I’ve officially finished my placement with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust!
My time with the SBT came to an end last week after a fantastic six months of strongroom-digging, blog-writing, and research-presenting. (You can read more about the early days of my SBT placement here, and my two ‘Placement Diaries’ posts can be found here and here.)
It’s tricky to summarise the whole experience in a single blog post. Instead, I’ve put together my favourite parts of the placement.
Here are my best bits!
The Search for Ethel Webling
Right back at the start of my placement, I was shown a beautiful, hand-illustrated edition of Julius Caesar down in the Rare Books strongroom. The air of mystery surrounding the item seriously caught my attention. The title page features some tantalising details – the artist was named Ethel Webling, and the book was intended to document Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s 1898 production of the play – but little else was known about the item. Who was Ethel Webling, and what link did the artist have to this well-known production? I made it my mission to find out.
The power of the internet led me to Dorian Greenbaum – Ethel Webling’s great-grand-niece. An enormous collection of letters in Dorian’s possession over in the USA revealed that Ethel was a miniature portrait painter with friends in high places: the artist was well-acquainted with theatre-superstars Tree, Ellen Terry, and Henry Irving, and was able to sit in the wings of the theatre for several nights in a row while painting the onstage action.
Piecing together the various parts of this puzzle was a lot of fun, and it was really great to meet Dorian when she came to visit the Collections in March.
(Here’s a blog post I wrote for Blogging Shakespeare about Ethel Webling’s Julius Caesar, and you can find my YouTube video about the whole story here.)
June brought along a brilliant (and also terrifying) opportunity to give a presentation about my research for the general public.
The SBT has recently begun a series of events titled Research Conversations. On the second Wednesday of each month, a researcher gives a 30-minute talk about what they’ve been working on using the Trust’s Collections. This is followed by another 30 minutes of discussion (which is where the Conversations part of the title comes in!).
Leading the June Research Conversation was a real privilege. It was like headlining my own show. Rather than being one of several speakers in a conference panel, I could go into some real depth when talking about my research findings so far and shout about how awesome stage and costume design is. I think my favourite part of the Research Conversations experience was being able to include items from the SBT Collections in the presentation. Rather than just showing a photograph of the very first illustrated Shakespeare edition, I could hold up the actual book. It’s not very often you get the chance to use original 18th-century documents, original costume designs, or fragile 19th-century theatre scrapbooks as props in a presentation!
Interviewing Ann Curtis
During the final weeks of my placement, I was lucky enough to interview a real-life theatre designer. Ann Curtis designed the costumes for approximately 40 Royal Shakespeare Company productions between 1963 and 1984, and later went on to work with the Stratford Ontario Festival Theatre and many other companies around the world. Several boxes of Ann’s original costume designs are now cared for by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. The designs are beautiful: the majority of the productions were staged in historical dress, and each box contains a sheaf of papers depicting figures in metallic Roman armour, exquisite Elizabethan gowns, or fantastical feathered garments.
Interviewing Ann meant that I was able to find out more about her approach to costume design, which is hugely useful for my research. More importantly, though, I’ve been able to help make a contribution to the SBT Collections. The audio recordings of the interviews will be available to anyone who wants to hear them in the future; details of the context surrounding Ann’s designs will be stored for future generations.
(I’ll be in conversation with Ann Curtis for the December Research Conversation at the SBT. Come along at 5pm on Wednesday 13th December to hear more about Ann’s work!)
Working in the SBT Strongrooms
My research is all about design for Shakespeare. I spend my days reading and writing about how Shakespeare’s plays have been represented visually through time, and I love it. Looking through a stack of intricate, hand-painted costume designs is my idea of heaven. So imagine how heel-clickingly happy I was to be handed the keys to the strongrooms and left to my own devices for hours at a time. I spent many a dreamy afternoon leafing through decades’ worth of original artworks, and also used my time down there to make YouTube videos about some of the most exciting things I came across. I’m seriously going to miss those strongrooms!
There are so many other things I could put in here. Sharing my experience of being a Research Advocate with fellow PhD students at the 2017 Midlands3Cities (the excellent PhD funding body that made this all happen) Research Festival in Leicester, giving a presentation about the collaboration for professional archivists at the 2017 APAC Symposium in Leeds, having my writing published on the Trust’s Blogging Shakespeare site… What a brilliant, jam-packed few months it’s been.
I’m so grateful to have had the chance to work with such a great group of people at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and to get to know the Collections in more depth than I could have imagined. Here’s to the best opportunity my PhD has brought along so far!