference room in the British Library
Bust of Andrés Bello (BLWA 91) at the window of a conference room in the British Library

 

Do you know this man? – His name is Andrés Bello and he was one of the most influential thinkers and makers of post-independence South-American nation building. Bello was born in Caracas in 1781 into the Spanish empire and, in his twenties, enjoyed a short career in the colonial administration, before the struggle for independence across his continent made him a life-long exile. In 1810, Andrés Bello joined the diplomatic mission of the continent’s foremost military leader Simón Bolívar in an effort to trump up political and financial support from the British government. Little did he know that the events unfolding back home would leave him stranded in London for what turned out to be almost 20 formative years from his late twenties to his late forties.

The long fight for independence meant that diplomatic funds quickly ran dry and Bello had to find other ways to make ends meet as a private tutor and translator. Sometimes better-off intellectual friends lent him a helping hand: the Scottish philosopher James Mill, best known today as the father of his more famous son James Stuart Mill and as collaborating with the founder of utilitarianism Jeremy Bentham, was able to pay Bello for his help in transcribing some of Bentham’s manuscripts (Weinberg 1993/2000: 3). In these times of economic hardship, the British Museum Library, predecessor of the British Library, became his refuge and undoubtedly also a meeting place with other like-minded intellectuals. This was not yet the grand round reading room the outline of which is still visible today in the circular structure in the atrium of the British Museum, but the older, more intimate reading rooms of the previous building at Montague Square.

And no matter how dire his life and the prospects of ever returning home, Bello found solace in his work at the British Museum Library, painstakingly transcribing the fruits of his labour into his London Note Books, which were published in a critical edition in 2017 fittingly bearing a contemporary picture of the reading room Bello would have visited on its front cover.

 

Image of the front cover of Cuadernos de Londres by Andrea Bello, the critical edition published in 2017, edited by Ivan Jasik and Tania Avilés. It shows the reading room as depicted in a drawing by Thomas H. Shepherd (1792-1864) engraved for print by Henry Melville in 1841
Front cover of Bello, A., Jaksic, Ivan, editor, & Avilés, Tania, editor. (2017). Cuadernos de Londres. It shows the reading room as depicted in a drawing by Thomas H. Shepherd (1792-1864) engraved for print by Henry Melville in 1841. Shelfmark: YF.2018.a.9297.

 

When I started working as Curator for Latin American Published Collections (post 1850) at the British Library at the end of this January, colleagues offered to show me the way to the reading rooms. Although I had been an avid user of the library for years, I had yet to learn to navigate the secret passageways at the periphery – or backstage, as I call them – that surround the light-flooded public spaces and reading rooms. It allows us staff to help today’s users at the centre of the library efficiently and discreetly. So I tried our catalogue on Andrés Bello, whose work I know well, both from my student days at Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main, and as a professor of Hispanic Linguistics teaching his writings on language and grammar. Yet, what I thought was a safe bet, the British Library catalogue turned into a surprise. I certainly didn’t expect to find a bust:

 

Screenshot of the catalogue record showing the description of the record of the bust of Andres Bello: the research starts from Exploring Archive and Manuscripts catalogue of the British Library. The record shows title, author of the bust, collections areas, access conditions and other details.
Screenshot of the catalogue record showing the description of the bust of Andres Bello

 

This catalogue entry would become my unofficial induction course to the collections, which I began to inhabit over the course of my search for the elusive bust. The next couple of weeks, I continued to search the catalogue and asked many members of staff along the way, until I found the bust at last in a small meeting room at the end of an open space office at the end of a long corridor – or so it felt to me as I was asking my way to the goal: the bust of Andrés Bello made by his Venezuelan compatriot Lorenzo González in 1938, or what is more likely, a bronze copy of the original bust.

In the temporary absence of libraries (see blog from 13 April 2020), I feel it is important to remember that libraries are also physical spaces that provide more than knowledge and enlightenment, although Andrés Bello would have been the first to hail them for these important services. Thinking of the physical space and its objects, the light-filled atrium and the piazza, where readers and staff mingle in the summer, reminds us of the individuality of different libraries with their specific collection histories; and of their many readers and visitors, most of them not as famous as Andrés Bello, but who, like him, find intellectual nourishment, solace and joy within their walls. We look forward to having them back!

[Blog post by Iris Bachmann, Curator, Latin American Published Collections (post 1850)]

 

Bibliography and suggested readings:

Bello, A., Jaksic, Ivan, editor, & Avilés, Tania, editor. (2017). Cuadernos de Londres / Andrés Bello ; prólogo, edición y notas de Iván Jaksić y Tania Avilés ; con la colaboración de Miguel Carmona Tabja, Claudio Gutiérrez Marfull y Matías Tapia Wende ; epílogo de Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. (Primera edición ed.). Shelfmark: YF.2018.a.9297. 

Bello, A., & Jaksic, Ivan. (1997). Selected writings of Andrés Bello / Andrés Bello ; translated from the Spanish by Frances M. López-Morillas ; edited, with an introduction and notes by Iván Jaksić. (Library of Latin America). New York ; Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Caldera, R., & Street, John. (1977). Andrés Bello : Philosopher, poet, philologist, educator, legislator, statesman / by Rafael Caldera ; translated [from the Spanish] by John Street. London: Allen and Unwin. Shelfmark: YC.1998.a.612 

[A readable short introduction to the life and work of Andrés Bello written by a young Rafael Caldera, later to become two-time president of Venezuela.]

