Seminar: Pictures and postcards: Images and letters

by | Oct 26, 2018 | Blog, Seminar 18/19 | 0 comments

We are delighted to announce our first seminar of the semester, featuring two twenty minute papers and discussion.

8 November 2018, 5pm – 6.30pm, The Christie Room, The John Rylands Library

Dr Luke Uglow (Art History, Manchester): ‘Drawing letters: Ruskin at the Rylands

Despite being a prolific letter writer, despite being a talented draughtsman, and despite the crucial role images played in his research and teaching, drawings are notable for their rarity in the epistolary archives of John Ruskin (1819-1900). Consequently, when some small but carefully worked sketches do interrupt the flow of hastily written text, they seem especially significant and somehow contain an excess of meaning. This cannot only be for the historian, but surely also for original recipient. Indeed, the examples of Ruskin’s visual letters we do find contained in The John Rylands Library are all addressed to people with whom the critic developed an extended and personal relationship. This paper will focus on just three: a drawing of an alpine peak in October 1845 sent to his friend and literary mentor William Henry Harrison (d. 1874); a sketch of telegraph wires obscuring a Welsh mountain range seen from the train, sent to his benefactor Fanny Talbot (1824-1917) in August 1876; and, an impressionistic vision of the sun above the Kent coast, sent to his god-daughter Constance Oldham in October 1887. Spanning his entire working life, these exceptional letters are rarely treated in scholarship, and yet document moments of pause in which Ruskin gave visual expression to his emotional and intellectual life.

Dr Julia Gillen (Linguistics and English Language, Lancaster): ‘The “letter of the poor?” Investigating writing and images on the Edwardian postcard.’

Studies of letter writing have tended to focus on the practices of literary writers, or members of elite strata of society, although notable studies of vernacular writing are developing, e.g. Sokoll (2001). Edwardian postcard writing is a genre with a specific, distinct relation to letter writing, yet closely entwined with that practice.

Developed in Austria in 1869, the postcard was very quickly adopted across Europe. In cities there were several deliveries a day, so that cards could be experienced as virtually synchronous. In 1896 The Times declared, “Now the postcard is the letter of the poor,” as the possibilities of using images increased. Untrammelled by the etiquette and obligations of formal letter writing, people took to exchanging brief, rapid, multimodal messages with a verve not to be seen again until the digital revolution.

In this paper I explore postcard writing from a Literacy Studies perspective (Barton & Hall, 1999; Gillen, 2018). I combine textual and material analyses with an investigation of historical sources, including census records, to investigate how the postcard was used across social classes in Manchester in the Edwardian age.

The seminar will be followed by an informal dinner. If you would like to attend the dinner, please RSVP to Alice Marples (


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