Medieval Caxton leaf: on display from 10 May

University of Reading Special Collections Librarian, Erika Delbecque, with new Caxton discovery

Our discovery of a unique example of 15th century printed text by English printer William Caxton has led to considerable media interest. As a result, the item will be going on display in the University of Reading’s Special Collections department, within The Museum of English Rural Life, from tomorrow (10 May) and not 9 May as previously stated. The display will run until 30 May.

War Child

The MERL is very excited to announce the publication of War Child, an online ‘mixed-media book’ which explores our Evacuee Archive from a fascinating new angle.  In this visually stunning work, Teresa Murjas, Associate Professor in the Department of Film, Theatre & Television at the University of Reading, and alumnus and film-maker James Rattee have woven together an intricate tapestry of content focusing on the story of how the archive came into being and how it continues to shape the life of its creator, Martin Parsons.

war child2 sm
The inspiration for this unique project came from Teresa’s initial meeting with Martin in 2013 when he was speaking about the Evacuee Archive at a meeting for scholars interested in the University’s Collection Based Research programme:

 I became particularly curious about the Evacuee Archive through my meetings with Martin. His willingness to talk to me lies at the centre of the project. My interest about how the archive came into being was generated in discussion with him. The project attempts to tell a story of the archive’s growth through focusing on a series of edited audio fragments from our dialogue and on imagery that investigates and reflects on a small collection of significant objects. These key elements act as ‘guides’ on a sometimes light-hearted journey of exploration into a few of the possible reasons why this archive exists, and the relationships and attachments associated with it. This is why the title of the project incorporates the phrase ‘meditating on an archive’. It might also be possible to argue that the new material we have collected and drawn together as part of the project is an extension of the archive held at MERL, or perhaps that it creates a new gateway to it.

warchild-boatsmThe British Government scheme to evacuate children from cities during the Second World War began in September 1939. Children, usually without their parents, were sent to areas of Britain that were considered safer from bombing and the effects of war, these were often rural areas.  Our collection contains written memoirs, oral history interviews and research material relating to former evacuees and war-children.

In his career as a historian of Second World War child evacuation and lecturer at the University of Reading, Martin accumulated a wealth of research materials and documents which he generously donated to the Museum helping to make our Evacuee Archive the largest resource of its kind outside London’s Imperial War Museum.  While ‘War Child’ displays many of these records and artefacts in an accessible and unique format, the real power of the project is combining the materials collected with audio files, which exhibit its creator’s extensive knowledge of the collection and its origins.  As Martin’s daughter, Hannah, explains in an audio clip from ‘Meeting Five’ of War Child, her father is the archive and it is a rare treat for this kind of memory to be captured alongside the physical collection.

Understanding and exploring this aspect of our archive was however, a natural process for the creators of War Child:

A lot of my research and teaching focuses on the work of arts practitioners whose interests lie in communicating the experiences, memories and stories of children affected by war. ‘War war child - masksmchild’ builds on that research and teaching, in that it seeks to both point towards and respond to, what is a very important conflict-related resource for researchers, whatever their age and background – namely the Evacuee Archive. Seeking to understand and explain how war continues to affect children remains an ongoing and urgent necessity. Consulting and contributing to this ever-expanding archive can form part of that process.

When exploring the War Child site, I personally found Martin’s discussion of the evacuee luggage label of particular interest.  Not only does Martin describe how these labels were a symbol of the immense logistical feat achieved during the War, he also emphasises the dehumanising effect they had on the evacuated children.  Significantly, these labels were often kept as prized possessions and have become an evacuee’s own version of a military medal, with people proudly displaying their labels on Remembrance Day for the march past at the cenotaph.  Meanwhile, for Teresa, one of the most interesting artefacts from the collection is actually one that is missing:

 war child- dollsmI am really interested in the section about the doll. Arguably, I got disproportionately excited about the doll in the archive that cannot be found! No one really knows where it has gone, or when it went. Working through our disappointment, but also our, in retrospect, persistent questions about what it was like, what it would be like to find it and so on, could probably be a bit wearing for Martin at times, I think, and he was extremely patient. Nevertheless, those discussions feel very rich and complex now, because there was this strong sense of investigation about them, on everyone’s part. For me, that section feels in some important way as though it is at the centre of the work.