Jaksic, I. (2001). Andrés Bello : Scholarship and nation-building in nineteenth-century Latin America / Iván Jaksić. (Cambridge Latin American studies ; 87). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Shelfmark: YC.2001.a.12217. [Definitive academic biography]

Weinberg, G. (1993/2000). ‘Andrés Bello (1781-1865)’. Prospects: the quarterly review of comparative education (Paris, UNESCO: International Bureau of Education), vol. XXIII, no. 1/2, 1993, p. 71-83. Online version ©UNESCO: International Bureau of Education, 2000 at: http://www.ibe.unesco.org/sites/default/files/belloe.pdf (accessed 15 April 2020)

 

24 April 2020

Poems from the edge of extinction (part 2)

Welcome to part 2 of our blog on poetry in endangered and lesser-known languages in collaboration with our European Studies colleaguesIn part 1 of this blog, we considered examples of poetry in Tongan and Yucatec Maya, and here in part 2 we look at examples in Patwa/Jamaican Creole and Yolngu Matha. If you've never heard of these languages, read on!

Patwa/Jamaican Creole

Front cover of book Miss Lou : Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture by Mervyn Morris
Miss Lou : Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture by Mervyn Morris. BL shelfmark YKL.2014.a.5466

Bun an Cheese by Louise Bennett-Coverley

Dem Bwoy dah jeer Miss Matty,
An a mock her an tease,
Dem a kill demself wid laugh mah
An a call her Bun an Cheese
 
Dem sey from Good Friday mawnin
Her jawbone no get ease
Mawnin  noon an night bedtime
She was nyamin Bun and Cheese
 
Fe breakfuss lunch an dinna
She got so-so bun and cheese
She kea it go a church an
Movin pictures if you please
 
She no count saltfish an ackee
Cut her y’eye pon rice an peas
Hear her “me put pot pon fire
When me got me Bun and Cheese!”
 
Easter time gwine come an go weh
Days an moment fly like breeze
But as long as Matty live dem bwoy
Gwine call her Bun and Cheese!

 

English translation

Those boys jeer Miss Matty
And Mock and tease her
They are killing themselves with laugh
And call her Bun and Cheese
 
They say from Good Friday morning
Her jawbone got no ease
Morning noon and nighttime
She was eating Bun and Cheese
 
For Breakfast lunch and dinner
She got only bun and cheese
She took it to church and
Moving pictures if you please
 
She does not count saltfish and ackee
Cut her eye on rice and peas
Hear her “I put my pot on the fire
When I got my Bun and Cheese!”
 
Easter time come and go away
Days and moment fly like breeze
But as long as Matty live those boys
Going to call her Bun and Cheese!

 

Coming off the heels of Easter, this is one of my favourite Louise Bennett-Coverley poems. “Miss Lou” as she was affectionately called is one of the most loved and highly respected Jamaican poets.  She uses the themes of food culture and local traditions in this timeless work. These themes highlight the love affair the protagonist “Miss Matty” has with the popular Jamaican Easter treat “bun and cheese”, closely associated with the popular English “hot cross buns”.  The use of the Jamaican dialect, Patois (Patwa) by Miss Lou makes this poem even more expressive and exciting. Regardless of the time of day, place and alternative food options Miss Matty is only interested in her tasty treat. This poem encapsulates the happy atmosphere that surrounds one of Jamaica’s most delightful Easter traditions.

Chantelle Richardson (Chevening Fellow at the British Library and Special Collections Librarian at the National Library of Jamaica)

 

Yolngu Matha  (Australia)

*Please note: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that these pages may contain images, voices or names of deceased persons in photographs, film, audio recordings or printed material.*

Illustration of four kangaroos grazing
British Library Image taken from page 360 of 'New Homes for the Old Country. A personal experience of the political and domestic life, the industries, and the natural history of Australia and New Zealand. ... With ... illustrations' (BL shelfmark HMNTS 10492.g.19.)

 When a list of 200 Aboriginal Australian words was recorded in the north of Australia during James Cook’s voyage in 1770, it was assumed that these words would be spoken by all the Indigenous people in the country. One of the words on this list was ‘kangaroo’ (kanguru or gangurru), which was provided by the Guugu Yimidhirr people in what is now known as Far North Queensland. Yet, when European settlers arrived in 1788, in what would become Sydney, and tried to make use of the list, the word 'kangaroo’ was met with confusion by the local Aboriginal people who believed this to be an English word. Only later did the Europeans realise that the First people of Australia spoke more than 250 different languages, including 800 dialectal varieties, at the time of European settlement. For a visual representation of this language distribution, see the AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia which attempts to represent all the language, tribal or nation groups of the First peoples of Australia. Of the 160 varieties still spoken, only 13 are spoken by children and 90% of Indigenous Australian languages are in danger of dying out.  

One of the 13 languages still spoken by children, and in somewhat less danger, is the language group known as Yolngu Matha (or Yolŋu Matha). Yolngu Matha, has around 2,000 speakers and is a member of the Pama-Nyungan family of languages. It is spoken by the Yolngu people in the north-eastern part of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia. There are a dozen dialects of Yolngu Matha, each with its own name and with significant variation between them, though there is some mutual understanding between the dialects. During the 1930s, missionaries developed various ways of writing Yolngu Matha, which are still used today, though there is no standard spelling system. This linguistic complexity of variant spellings, and clan and dialect distinctions in Yolngu Matha (as with all the Indigenous Australian languages), has now been mapped to a great extent in the AUSTLANG database. This landmark project by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) provides the means for institutions to begin the process of attributing the correct language to bibliographic records, as is being done through crowd sourcing at the National Library of Australia.

