Plough Monday

Plough Monday falls on the first Monday after the twelfth night of Christmas, which is also the night of the Epiphany. It marks the beginning of the English agricultural year and when ploughmen traditionally returned to the fields to prepare the Spring crops.
Still celebrated in some parts of the the north and east of England, the tradition is to trail a plough around local houses to collect money to pay for a community feast. If the person or household is unwilling to contribute then the assembled ploughmen and ploughboys, usually in fancy dress and blackened or reddened faces, would turn their doorstep over with the plough or cut a deep furrow in front of their door.
The celebration of Plough Monday dates back to the fifteenth century, and it may have grown from an older, pagan tradition marking the beginning of Spring (though there is only slight evidence). While the specifics of each celebration may differ, it is the exchange of money which crops up again and again. It is thought that the money taken in by plough teams would help maintain a ‘plough light’ in the local church, but after the Reformation this tradition fell off and the money began to be used for festivities instead.
What is interesting about Plough Monday is how a fairly odd tradition was so prevalent across Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and East Anglia but is rare in the rest of the country. Peter Millington has an interesting discussion of various hypotheses on his website, including whether it was an imported Danish tradition, was established as part of Danish Law or was connected with the establishment of the Archbishophric of York in the eleventh century. Whatever its origin, it is a delightful slice of English rural life and you can find out if there is an event near you here.

Plough Monday in Ramsey includes a Straw Bear too!

Plough Monday in Whittlesea. Cambridgeshire, includes a Straw Bear too!

New acquisition supported by the Art Fund


The Museum of English Rural Life has acquired 6 engravings for the collection, by print-maker Stanley Anderson RA (1884-1966). The acquisition was supported with the help of the Art Fund. We were the successful recipients of an Art Fund grant, enabling us to purchase the artworks at auction in December 2015.

The Museum acquired a number of prints from Anderson’s ‘English Country Crafts’ series: The Thatcher 1944, The Rake Makers 1948, The Sadler 1946 and The Basket-Maker 1942. As well as two further prints: Eventide 1937 and Windswept Corn 1938. These new additions complement the existing holdings of Anderson’s work in the Museum collection (Making the Gate 1934, Three Good Friends 1950, Good Companions 1951 and Sheep Dipping 1934).



Stanley Anderson, The Sadler, 1934. © The Estate of Stanley Anderson. All rights reserved. DACS 2015


Anderson’s career

Royal Academician, Stanley Anderson, was an English painter and print-maker. He is best known for his prints featuring workers and craftspeople of traditional farming and handiwork practices, of which the English Country Crafts series (1933-1953) is most prominent. Arguably somewhat marginalised, Anderson’s printmaking career spanned nearly half a century and he is now attributed as being a key figure in the modern revival of line engraving.

Engraving involves the incision of a line (a design, lettering or image etc.) onto a hard, flat surface. This forms an intaglio printing plate. The printing plate is covered in ink; the incised lines hold the ink. Paper is placed over the plate and compressed by a heavy roller. The compression transfers the ink from the plate to the paper, producing a print. Multiple prints can be produced, making multiple editions.

Between 1909-1963 Anderson exhibited 183 works at the Royal Academy, he was the sole representative of British engraving and dry-point at the Venice Biennale in 1938, and was later awarded a CBE in 1951 in recognition of his contribution to the arts.

Anderson began his career in 1884 as an apprentice to his father who was a trade engraver in Bristol. Over the course of a seven-year apprenticeship he studied ornamental and armorial engraving, working on domestic wares. With a desire to move to London, Anderson won a scholarship for engraving from the British Institution. This funded his studies at the Royal Academy of Art where he studied under Sir Frank Short RA, an advocate of a Whistlerian tonal aesthetic. His early career was defined for the most part by cityscapes but, after the interruption of war, Anderson took a commission from a commercial printer to produce – in large editions – prints of landscapes, historic buildings and landmarks.

There is a growing appreciation of Anderson’s work. Last year, the Royal Academy produced an exhibition of his work ‘An Abiding Standard: the prints of Stanley Anderson RA’ and the associated publication of a comprehensive catalogue raisonné. A number of Anderson’s self-portraits can be seen in The National Portrait Gallery, together with an extensive collection of his work at the Ashmolean Museum.


Stanely Anderson, The Thatcher, 1944. © The Estate of Stanley Anderson. All rights reserved. DACS 2015


English Country Crafts

The English Country Crafts series may be seen to memorialise ways of English life – that were thought by many at that time – to be in danger of vanishing.  Although his prints may convey a sense of nostalgia, we can say that Anderson was not yearning for the past. Instead, he was very much concerned with the present. His work represents a response to the myriad changes and mechanisations in society that he observed and so carefully documented. The English Country Crafts series, together with similar representations of farming, animal husbandry and traditional skills, depicted a range of subjects. His work demonstrates acute observations of an individual’s mannerisms, particularities and physical characteristics. Anderson captured many manual tasks that are now largely performed by machinery. He consciously recorded, and commented on, a disappearing and ageing workforce with striking detail.



