AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award: The Wrest Circle

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AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award in English: ‘The Wrest Circle: Literary Coteries and their Impact on Landscape Design, 1740-1760.’

This collaborative doctoral award (CDA) will be supervised jointly by Prof Christine Gerrard, of the University of Oxford, and Dr Andrew Hann, Head of the Historians team at English Heritage. English Heritage is a heritage organisation and charity responsible for the care and presentation of 420 sites and monuments across England, ranging from Stonehenge to the York Cold War Bunker, that have been taken into state care since the 1880s.

The Project

This collaborative research project builds on existing research by Prof Gerrard on eighteenth-century literary coteries, and by Dr Hann and colleagues at English Heritage on the development of the gardens at Wrest Park in Bedfordshire. It offers an innovative approach which draws on both literary scholarship and garden history to explore the intersections between country house literary culture and garden design and use in the mid-eighteenth century. It will not only shape academic debate, but also inform the ongoing garden restoration at Wrest Park, and the ways in which mid-eighteenth century gardens are presented to the public.

The focus of the research is Wrest Park, a historic garden of international significance which showcases 250 years of garden history. The project concentrates on the mid-eighteenth century, when Wrest was owned by two young intellectuals, Philip Yorke and his wife Jemima, Marchioness Grey. Under their stewardship Wrest became the meeting place for a coterie of leading poets, writers and intellectuals, including Samuel Richardson, Thomas Edwards, Daniel Wray and Catherine Talbot. Their literary exploits inspired early forays into garden design at Wrest, particularly the creation of the Mithraic Glade with its enigmatic altar and root house. Visitors’ accounts show that the gardens at Wrest were a key stimulus to literary conviviality and imagination.

The Wrest coterie is unusual in that its male and female members seem to have played equal roles. Some of their many literary outputs are preserved in the ‘Green Books’, an as yet unexplored and potentially rich MS resource.  The polymath Thomas Wright of Durham tutored all the women in the coterie, sharing with them his interests in literature, classical civilisations, the Druids, and gardening.  Wright’s preoccupation with pansophia or Universal Knowledge, positing a harmonious bridge between the worlds of Man and Nature, deeply influenced his garden designs.

The project will draw on the many collected writings, published and unpublished, of the literary coterie centred on Wrest Park, including the letters and poetry of Thomas Edwards (Bodleian Library), the correspondence of Philip Yorke (BL) and Jemima, Marchioness Grey (Bedford and Luton Archives), and the letters and writings of Samuel Richardson and Daniel Wray, plus the papers of Thomas Wright, tutor to Jemima and a number of other members of the coterie. Set against this literary backdrop will be the substantial research on the gardens at Wrest undertaken by English Heritage in recent years, much of it unpublished, drawing on evidence from letters, accounts, plans and visual sources.

This research will strengthen the interdisciplinary work on eighteenth-century literary and visual culture which is fast becoming a key feature of recent Oxford English Faculty outputs in this period. Examples are collaborative projects with Stowe, and the highly successful Ashmolean-based Mellon teaching fellowships which have used visual and aesthetic media to transform the way students work in the period connecting prints, garden designs, statuary and architecture. Oxford is also currently a centre for research on literary coteries and manuscript culture. This project not only offers a superb opportunity for a talented graduate student to undertake ground-breaking original research with richly unexplored original material, but it will be a pilot project for further collaborations between English Heritage and the University of Oxford.

The studentship will also support the 20-year programme of garden restoration at Wrest Park which was started in 2007.  The next phase of this restoration focuses on parts of the woodland Great Garden which were developed in the mid-eighteenth century at the time the literary coterie at Wrest was at its most active. To support the restoration of this part of the garden there will be a programme of survey work and research, of which this PhD would form an important part.  

 

Nature and Scope of the DPhil

This project offers a new model for bringing together heritage and academic expertise, to speak to a range of audiences. It will provoke debate about the role of literature and sociability in garden design. It has the potential to open up new avenues for understanding historic gardens and explaining them to the public using literary sources. The research also presents an opportunity to reconnect historic gardens across the country, through the literary and social networks that provided conduits for ideas about landscape aesthetics and garden design. Whilst the precise area of study will depend on the individual research student, it will address some of the following research questions:

1. Literature: What can be said about the literary tastes of the coterie? Can specific genres and literary forms be identified? To what extent did literature contribute to group cohesion and provide members with common attitudes and values? Did these differ from those held by other sections of the elite, both locally and nationally? Can we present a coherent literary narrative of the Wrest Park coterie to visitors today?

2. Design How did the scribal culture centred on Wrest Park translate into garden design, both at Wrest and beyond? Hann and Gerrard’s preliminary research indicates that the circle’s ideas are mirrored in the mid-century pre-romantic native British aesthetic of Joseph Warton’s poem ‘The Enthusiast: Or the Lover of Nature’ (1744). Can we discern direct associations between the coteries literary outputs and the garden features they designed or commissioned? Were some members of the coterie particularly influential? How important was the background and schooling of the different coterie members? What are the implications of these literary associations for how we present such eighteenth century gardens to garden visitors today?

3. Networks Can we plot the spread of a particular design aesthetic through the social networks spreading outwards from the Wrest coterie circle, and Thomas Wright’s former pupils. How widespread, both spatially and socially were these networks? Do the gardens designed by coterie members have common design motifs, and are these distinctive from those outside the Yorke’s social circle? How were designs ideas transmitted – through sociability, the patronage of particular garden designers, or through a shared set of aesthetic values?

The methodology will involve the analysis of the written outputs of the coterie, both published and unpublished, including poetry, literary works, diaries and letters, which can be used to explore the activities, values and motivations of the group and individuals within it, and to trace their involvement in gardening and garden design. Alongside this the student will have access to published and unpublished research on the gardens at Wrest Park produced by or for English Heritage, and digital data on the site held within the Wrest Park web-GIS portal. They will be encouraged to explore not just Wrest, but also other gardens associated with the coterie, and to engage with the physical evidence in these gardens as well as archival and literary sources.

The student will also be encouraged to share their academic research through public engagement. Their research will support the ongoing garden restoration at Wrest Park, and they will have an opportunity to contribute directly to on-site and digital interpretation during a 3-month placement at English Heritage. During the placement they will be provided with desk space either at Wrest Park or English Heritage’s London headquarters at Wood Street.  There are also opportunities to share the research findings with a wider audience through conference and seminarrs, including at TORCH.

 

Supervision arrangements

The student will be jointly supervised by Prof Christine Gerrard, Oxford, and Dr Andrew Hann, English Heritage, with additional input from other members of the Curatorial Department at English Heritage. The supervisory team will meet monthly during term and vacation time to discuss progress and identify any problems and opportunities. Before the beginning of the first term in year 1, the student will meet with both supervisors to discuss the parameters of this CDA and the approach to supervision and work.

In Oxford, the student will have access to the Bodleian Libraries, with their superb specialist collections.  The Humanities Division, and the English Faculty offer extensive research and teaching training programmes, taking students through from research methods, to job interviews, public engagement, and applying for research grants.   The student will be encouraged to take courses throughout their period of study.   Oxford offers a wealth of relevant research seminar series which run throughout the year, in addition to numerous interdisciplinary series, and conferences.  The student will be encouraged to take advantage of these academic offerings, but also to gain professional training through working with the supervisors in various public engagement activities. There will also be opportunities for specialist training at English Heritage, where appropriate, and the student will have access to the Historic England Archive in Swindon, and to English Heritage’s archival and digital resources.

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