Front cover of Nganajungu yagu by Charmaine Papertalk Green
Papertalk-Green, C. (2019). Nganajungu yagu. Victoria, Australia : Cordite Books. BL shelfmark YD.2019.a.5930

When we look at the British Library records for poetry by Indigenous Australians, although we can find recent examples written in English (see Ellen van Neerven, Alison Whittaker, or Lionel Fogarty), those written in Indigenous Australian languages are far scarcer (although a welcome example is Nganajungu yagu by Charmaine Papertalk-Green which mixes Wajarri, Badimaya, and English - shelfmark YD.2019.a.5930). And while we can attribute this partly to historical collection practices which favoured non-Indigenous languages (and similar discrimination in the publishing industry), this is also due to the history in Indigenous cultures of spoken word over written language. 

Front cover of Song spirals
Gay'wu Group of Women (2019). Songspirals: Sharing women's wisdom of Country through songlines. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin. (awaiting shelfmark)

A particularly rich poetic oral tradition in Indigenous Australian culture can be seen in songlines. Also known song spirals or song cycles, these living archives of cultural knowledge and wisdom are preserved and passed on through song. Using cues from the land, sky and sea to navigate through space and time, songlines are handed down through generations. A member of the community acts as the custodian of the songline and these are rarely shared with outsiders. For this blog, I have chosen to highlight a 2019 Yolngu Matha collection, Songspirals: Sharing women's wisdom of Country through songlines  by the Gay'wu Group of Women (Allen and Unwin 2019 - awaiting cataloguing at the British Library). Here women’s roles in songlines are explored and the authors share five song spirals in Gumatj, a dialect of Dhuwal (also Dual, Duala), one of the Yolngu Matha languages.  

Below is an excerpt from Wuymirri, the Whale 
 
Nguruku miyamanarawu Dhangaḻa aaaaaaaa... 
Waṉa nyerrpu miyaman ngunha marrtji Bangupanngu. 
Miyaman marrtji Balwarri Nepaway, Maywuṉdjiwuy. 
 
Bawaywuyngu miyamara Dhuḻuḻwuynguru; 
Bawaywuyngu miyamara Rrawuḻuḻwuynguru; 
Nguruku miyaman ngarra marrtji Rrawuḻuḻwuynguru. 
 
Of that body of water I sing, I sing of the body of water. 
The arm of the paddler is knowledgeable, over there is Bangupanngu. 
I am singing about Balwarri, the whale, Nepaway, the open sea. 
Of the place between sunrise and sunset I sing, 
 
Where the whales swim with open mouths, scooping water,  
   filtering fish; 
A pod of whales, flipping and jumping, playing and roaming; 
A gathering of many people; 
For that I sing Rrawuḻuḻ, the place where the whales 
   are feeding.  
I sing for those people, the ones far away. 

 

In Indigenous Australian culture, languages with few or no speakers are described as ‘sleeping’, and there are some welcome initiatives to re-awaken these sleeping languages. These include the formation of the AIATSIS foundation to record languages and songlines and publish 15 dictionaries of languages a year over the next decade. An exciting effort to re-awaken language through poetry has been developed through the Poetry in First Languages project, devised by Gunai poet, Kirli Saunders. In this program, Indigenous poets, Elders and Language Custodians work directly with Indigenous students to write poetry in their cultural language. 


To hear Yolngu Matha in a musical context, take a listen to the award-winning Yolngu rapper Baker Boy who seamlessly mixes this language with English in his performances such as 'Marryuna' (Let's Dance) below.

 

 

Lucy Rowland, Curator of Oceania Published Collections post-1850

 

Further reading:

General

Chris McCabe (ed.), Poems from the Edge of Extinction (London, 2019), [BL shelfmark: ELD.DS.463137] 

Read more about the Endangered Poetry Project

Patwa/Jamaican creole

Morris, M. (2014). Miss Lou : Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture. BL shelfmark YKL.2014.a.5466

Bennett, L., & Morris, M. (2003). Auntie Roachy seh. Kingston: Sangster's Book Stores. BL shelfmark YD.2005.a.1825

Bennett, L (1983) Selected Poems. Kingston, Jm. : Sangster's Book Stores. BL shelfmark X.958/29332

Bennett, L (1949) Jamaican dialect poems. Kingston , Jm : printed by the Gleaner Co. BL shelfmark X.909/29896

Yolngu Matha  

Dyungayan, G., & Cooke, S. (2014). George Dyungayan's Bulu Line : A West Kimberley song cycle. Glebe, NSW: Puncher & Wattmann. BL shelfmark YD.2017.a.916 


Gay'wu Group of Women (2019). Songspirals: Sharing women's wisdom of Country through songlines. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin. (awaiting shelfmark) 


Papertalk-Green, C. (2019). Nganajungu yagu. Victoria, Australia : Cordite Books. BL shelfmark YD.2019.a.5930 

 

The Substance of Libraries

While working from home comes with many benefits, for those of us who work with physical collections it also has some very obvious drawbacks.  Of course the Library hosts a veritable cornucopia of digital materials that are accessible remotely but if, like me, you have a penchant for the analogue then something will remain lacking nonetheless. 