While War Child is a fantastic companion piece to our Evacuee Archive, it is also an illuminating archive in and of itself; a significant chapter of the story, containing records and memories of the experiences of those most closely involved in developing the collection and bringing it to MERL where it can be preserved for and shared with generations to come.

It would be great if people felt motivated to re-visit War Child over time. It contains a lot of material, and coming back to that in stages, as we have, can shed new light.

Written by Louise Cowan, Trainee Liaison Librarian

Discovering the Landscape #13: From garden space to masterplan

Seminar series round up: Written by Claire Wooldridge, Project Senior Library Assistant: Landscape Institute

Our captivating landscape inspired seminar series has drawn to an end.  We’re delighted the series has been so well attended; a testament to the speakers and to the fascinating subject matter.

If you attended any of the talks (or were unable to) and want to find out more, you can get in touch with us by emailing

Highlighted below are a few of the items from our collections which were mentioned in the talks:


Audience for LI seminar

Audience for LI seminar

As part of ‘From garden space to masterplan: the Landscape Institute collections at MERL’ our deputy archivist Caroline Gould

and landscape architect Annabel Downs gave an insightful overview of the history of the Landscape Institute and to the collections here at MERL.

Our Landscape Institute webpages are a really useful starting point for research into our collections and as a source of background information and handlists for specific collections, such as the Brenda Colvin collection, Geoffrey Jellicoe collection and Preben Jakobsen collection (which Karen Fitzsimon used in her talk entitled ‘Rediscovering Preben Jakobsen’.

Our existing MERL archival holdings also hold many treasures to the student of landscape.  Johnathan Brown, in his talk entitled ‘Changing landscapes of farming and estates after the First World War’, used several images from the extensive MERL photographic collection to great effect.  A full listing of our existing MERL archives can be viewed using the MERL archives A-Z.


1000 books cataloguedLibrary:

The library of the Landscape Institute is being integrated into our existing MERL library, further adding to areas of strength within the collection, on subjects such as domestic gardening, land use and the environment and conservation issues.  Reference books within the MERL library are a great place to start research into all things landscape.

We were able to show case our Gertrude Jekyll books in a pop up exhibition following Richard Bisgrove’s talk such as Gardens for Small Country Houses, Colour in the Flower Garden and Home and Garden.

The talk from Giles Pritchard and Barnaby Wheeler entitled ‘Reading Abbey Revealed’ was another perfect opportunity for us to delve into our Special Collections and display some of our rare books relating to Reading Abbey.  We were also to display images from slides from the Moore Piet + Brookes collection relating to their work on the Reading Town Centre Masterplan and pedestrianisation.

The pictures below from Professor Timothy Mowl’s intriguing talk on ‘Pleasure and the Regency Garden’ enabled us to showcase some wonderful books featuring beautiful plates of the gardens at our very own Whiteknights (such as Hofland’s A descriptive account of the mansion and gardens of White-knights).

Pop up exhibition in our Staircase Hall following an LI seminar

Pop up exhibition in our Staircase Hall following an LI seminar

Plate of Whiteknights from Hofland

Plate of Whiteknights from Hofland

As above for more information please contact us on, visit our LI webpages or search our online catalogue.

To continue discovering the landscape, FOLAR (Friends of the Landscape Library and Archive at Reading) are holding a study day on Brenda Colvin (with a talk from Hal Moggridge, our archivists and a pop up exhibition) at MERL on Saturday 21 March.  See here for more information or contact to book.

Weekly What’s On – 25th Nov to Dec 1st

What’s on at MERL this week?


Rural reads book club
Thursday 28th November, 5.30-7pm
Free. (£1.50 for tea & cake)
Drop in and join this informal group discussing books on a rural theme. This month the book we’ll be talking about is Trespass by Rose Tremain. As there is no meeting in December, we have already selected Lorna Doone, by R.D.Blackmore as the topic of our first meeting in 2014, on January 30th.

For details visit the Rural Reads page on our website



magic carpetToddler time
Friday 29th November, 10-11am£2 per child, drop-in
Suitable for families with children aged 2-4
Come along to the Museum with your little ones and enjoy rhymes, songs and craft activities. This week we’ll be using salt dough models using butter stamps and moulds based on items you can see in the Museum.




