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Wolfson Centre for Life Writing – Conference 20-22 September 2013

Posted by on September 27, 2013

Notes from the conference organised by the Wolfson Centre for Life Writing, held at Wolfson College, Oxford, 20-22 September.

I was disappointed that the organisers and presenters did not provide synopses of the papers presented, and there are are no plans to publish collectively. However, two of the three plenary lectures, one of the two special lectures, and some of the panel sessions, will appear as edited podcasts in a few weeks time. When they do, I will post a link to you. I think you will find these rewarding, especially Neil McGregor on how “One thing in its time plays many parts”, about the experiences of some British Museum objects; and Edmund de Waal speaking movingly about his research for “The Hare with the Amber Eyes.” Edmund passed round three of the netsuke, which was a wonderful ploy to instantly enrapture the audience. Yes, they did return safely at the end of that session!

Edmund de Waal said "you can't create narrative closure for objects. Biographies of objects don't end."

Edmund de Waal said “you can’t create narrative closure for objects. Biographies of objects don’t end.”

Other talks I found interesting and enjoyable, included Paddy Bullard on “Joseph Moxon and the Poetics of Handycraft”, Rosa Coles on “Jane Carlyle’s decorated folding screen”, and all three speakers at the Textiles Panel Session – Janice Helland on “Queen Mary’s Court Train: Irish Lace and the Last Durbar”; Amy de la Haye on “Cinderellas of the Soil: a Biography of Breeeches”, and Claire Canavan on “Male and Female Textile Work in the Hardwick Hangings.”

Having done research at a National Trust house myself, I was engaged by Rosa Coles account of how she had used Jane Carlyle’s life and letters to unravel the meaning of the images and their juxtaposition, on Carlyle’s room screen, which can be viewed at the Carlyles’ house in Chelsea.

Jane Carlyle's decorated folding screen

Jane Carlyle’s decorated folding screen

Moxon (1627-1700) was a printer, at a time when it was a difficult task to learn about and acquire proficiency in any valuable trade. He was an artisan, not a gentleman or professional. He recognised a need to provide a written description of the history of each craft and its practice, a setting down of recognised standards, and an exploration of the foundation processes that underpin the artisan trades. His “Mechanick Exercises” was published serially from 1677, and provides fascinating insight into into how crafts such as smithing, joinery and bricklaying were practised in the 17th century.

I see that facsimiles of Mozon’s books are available on the internet, and would provide great contextural detail for historical writers.

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