I appreciate the focus that working with little interruption in my study enables, but I miss the curiosity, stimulus, and particularly the unpredictable interventions that arise when taking an afternoon meander through the catalogue and calling items to one's desk.  There is value too in the measured pace imposed by waiting for an item to be brought up from its home beneath the Euston Rd (or on the back of a truck from Boston Spa), in the attention to the detail on a meticulously printed page or in a lovingly crafted binding.  Occasionally, rarely, the smell of a book will tell you much about its history.  This particular tome arrived carefully protected by a bespoke phasebox which, upon opening, released a burnt whiff.  Investigation revealed it was a victim of the Blitz bombings that hit the British Museum library.  While many volumes were destroyed, this remains intact aside from the visible damage on the spine. We assume that it was protected by the tight packing of books on the shelf which restricted the spread of the fire.

DSC_0286

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Journal de médecine de Québec. Publié et rédigé par X. Tessier. vol. I., Quebec, 1826, 27. Shelfmark: P.P.2892

Such pauses bring continuity into one's collections work.  It helps, too, to arrive at work each morning and from the window by my desk see the readers waiting to be admitted form an orderly queue across the terracotta red piazza, alongside a sculpture celebrating knowledge and imagination (Eduardo Paolozzi's Isaac Newton), and a second which meditates on "an essential presence" (Antony Gormley's Planets); and that my regular tea break takes me past the King's Library tower.   The physical space of the Library is thus a constant reminder of how this careful, specific work fits into a larger scheme, a historic collection, and that it is designed for the use of the public.  The main doors open at 9.30am but staff are allowed entry earlier, and so it is not unusual to be in the Library when the main hall is filled with little more than light and the hush of the reading rooms is even more muted than usual.

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British Library Kings Tower copyright Francisca Fuentes Rettig CC BY-NC-SA

 

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British Library Kings Tower desks copyright Francisca Fuentes Rettig CC BY-NC-SA

 

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British Library Rare Books Reading Room copyright Francisca Fuentes Rettig CC BY-NC-SA

I took the above images in 2018 as part of the twitter black and white libraries challenge (#BWLibraries).  I recall begrudging the 'no people' condition attached to the challenge: 'what is a Library without its readers?', I thought, and I worried about perpetuating a hackneyed image of libraries as quiet, staid, empty places when we are in fact lively and contemporary and relevant.  Still... the British Library does look rather pretty in black and white...

So I wandered the corridors looking for interesting angles and details to capture.  The photographs of an empty building brought to mind the images of the New Topographics photographers.  Characterised by a deadpan view of urban and suburban United States, these photographers (who include Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, and Stephen Shore) focused a great proportion of their output on buildings that appear devoid of life.  Of particular interest in this instance are the photographs of Madison Public Library taken by John Schott shortly before it was demolished.

John Schott 1
Copyright John Schott https://www.johnschottphotography.com/msr

 

John Schott 1
Copyright John Schott https://www.johnschottphotography.com/msr

Schott's observational images have an uncanny quality - the setting feels so familiar, this could be any library.  While the public architecture, empty shelves and vacant desks suggest a 'non-place', there remains a vestigial trace of how people used the space: there will be memories attached to these rooms, where a child discovered a favourite book, or a member of staff carefully scanned the stacks and found a misplaced item.

Obviously, now the British Library is mostly empty bar a dedicated team of security staff, but I like to think that there is a vital presence in the place that it is not possible to extinguish by emptying it of people.  The building, like the collections it houses, was made to be used and to be seen, to celebrate knowledge and spark the imagination.  For now, it waits meditatively, full of light and hush, to fulfill its purpose once more.

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British Library entrance hall copyright Francisca Fuentes Rettig CC BY-NC-SA

23 April 2020

Poems from the edge of extinction (part 1)

For this blog, and in collaboration with our European Studies colleagues, we have taken inspiration from last year’s timely anthology of poems, Poems from the Edge of Extinction, edited by poet and UK National Poetry Librarian, Chris McCabe. Published in 2019 (also the UN’s International Year of Indigenous Languages), the book celebrates linguistic diversity through poetic expression, gathering 50 poems in languages identified as endangered and presenting them in both the original and in English translation. It’s got us thinking about poetry written in lesser-known languages in the Americas and Oceania collections. In part 1 of this blog, we consider examples of poetry in Tongan and Yucatec Maya, while part 2 (to follow) will look at examples in Patwa/Jamaican creole and Yolngu Matha. If you've never heard of these languages, read on!


Tongan (Polynesia)