HP christmas*New* Huntley & Palmers: a Christmas selection
25 Nov 2013- 5 Jan, 2014
Free, drop-in, normal museum opening times
This seasonal display in the Staircase hall of the Palmers’ former family home, shows off some of the visual delights in the University’s extensive archive of local biscuit manufacturer, Huntley & Palmers




Collecting the countryside: 20th century rural cultures
Temporary exhibition space
Free, drop in, normal museum opening times
Since 2008 the Museum of English Rural Life has been adding even more objects to its collection, with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Collecting Cultures programme, in order to represent each decade of the last century. (Find out more in Curator, Isabel Hughes’ recent post) This exhibition gives a taste of what has been acquired and challenges visitors to suggest the modern-day objects that the Museum needs to collect for the future. The exhibition will help the Museum to explore how to incorporate more recent histories and representations of the English countryside into its displays as part of the new Our Country Lives project.


New exhibition: ‘Collecting the countryside: 20th century rural cultures’

The new temporary exhibition at MERL is now open to the public. Collecting the countryside: 20th century rural cultures is largely comprised of objects drawn from the Museum’s recent Collecting Cultures project. This ran from 2008 until earlier this year and involved the Museum’s curatorial team selecting  items that connected in some meaningful way with  the twentieth century countryside or with perceptions of rural life. With the generous support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, many of these things were then purchased for the MERL collection. This exciting departure has enabled the Museum to address new stories previously untold at MERL, as well as to acquire many materials we’re not particularly well known for holding. So, alongside the usual mishmash of smocks, ploughs, and wagons you will now find a rich mixture if advertising materials, posters, rurally-themed toys, and much, much more! You can read more about the wider project here and follow the early stages of the collecting process by accessing the original blog.

The Open Road by H.J. Deverson (MERL 2010/142)

The Open Road by H.J. Deverson (MERL 2010/142)

It was always hoped that the opportunity to acquire new (or perhaps we should say ‘slightly old and largely unfamiliar’) artefacts would lead to fresh avenues in the exploration of our rural past. The book shown here is a perfect case in point. It superseded another text by the same author entitled ‘The Map That Came To Life’ (1948) and both volumes were illustrated by the graphic artist Ronald Lampitt. His striking work also adorned the pages of many Ladybird books and, although largely unrecognised for these extraordinary illustrations, he now has a small but rapidly growing following. Both of the books can be seen on display in the new exhibition. However, what the labels won’t reveal is that MERL has recently opened a dialogue with Lampitt’s grandsons. So, as with these books and very much like the English countryside itself, this exhibition should be read as far more than the sum of its parts. We hope to use the varied collections within it to find new points of departure, innovative approaches, and exciting dialogues through which to champion the people whose powerful ideas and creations have helped to shape the way we come to know and understand the English countryside.


The exhibition will serve to help the Museum explore how best to incorporate more recent histories and ideas about rurality into its displays as part of the new Our Country Lives project. As well as exploring how we interpret and use the countryside, the exhibition asks you as a visitor what you think of the issues and events of the 20th century and how the museum can best act to record and communicate them. Feel free to comment on the blog, or visit the exhibition itself to leave your own opinions!


What would you collect to represent your idea of the English countryside? What do you think the future might hold for rural life in the UK? What would you like to see in a redisplayed MERL?

What’s your favourite?

Jonathan Brown, guest curator of our current exhibition of photography by John Tarlton, asks why we are compelled to pick a favourite. (I (Alison) have chosen mine to illlustrate his post!)

What’s your favourite?

One of the striking things about the exhibition of John Tarlton photographs we have on this summer is how quickly everybody finds a favourite picture. Even before the displays were fully mounted staff and volunteers at MERL were saying ‘I really like the farm bailiff at home’ … or the old wildfowler … or the chaps in the pub …


Fred Digby a cowman/hairdresser cutting hair in a farmyard, Fairstead, Essex (1940s/1950s). Ref: P TAR PH1/3/10/9/209/1

Fred Digby a cowman/hairdresser cutting hair in a farmyard, Fairstead, Essex (1940s/1950s). Ref: P TAR PH1/3/10/9/209/1


So it has continued with visitors to the exhibition. I did a ‘meet the curator ‘ session a couple of week ago and we were at it again, the group and I, picking particular photos that stood out for us.

