Words and Pictures: Letters in Modern Art and Fiction

Words and Pictures: Letters in Modern Art and Fiction

12.30-4.30pm, 19 June, The John Rylands Library

Please join us from 12.30 pm for a symposium on visual elements in letters at the John Rylands Library on Deansgate. The introduction and collection encounter will start at 1.30 pm. Speakers include Bruce Wilkinson (Research Associate, John Rylands Research Institute), Dr Sophie Baldock (Early Career Research Fellow, John Rylands Research Institute and Teaching Fellow, Harlaxton College), and Dr Luke Skrebowski (Lecturer in Contemporary Art, University of Manchester). For more information, see the abstracts below. To sign up, please visit our Eventbrite page.

Programme outline

12.30–1.30 – lunch
1.30–1.45 – introduction
1.45–2.30 – collection encounter with Jessica Smith, Creative Arts Archivist
2.30–3 – paper + Q&A: Bruce Wilkinson, ‘Global Tapestry: Postal Images of Poetry & Counterculture’
3–3.20 – break
3.20–4.20 – papers + Q&A: Sophie Baldock, ‘Miniature Portraits in the Letters of Elizabeth Bishop of Robert Lowell’; Luke Skrebowski, ‘Reading Martha Rosler’s Postcard Novels’
4.20–4.30 – closing remarks

The event is free but places are limited, so please remember to book your place via our Eventbrite page.

The collection encounter and papers will be in the Christie Room; lunch and refreshments will be in the adjoining Education Room.

The event will be catered vegetarian. Please contact Oscar (oscar.seip[@]manchester.ac.uk) with any other dietary requirements.


Global Tapestry: Postal Images of Poetry & Counterculture
Bruce Wilkinson, Research Associate, John Rylands Research Institute

From the early 1960s Tina Morris and Dave Cunliffe ran BB Books small press publishing poetry pamphlets and magazines alongside radical literature. Networking globally with avant-garde writers and artists their correspondence contains artwork and photographs evoking the turbulence of the period. Through the Dave Cunliffe Archive we will explore how the postal system both facilitated experimental transmissions and brought the downfall of their Poetmeat magazine.

Miniature Portraits in the Letters of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell
Dr Sophie Baldock, Early Career Research Fellow, John Rylands Research Institute and Teaching Fellow, Harlaxton College

This paper will examine parallels between the exchange of miniature portraits in late eighteenth-century letters and the exchange of photographs and keepsakes in the twentieth-century correspondence of American poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Drawing on art-historical and literary-critical accounts of the practice of exchanging miniature portraits in letters, the paper will build on arguments that portraits go hand-in-hand with the genre of letter writing. I argue that previous criticism of the Bishop-Lowell correspondence has not yet adequately explored their epistolary discussion and exchange of visual materials. As in the case of their eighteenth and nineteenth-century predecessors, for Bishop and Lowell, letter writing frequently involved a literal and metaphorical exchange of portraits. The paper will analyse the exchange of photographs, as well as an antique miniature cameo sent by Lowell to Bishop, which illustrate and complement the letters and poems they accompany.

Reading Martha Rosler’s Postcard Novels
Dr Luke Skrebowski, Lecturer in Contemporary Art, University of Manchester
In 1978 Martha Rosler published an anthology of short, self-described “food” novels entitled Service: A Trilogy on Colonization. The anthology comprises three, related works: A Budding Gourmet (1973) about a housewife pursuing gourmet cooking; McTowers Maid(1974) about a female fast-food worker and Tijuana Maid (1974) abouta domestic worker in San Diego. Each of these novels had previously circulated in serial form (having been sent out sequentially on individual postcards to a number of the artist’s contacts). While Rosler’s postcard novels have been considered in relationto bookworks, mail art and performance art they have not been discussed substantively as novels. Consequently, they have not been historicised in relation to the specific tradition of the epistolary novel and the genre’s reflection on women’s historical subjectivation in and through the private/domestic sphere. In this paper I make a double reading of Service that considers these works as novels negotiating the epistolary tradition and works of postconceptual art.

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