Tongan (Lea Faka-Tonga) is the national language of the Kingdom of Tonga, a Polynesian nation of 169 islands in the southern Pacific Ocean, and the only monarchy in the Pacific. Tongan is a Polynesian language of the Austronesian family and is most closely related to the Samoan language of the same family. There are around 190,000 Tongan speakers with nearly half of these living overseas in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Australia or the United States. Though not on the endangered language list, Tongan, like many Pacific languages, is in danger of an eventual language shift to English. As outlined above, the migration of many native Tongan speakers is a predictor for this, as well as the predominance of English in online environments, and with English being increasingly associated with greater educational and employment opportunities.  In an effort to counter this and preserve Tongan as the native language among young people in the country, the Minister of Education introduced a new language policy in 2012. Children are now taught solely in Tongan upon starting school, with English only gradually introduced at later stages. The policy aims for students to be fluent in both languages by completion of their education. Other efforts to preserve the language and culture among Tongans, includes the annual Tongan Language Week for Tongans living overseas in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Traditionally a spoken language, the first written examples of Tongan were made by missionaries using the Latin script in the 19th century, with the current spellings decided by the Privy Council of Tonga in 1943. The Tongan script uses three different diacritic marks to guide pronunciation and meaning: the glottal stop, the macron, and the stress mark, which often requires careful proofreading in text. The language is notable for having multiple speech registers based on status and formality, including one specifically for use when speaking to or about the reigning monarch or deities. With its strong oral over written tradition, Tongan language poetry is not abundant in our print collections. However, I would like to take this opportunity to highlight a translated collection of the poetry of Tonga’s longest reigning monarch, Queen Sālote Tupou III, Tonga's poet on the throne from 1918 to her death in 1965. Songs & poems of Queen Sālote (2004) features 114 works by the monarch in Tongan with translations into English by the Pacific languages academic, Dr. Melenaite Taumoefolau.

Front cover of Songs & poems of Queen Sālote
Songs & poems of Queen Sālote / translated by Melenaite Taumoefolau ; edited by Elizabeth Wood-Ellem. Nukuʻalofa : Vavaʻu Press, 2004. YD.2009.b.1963.

Some of you may already be familiar with Queen Sālote as the head of state who received uproarious applause on Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation Day in 1953, when she refused to lower the hood of her carriage in the driving rain, and instead laughed and waved joyfully at the crowds lining the procession route. Her spirit and warmth on the day prompted newspaper editor, Jack Fishman, to write a song aptly titled The Queen of Tonga (Music Collections VOC/1953/FISHMAN) which was then made popular by Edmundo Ros and his orchestra (Sound Collections 1CD0189529). 

Cover of the music score The Queen Of Tonga by Jack Fishman
The Queen of Tonga’ by Jack Fishman 1953 (Music Collections VOC/1953/FISHMAN)

However, you may not know that she is also celebrated as poet and song writer whose work, comprising of over 100 compositions, has played a major role in the preservation of the Tongan language and Tonga’s rich cultural heritage. Historian and biographer of Queen Sālote, Elizabeth Wood-Ellem, wrote in Songs & poems of Queen Sālote that: 

The Queen was… acclaimed as an extremely gifted poet. Queen Sālote spent many hours perfecting the words of her poems, and she invited groups of musicians to come to the Palace in the evenings to work with her. They often stayed until the early hours of the morning. Poetry that was set to music consisted of love songs (both happy and sad), laments for deaths of chiefs and those close to her, lullabies for her grandchildren, and songs written especially for the accompaniment of dance, such as lakalaka and mā‘ulu‘ulu. Love songs (hiva kakala) were often used as accompaniment to the solo dance for a woman, the tau‘olunga. (pp.279-281) 

Tongan language poetry makes great use of heliaki (metaphoric language) to make culture specific references to the knowledge shared by Tongan speakers. This can make literal translations difficult without using annotations, as the meanings and connotations of kinship connections in the heliaki often require explanation to non-Tongan speakers. We can see an example of this in Queen Sālote’s poem, The Queen’s Tears at the Passing of Tangata o’ Ha’amea, which employs the technique to bemoan that Ha’amea (a prominent Tongan chief) left no heir: 


Dear home of Niukasa 
Standing at the base of Sia 
With the stream called Fotu ‘afinema 
Once trickling but now empty 
Not a drop is left 

Diplomatic use of heliaki can be seen in her poem, ‘Uno 'o Sangone. Composed during World War 2, the poem is ostensibly about the Polynesian myth of the turtle Sangone, but draws heavily on the shared knowledge of the long history and connections between Tonga and its neighbour, Samoa. Through this use of heliaki, the Queen aimed to reassure Tongans and remind them of the importance of allies and unity during wartime:  

Ne‘ine‘i hako mei he tonga 
Tapa ē‘uhila mei lulunga 
He na‘e mana ē Feingakotone 
Fakahake ē‘uno ‘o Sangone. 
 
No wonder the gales blew from the south 
Lightening flashed from the west. 
The Feingakotone* thundered 
For Sangone’s shell was brought forth. 

Black and white photo of Queen Sālote with her husband Viliami Tungī Mailefihi
Salote Tupou III, Queen of Tonga and her consort Prince Uiliami Tungi. Ref: 1/2-005251-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22839741

However, to really appreciate the Tongan language and Queen Sālote’s work, you should enjoy it in the manner through which it was intended, such as this contemporary performance of Loka Siliva (Silver Lock or Locket), a love song (hiva kakala) she wrote for her husband, sung by the Tonga Creative Collective, and with translations from Tongan to English. 

For examples of more recent poetry from the Kingdom of Tonga in the British Library collections, see also Hingano : selected poems, 1966-1986 / by Konai Helu Thaman (BL shelfmark YA.1996.a.3558), and Mauri ola : contemporary Polynesian poems in English / edited by Albert Wendt, Reina Whaitiri & Robert Sullivan (BL shelfmark DRT ELD.DS.322430).