There’s a warmth to John Tarlton’s photography that draws you in. He over-rides our preconceptions and prejudices. You might not be particularly interested in wildfowling, say, as a subject, but before long you find yourself looking at the photograph and saying, ‘I really like that’, even, perhaps ‘that’s my favourite’.

I’ll be taking another ‘Meet the curator’ tour on Saturday 3 August at 2.30pm. Come along and share a bit of the background to John Tarlton and his photography – choose your favourite, and enjoy tea and cake afterwards! Details are on our website

In the meantime, why not have a look at the Tarlton images on our Pinterest board (sorry the links to our database aren’t working at the moment, but you can still see the pictures) and let us know which one’s your favourite?

Guest post: My year in the Harris Garden by Jenny Halstead

Our first guest post is by Jenny Halstead, whose exhibition, An artist’s year in the Harris Garden opened at MERL last week. Jenny is a local artist who spent a year as Artist in Residence at the University of Reading’s beautiful Harris Garden.  The resulting exhibition showcases the paintings and sketchbook studies which take us through the seasons, moods and development of the Garden over the duration of a year from 2011. The exhibition at MERL is a wonderful example of collaboration between one of Reading’s best-known local artists, the University and the Museum, and is already attracting people with an interest in Jenny’s work and the Garden, but who may never have thought of visiting MERL before. We are delighted that Jenny has agreed to give us an insight here into how the exhibition evolved…

My year in the Harris Garden, by Jenny Halstead.

The exhibition is up … on the newly painted panelling in the Studio at MERL. Seeing one’s work all together and displayed for the first time is always a surprise.

Jenny installing the exhibition in the Studio at MERL

Jenny installing the exhibition in the Studio at MERL

I had planned the arrangement on paper, and hoped it would all fit as well when on the wall…and it did!   I wanted to create the transition and flow of the seasons around the two walls of the room,  starting with the process of people planting in ‘Forward Looking’ then into the cool colours of winter – the snow and the frost giving way to the acid greens of spring, followed by the vivid colours of summer, before drifting into the oranges and earth colours of autumn. During my year as Artist in Residence, I’ve recorded the Harris Garden over the changing months, its development and the people who work in it. This I have done by using  sketchbook studies rather than photographs (although a camera is useful on occasions for extra reference).

Jenny sketching in the Harris Garden

Jenny sketching in the Harris Garden

When I draw, I engage with the subject, the eye observes, the brain absorbs and the hand holding the pen translates. The drawing is a thought-process and adding a tonal wash gives me enough information to make  finished paintings in the studio later.

Most of these sketches are on a continuous loop playing on a monitor as part of the exhibition. The iPad is text–free and encourages the visitor to flick through the images of paintings and, when tapped, to hear my voice describing either the scene or my reasons for choosing to paint it and choosing the medium to be used. It has been fun planning the exhibition, choosing the selection of paintings and sketches to be used in the book An artist’s year in the Harris Garden (published by Two Rivers Press) and writing the accompanying text, with extra input from other invited contributors.

Jenny signing copies of the book at the Private View

Jenny signing copies of the book at the Private View

The year has been a fantastic one and I have so enjoyed all aspects of the project and the process, and hope the visitor enjoys the  exhibition as much as the Garden itself. Jenny

Toddler Time inspired by Jenny's exhibition

Toddler Time inspired by Jenny’s exhibition

For full details of ‘An artist’s year in the Harris Garden’ and related events, including a afternoon sketching workshop in the MERL garden, Jenny’s open studio as part of the Whiteknights Studio Trail, visit the exhibition page on the MERL website. You’ll also be able to meet Jenny at the MERL Village Fete tomorrow, Saturday June 1st…

Ready for the John Tarlton exhibition

written by Jonathan Brown, guest curator. Jonathan Brown had curatorial responsibilty for MERL’s archive and photographic collections for many years. He is now a Hon. MERL  fellow.