*Feingakotone is a place in the Kingdom of Tonga 

Lucy Rowland (Curator, Oceania Published Collections post-1850)

 

Yucatec Maya (Mexico) 

 

Image of the poet Briceida Cuevas Cob speaking at a book event in 2018
Mexican poet, Briceida Cuevas Cob. Photograph by Benjamín Anaya / Secretaría de Cultura CDMX. 2018. Creative Commons https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Briceida Cuevas Cob is a well-published poet and cultural promoter in her native Yucatan, South-Mexico. The poem below is from the verse collection U yok’ol auat pek’ ti kuxtal pek’ / El quejido del perro en su existencia [The growl of the dog in its existence]. In her collection, she captures the violence and harshness of Mayan existence through the violence suffered by these abandoned stray dogs.  
 
Four poems from this collection were published in Latin American Literature Today, May 2018: Translated by Arthur Dixon. Here is one of them: 
 

VI 

¿Máax ku tich’ik chuchul uaj yétel u xdzik k’ab, 
u dzókole, 
ku jósik u xnoj k’ab u tial u jadz? 

Pek ta p’atik a yúmil, 
Pek ta chíik a yúmil, 
Pek’ a yama a yúmil: 
majant a uak’ti uínik, 
tiólal u choj xan u k’a u chí, 
ka u ch’ul luum, 
ka u pak’, je bix teché, u náatil kuxtal. 
Majant a uich ti uínik, 

tiólal u pákat yétel a k’om ólal. 
Majant a nej ti uínik 
tiólal u bik’ibik’tik, yétel a kímak ólal. 
kun alak ti: KS, KS, KS; 
tiólal u tákik ichil u yok yétel a sútal, 
kun alak ti: B’J, B’J, B’J. 
Majant a ti uínik, 
tiólal u yusnítik utz yan chen tu k’ab chichán pal. 
Jálibe, 
majant a dzaay uínik, 
tiólal u chíik u túkul. 

 

VI 

Who is he who holds out the stale tortilla with his left hand 
and then 
raises his right hand to strike? 

Dog, don’t you abandon your owner, 
dog, don’t you bite your lord, 
dog, you love your master: 
lend your tongue to the man, 
so the drool drips down him too, 
so it wets the earth, 
and sows, like you, the understanding of existence. 
Lend your eyes to the man, 
so he sees with your sadness. 
Lend your tail to the man, 
so he wags it with joy 
when they call him: KS, KS, KS; 
so he tucks it between his legs with your shame 
when they tell him: B’J, B’J, B’J; 
lend him your nose 
so he sniffs the goodness that only exists in the hands of a child. 
Lastly, 
lend him your teeth 
so he bites his own conscience. 

I have chosen this poem, because I remember stray dogs as a striking feature during my first visit to Mexico as an intern at UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) after finishing my MA. An older Austrian colleague with a proper job adopted a stray dog, when a group of us came home from a weekend trip. Looking back, this must have seemed a foolish act to many local people. Yet, we were a group of young and idealistic Mexicans and foreigners and this act of kindness towards the stray dog is stuck in my mind. 

When I read Briceida Cuevas Cob’s dog poems, I think back to the many mangy dogs on dusty roads I saw in Mexico and our friend’s little act of defiance in taking one of them in. I like how Cueva Cob in her poem binds together mundane experiences of ubiquitous violence with deep philosophical questions about life. And I like the rhythm of the poem in the English translation by Arthur Dixon. In the Maya original, which I cannot read, I enjoy looking at the distribution of letters on the page, strange and beautiful to me, unlike the spelling of any other language I can read. There are so many ‘k’ and ‘u’. It looks mysterious to me and makes me want to hear the poem recited in Yucatec Maya. 

If you feel the same, you can hear another poem by Cuevas Cob set to music by contemporary Mexican composer Hilda Paredes, who lives in London. Our library has the music score of two pieces composed to Cuevas Cob’s work.  One is called Codex of Enigmas/ Códice de Adivinancas [Scores at BL Music Collections g.1465.v.(2.)] and is a piece for solo viola and a speaker reciting the poem written in Maya language . You can find a video of a performance in France on the composer’s webpage.

Or if you prefer a different tune, check out the video from Tihorappers Crew, from Tihosuco, Quintana Roo (also in the Yucatec peninsula). It starts in Maya language and then switches between Spanish and Maya. Even if you don’t know Spanish or Maya, I think you’ll be able to hear the difference between the two languages and can enjoy the beat.  

Iris Bachmann, Curator of Latin American Published Collections (post 1850) 

 

Further reading:

General

Chris McCabe (ed.), Poems from the Edge of Extinction (London, 2019), [BL shelfmark: ELD.DS.463137] 

Read more about the Endangered Poetry Project here

Tongan

Helu, 'I. F. (2006). Ko e heilala tangitangi ʿo Sālote Pilolevu : Ko e tohi vete ʿo e fatu ʿa e kau Punake Tonga ʿo tuku he tumuʿakiʹ ʿe he ngaahi maaʿimoa ʿa e Taʿahine Kuini Sālote Tupou III : ʿoku fokotuʿu mo fakatoputapuʿi atu ʿa e kiʿi tohi ni (dedicate) kia Pilinisesi Sālote. Nukualofa, Tonga: ʿAtenisi Press. Shelfmark YF.2010.a.28034 


Helu, 'I. F., P., & Janman, P. (2012). On Tongan poetry. Warkworth, Auckland, N.Z.: Atuanui Press. Shelfmark YD.2019.a.4936 


Otsuka, Y. (2007). Making a Case for Tongan as an Endangered Language. The Contemporary Pacific, vol. 19, no. 2, 2007, pp. 446–473. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23724904.  


Smith, K. and 'Otunuku, M. (2015). Heliaki: transforming literacy in Tonga through metaphor. The SoJo Journal: Educational Foundations and Social Justice Education 1 (1), pp. 99-112.Cardiff University, http://orca.cf.ac.uk/id/eprint/86002  


Wood-Ellem, E. (2004). Songs & poems of Queen Sālote / translated by Melenaite Taumoefolau ; edited by Elizabeth Wood-Ellem ; with essays by HRH Princess Nanasipauʻu Tukuʻaho ... [et al.]. Nukuʻalofa: Vavaʻu Press. Shelfmark YD.2009.b.1963 

 

Yucatec Maya

Briceida Cuevas Cob, Poetry by Briceida Cuevas Cob, Poetry without Borders, 2005, Nov issue, Accessed 22 April 2020:


Briceida Cuevas Cob, ‘Two poems by Briceida Cuevas Cob’, World Literature Today., 2010, 84(1), 16-17. [BL shelfmark: 9356.558600]  


Paul Worley, ‘On translating indigenous languages’, Asymptote, June 7, 2018. Accessed on 22 April 2020:
 

21 April 2020

Bernard and Mary Berenson at Villa I Tatti

On the first days of the lockdown, while making peace with the idea of being forced home by an enemy I couldn’t even see, confined in my cosy flat, and comforted by the pleasure of reading, I started leafing through my art books. I recalled those days, whose exquisiteness I was never enough aware at the time, when I had to lock myself in my room to prepare for my art history exams, back in the good old days of literary leisure as a university student.

 

Image of the painting The Compleat Angler by Arthur Hughes (1832-1915). The painting depicts a young woman lying on a meadow on the shore of a river, and dedicated to her readings
How I reimagine myself back in the good old days of literary leisure as university student. The Compleat Angler, Arthur Hugughes (1832-1915) Photo sourced by flickr uploaded by Amber Tree ©All rights reserved.

 

Among the very strict iconographic parameters, and names, and dates, and gallery details to be remembered by heart, there were those curious anecdotes that pleasantly livened up the monotony of the study routine. Today, I have certainly lost the pedantry of remembering the details but the anecdotes, I surely remember those, and so I recalled the story of Bernard and Mary Berenson.

I remember the story of how Bernard had been inspired to read more extensively the books of his library due to the confinement of a long period of isolation in his house, Villa I Tatti in Florence, and the story of his wife Mary. Ghost writer, art historian, suffragette, feminist and poet, and member of the Bloomsbury Group, together with her daughter Karin Stephen who had married Virginia Woolf’s brother, the story of Mary Berenson, has always fascinated me.

 

Black and white photographic portrait of Bernard and Mary Berenson at Friday’s Hill, Fernhurst, England. Around 1901. The photo shows the couple leaning on a low wall while looking at each other in a contemplative attitude
Bernard and Mary Berenson at Friday’s Hill, Fernhurst, England. Unknown photographer, 1901. Courtesy of the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Biblioteca Berenson, I Tatti -The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, Bernard and Mary Berenson papers, Photographs. Hollis No. olvwork178672.

 

Born Mary Withall Smith, from a couple of Quaker preachers from Pennsylvania, she was an art historian, and has been reassessed as an important author in her own right rather simply a ghost writer.

In 1885, after marrying the Scots-Irish barrister and political reformer, Frank Costelloe, Mary moved to England. Together with her parents, who had moved with her, she became very much involved in the social and intellectual life of the country, often hosting poets and philosophers such as Walt Whitman, with whom Mary was connected through mutual feelings of friendship and esteem for life1.

 

Black and white portrait of Maria wearing an elegant dress with fur trims, sitting on a chair, facing forward and holding her papers
Mary Berenson (née Smith) by unknown photographer. Albumen print on card, 1885. NPG Ax 160646. Sourced via ©National Portrait Gallery.

 

Mary had studied at the Harvard Annex, later Radcliffe College, a women’s liberal arts college and female counterpart to Harvard College, very well known for being the host of the late 19th century intellectual, art-inspired, and independent-minded female students2. Her personal inclination towards the arts, politics and culture were clearly stimulated in the Harvard intellectual environment. Supported by her feminist mother, Mary became involved in the women's movements in the United States and later in England, publishing articles and making speeches on feminism, suffrage and women in politics.

 

Black and white portrait of Mary on her horse Anticellere at Smith College in 1883
Mary Berenson (née Smith) on her horse Anticellere at Smith College by unknown photographer. Bromide copy print, 1883.NPG Ax160580. Sourced via ©National Portrait Gallery.

 

Not long after the marriage, probably displeased with it, and feeling constrained by the weight of the social convention, she abandoned the life of a devoted spouse and loving mother to return to her latent interests in art and design, and pursue a career in the arts. Focusing on art research, Mary rapidly became an art authority with a prolific output of journal articles, and particularly after the publication of a pamphlet, in 1894, on the history of the Italian paintings at Hampton Court, a work strongly influenced by the presence in her life of her mentor Bernard Berenson, whom she met in 18903.

The common passion for the Italian Renaissance art, and the several journeys to the continent and in particular to Italy, where Mary studied art under Bernard’s tutorage, made the couple fall in love with each other. By that time, Mary was energetically committed to work on Bernard’s projects and his public image, contributing to his essays, and writing reviews promoting his publications, and eventually moving to Florence to Bernard’s estate Villa I Tatti.