John Tarlton is coming. He is almost here. He is the subject of MERL’s summer exhibition, and it has been my privilege to have been involved in its preparation. One of the text banners says I’m ‘guest curator’ or some such, which seems rather grand when it’s really been a collaborative effort involving members of MERL across the spectrum.


Jonathan Brown setting up the case about Tarlton

Jonathan placing photographs in the case which will tell the story of Tarlton himself


Who, then, is John Tarlton? He was (he died in 1980) a photographer. A good one, but not one to win awards from art and photography academies or for his photojournalism. He was a commercial photographer, providing photographs for popular magazines, books, advertising and businesses. He was one of thousands in the same trade. We don’t even know the names of a lot of them, but they perhaps had more effect on daily life than those whose award-winning prints sell for thousands. For these commercial photographers create the popular visual aesthetic to our age, the equivalent, perhaps, to the music that forms the aural background. They are the photographers with whom the amateur can most easily identify.


John Tarlton photographed the British countryside and country people. He worked for magazines, such as Country Life and The Field – that’s why his photographs have ended up in the Museum’s archive collections.


He worked from the late 1940s to the 1970s, and was quite prolific: there are 12,000 photographs in the collection at MERL, and we know of more that didn’t reach us. It made choosing a few for an exhibition a hard task – even after stretching it beyond the confines of the normal temporary exhibition space, so that some are to be found around the main galleries.


I needed to pinpoint a few themes. Some were broad, such as Tarlton’s interest in the country sports of shooting and fishing – there can’t be a trout stream in England he didn’t photograph. Some could be specific: Tarlton was a native of Essex, but, rather than range around the county, I kept to a few photos from his native village. Another decision which helped concentrate the selection was to include only his work in black and white. There were temptations to have some colour, but I resisted.


Tarlton the fisherman

Tarlton was a keen fisherman himself


It’s been a few years since I last prepared an exhibition. Then the layout was planned on graph paper. Now I have a digital camera as well: photographs of the walls on which the exhibition was to hang, felt-tip outlines on the prints, after detailed tape measurements. Not as neat as graph paper, but reasonably clear.


Tarlton exhibition layout plan

Jonathan’s exhibition plan on the wall in the workshop


The exhibition is almost all mounted. It officially opens on 4 May and runs until 8 September. I hope you enjoy it.

Details are available on the MERL website


Mounted prints ready to be hung

The workshop is full of prints and frames at various stages of readiness!

Press Release: Ladybird books – icons of British childhood – under the microscope at MERL

Members of the public are to be given a rare glimpse of original artwork from one of the hidden gems among the University of Reading’s special collections.

The Ladybird Archive, held by the University’s Special Collections Services, contains thousands of individual items, including original artwork and cover designs from hundreds of Ladybird books – perhaps the most iconic series of books for children published in the 20th century.

Now the University’s Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) is hosting a new exhibition that looks at just one of these classic pieces of artwork – exploring not just the artistic, historical and social relevance of the work, but exploring what individual copies of the books tell us about their owners, and about how we can begin to explore the history and impact of this image through artefacts, other children’s books, and by simply looking at and thinking about it.

‘What to Look For? Ladybird, Tunnicliffe, and the hunt for meaning’ opens on Saturday 6th October and runs until April. It will explore different ways of interpreting a single image from the Ladybird book ‘What to Look For in Autumn’, written by E. L. Grant Watson and first published in 1960. The image is a watercolour of a rural scene by celebrated artist Charles Tunnicliffe.

Ollie Douglas, who is curating the exhibition, said: “The University is lucky enough to hold more than 700 boxes of original artwork from these iconic children’s books in the Ladybird Archive – but in this exhibition we’re focusing on just one image.

“We will be exploring how the picture was reproduced, not only in subsequent editions of the book, but also in multiple copies of the same edition. We’ll be looking at the things that it depicts and exploring the words that were written to run alongside it.

“Not only does every book tells its own story – some battered and dog-eared, others marked with inscriptions or scribbles – but every image and page within a book can tell us different things. This exhibition is all about the many different ways that there can be of ‘reading’ books.

“We hope visitors to the exhibition will be left not only with a greater understanding about Ladybird books, the history of their production and publication, and their depictions of rural life, but thinking about what books as objects can say about us.”