“… she played a major role in the writing of the Venetian Painters of The Renaissance, which listed Bernard as the sole author due to the social delicacy of their association … she published less as she devoted more of her energy to supporting Bernard's work (Mary Berenson)”4.

With such an established and undisputed calibre of art scholarship, it will not be difficult to imagine how the role of Mary in Bernard's works has been widely re-evaluated in the latest years. It appears now, that her hand in Bernard’s writing production and fame, is unquestionable.

***

Colour photograph of the terrace garden at Villa I Tatti, Florence, taken in 1925 by Frances Benjamin Johnson (1864-1952)
Villa I Tatti, Ponte a Mensola, Settignano, Florence. Frances Benjamin Johnson (1864-1952) photographer. Photo taken sometimes in 1925, from the album “Gardening in colour”, The Library of Congress, prints & Photographs Division. Sourced via flickr.

 

During WWII, Bernard Berenson, a Jewish American, and one of the most influential art critics of his time, was forced to live as refugee in his own house, Villa I Tatti, a beautiful countryside estate in Settignano, Florence, for around one year.

“With the war upon him, B. B. faced a terrifying future. In time of crisis some people go to church, some take to drink, others simply run away. B. B. turned to his library … His library is his fortress and is filled with the smoke of the battle raging outside"*.

In 1942, confined to an indefinite period of isolation when it was not safe to be a Jewish-American living in the Italian peninsula, protected by the American ambassador in Italy and by the people of the town, he challenged himself to a more extensive reading of his library, believing this would help him to stop from thinking too much about the war and all its consequences.

 

Screenshot image of the title page of Bernard Berenson’s book One year’s reading for fun (1942), published in New York by Alfred A. Knopf in 1960
*From the introduction to One year’s reading for fun (1942) by John Walker. (New York, Knopf, 1960), pages ix and xi. Screen shot image of title page.

 

In 1959, when the University of Harvard inherited the Berensons’ library, the whole nucleus consisted of more than 50,000 volumes, a collection of works mainly about Mediterranean art and culture, but including also a rich collection of works on Oriental art and archaeology, and of around 170,000 photographs. Mary and Bernard had put together this treasure in Villa I Tatti from 1907 onwards, when the estate was purchased, probably starting from combining their own private collections. In addition to a room which served as a proper library space, the collections had grown rapidly and consistently so that other eleven rooms were added to the main space in the following years.

 

Black and white portrait of Bernard Berenson in his study at Villa I Tatti surrounded by a few his books
Bernard Berenson in his study at I Tatti. Unknown photographer, winter 1948-1949. Courtesy of the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Biblioteca Berenson, I Tatti -The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, Bernard and Mary Berenson papers, Photographs. Hollis No. olvwork631213

 

Berenson collated the notes from his reading of his library in a work that was posthumously published in New York in 1960 by Arnold A. Kpnof, and edited by John Walker, director of the National Gallery of Art and Berenson’s pupil.

And you? What about your quarantine reading? What lively quotations have you come across?

 

Bibliography and suggested reading:

Oakley, Maroussia, The book and periodical illustrations of Arthur Hughes: 'a spark of genius' 1832-1915, Pinner, Middlesex: Private Libraries Association, [2016] (shelfmark: YC.2018.b.2604).

1 Of Walt Whitman Mary said: “You cannot really understand America without Walt Whitman, without Leaves of Grass ... He has expressed that civilization, 'up to date,' as he would say, and no student of the philosophy of history can do without him”, see Reynolds, David. S., Walt Whitman: a cultural biography, New York: Knopf, 1995, page 4 (shelfmark 95/35007). Check the British Library digitised Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1867), and see also the eBLJ article on Walt Whitman by Dorian Hayes who discusses the poet’s virtues and the iconic first edition (1855) of Leaves of Grass held at the British Library (shelfmark: C.58.g.4.).

2 About Radcliffe College and its role as female college see: Kendall, Elaine, Peculiar institutions: an informal history of the Seven Sister colleges, New York: Putnam, 1976 (shelfmark: X:809/28730, or 76/23169).

3 Logan, Mary, Guide to the Italian Pictures at Hampton Court: with Short Studies of the Artists (The Kyrle Pamphlets; no. 2), London, 1894 (shelfmark: 07813.aa.7.). Mary Berenson wrote the pamphlet under the pseudonym of Mary Logan.

4 In 1984, the publication of Venetian Painters of The Renaissance, established Bernard Berenson’s reputation as an art historian of undisputed international fame, a book largely written by Mary. Check the British Library copy The Venetian painters of the Renaissance, with an index to their works, New York and London: G. P. Putnam's Sons [third edition], (shelfmark: 7858.r.37.). On the case of Mary’s role in Bernard’s publications see: Barbara Strachey and Samuels Jayne, Mary Berenson: a self-portrait from her letters & diaries, London: Hamilton, 1985 (shelfmark: X.958/31629).

Berenson, Bernard, One year’s reading for fun (1942), London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1960 (shelfmark: 11878.gg.36).

Rocke, Michael, The Biblioteca Berenson at Villa I Tatti, in Art Libraries Journal, vol. 33, no. 1, 2008, 5-9 (shelfmark: 1733.461500)

Weaver, William, A legacy of excellence: the story of Villa I Tatti, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997 (shelfmark: YC.2001.b.988)

 

[Blog post by Annalisa Ricciardi, Cataloguer, American Collection. American and Australasian Studies]