For more information or to organise interviews, contact Pete Castle at the University of Reading press office on 0118 378 7391 or

Notes to editors

About the Ladybird Archive: The collection comprises 700 boxes of original artwork, proofs and some documentation from the 1940s to the 1990s, including examples of the work of notable artists such as C.F. Tunnicliffe, Rowland Hilder and Allen Seaby. The collection covers the wide range of subjects Ladybird published, ranging from What to Look for in Spring to Transformers: Laserbeak’s Fury.

Ladybird books were first produced during the First World War by Wills & Hepworth, a jobbing printer. Initially they were simply children’s story books but after the Second World War the firm started to produce educational books which increased sales enormously.  Remarkably, the price stayed the same at 2s 6d from 1945 to 1971, a feat achieved by strict production rules and increasingly large print runs.

About MERL and Special Collections: MERL, the Museum of English Rural Life, is dedicated to the spirit of the English countryside and its people. A national centre for research and information, it explores life and work in the countryside over the last 200 years and includes a collection of more than 22,000 objects and an archive of over a million photographs, films, books and records that reflect the changing face of farming and rural society.

The University of Reading’s Special Collections include substantial and varied collections of rare books, archives and manuscripts. Two of the University’s collections – the Beckett Collection and the combined records of British publishing and printing – have been recognised as being pre-eminent collections of national and international significance.

More information from >>>

Press Release: Celebrating our sporting heritage as Olympic torch arrives

As the crowds gather to welcome the Olympic torch to Reading, the Museum of English Rural life at the University of Reading is reflecting the influence English country heritage has had in world sport – including helping provide the spark for the modern Olympics.

The torch will come to Reading on Tuesday evening (10 July), carried along the A4 London Road between 6.14pm and 6.34pm, before an evening celebration at the Madejski Stadium, where the flame will be kept overnight before continuing its journey around Britain the following morning.

Just yards away from the official route, the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), part of the University of Reading’s London Road campus, will stay open until 9pm on Tuesday to give anyone coming to the area the chance to visit the exhibition Playing Fields: Our Sporting Life in the Countryside. The exhibition, which runs until 16 September and is free of charge, takes a look at the rural sports that changed the world – and one or two that didn’t.

The opening ceremony of the London 2012 Games will feature the British countryside and farmyard animals, acknowledging the importance of rural life in shaping modern Britain. Playing Fields is an opportunity to look back with pride and to enjoy and explore a peculiarly rural, and peculiarly British, take on sport. It also showcases the influence of rural life and rural sport on the Olympic movement. For instance, the Olympic ideal owes much to the market town of Much Wenlock, Shropshire, a quiet English parish in which a local agricultural society promoted the idea of an Olympian Class prior to the re-establishment of the modern Olympics by Pierre de Coubertin in 1896.

With items drawn from the museum’s diverse collections, Playing Fields takes a light-hearted look at major sports like football and cricket, the roots of which lie partly in traditional rural contests. It also sheds light on less familiar but equally fascinating activities, from the thorny challenges of competitive hedging to the little-known ballgame knur and spell.

Guy Baxter, of MERL, said: “We were delighted to discover that Danny Boyle, the director of the Olympic opening ceremony, had singled out the influence of rural life in Britain as the key message of the opening event. MERL is about recording our rural past and helping people to learn about it.

“Rural sports, from cricket on the green to tennis on the lawn, have had a massive influence on our culture, and on the wider world. It’s great that we can celebrate these sports, in Olympic year, with a free exhibition that is both fun and informative, and we’re even more pleased to be able to extend our opening to coincide with the arrival of the Olympic torch to Reading.”

This display forms part of a project co-ordinated by the Heritage Sports Network to showcase the wealth of sporting history in the United Kingdom. This national exhibit explores the huge contributions made by British sportsmen and women over the last century.


For more information about the exhibition, visit or call 0118 378 8660.

For more information for media, contact Pete Castle at the University of Reading press office on 0118 378 7391 or

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Notes to editors:

MERL, part of the University of Reading, draws on and adds to the University’s unique research into agriculture, history and rural practices, and has collections permanently open to the public at the University’s historic and recently refurbished London Road campus.