Stanley Anderson, Eventide, 1937. © The Estate of Stanley Anderson. All rights reserved. DACS 2015


Oxfordshire subjects

Later moving to a studio in Thame, Oxfordshire, Anderson knew and befriended many of the subjects featured in the English Country Crafts series. Anderson’s subjects lived and worked across Southern England, including Buckinghamshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Hampshire and Dorset. This local geographic connection gives the artworks great significance for the Museum, being based in neighbouring Berkshire. Visual representations of country life such as these have become a core part of what MERL seeks to collect.


Stanley Anderson, Making the Gate, 1934. Object number: 83/21. © The Estate of Stanley Anderson. All rights reserved. DACS 2015

Stanley Anderson, Making the Gate, 1934. Object number: 83/21. © The Estate of Stanley Anderson. All rights reserved. DACS 2015


Making the Gate depicts Thame-based farrier and blacksmith, Rupert Timms. On the back wall of his workshop, the designs for a gate can be seen pinned to the wall. Anderson himself designed this gate. This was in recognition of the diminishing demand for the blacksmith’s craft and in Anderson’s active promotion and diversification of alternative and sustainable blacksmithing skills. This print, as with others, is indicative of Anderson’s close affinities with, and appreciation of, manual workers and their craft.


Stanley Anderson, Windswept Corn, 1938. © The Estate of Stanley Anderson. All rights reserved. DACS 2015

Stanley Anderson, Windswept Corn, 1938. © The Estate of Stanley Anderson. All rights reserved. DACS 2015


Significance to the Museum

MERL’s interest in Anderson’s work is long standing. The Museum first exhibited Anderson’s work in 1958 in a temporary exhibition, ‘The Craftsmen and his Tools’. The Museum loaned 25 engravings directly from Anderson, which included 5 of the 6 engravings that we later successfully acquired through the support of the Art Fund. In the exhibition, these engravings were displayed alongside loaned craft tools from the R.A. Salaman Collection. The loan included objects such as a farriers’ tongs, a basket maker’s bodkins and a chair maker’s breast bib.

Anderson’s prints are robust in their reflection of the scope of traditional craft objects that we now hold in the Museum’s collection. They successfully illuminate and contextualise the objects and their use. The value of Anderson’s representations in facilitating our understanding of rural life and craft is described in the accompanying exhibiting guide. :

“The engraving [of The Cooper] provided an almost complete guide to the trade. If you look carefully you will find truss hoop, heading knife, jointer, cresset, adze, chiv, downright, stoup-plane, auger, rushes for caulking, dowelling brace, bick iron, hoop-driver, and heading-swift” (Salaman, 1958 p3).

Front cover of exhibition guide 'The Craftsmen and His Tools'. D MERL C5754.

Front cover of exhibition guide ‘The Craftsmen and His Tools’. D MERL C5754.


Unique stories

We can identify and uniquely interpret the stories of the crafts people represented in Anderson’s work through our artefactual collections.


Stanley Anderson, The Basket Maker, 1942. © The Estate of Stanley Anderson. All rights reserved. DACS 2015.

Stanley Anderson, The Basket Maker, 1942. © The Estate of Stanley Anderson. All rights reserved. DACS 2015.


Thame-based basket maker William Youens Fleet is shown at his board making a half-bushel basket in The Basket-Maker, 1942.  It is thought that Fleet was almost certainly related to the Maltby family who monopolised the chair seating industry in nearby High Wycombe, a centre of chair making. The Museum holds examples of Maltby-made seats and basketry.

Basketwork chair. Object number 68/459.

Basketwork chair. Object number 68/459.


This basketwork chair seat is an example of the craft of willow chair seating. It was made by Leslie Maltby, it is made of willow skein on an ash frame with an under weave of chair cane.

Basketwork willow bird cage. Object number 64/159.

Basketwork willow bird cage. Object number 64/159.


This basketwork willow bird cage was made by Leslie Maltby. It is round with a spire top and a door at the side, and would once have had a small platform outside the cage on which turf was placed to hold worms for food.


Stanley Anderson, The Rake Makers, 1948. © The Estate of Stanley Anderson. All rights reserved. DACS 2015

Stanley Anderson, The Rake Makers, 1948. © The Estate of Stanley Anderson. All rights reserved. DACS 2015


The rake makers firm depicted in The Rake Makers, 1948 is that of Ernest Sims of Pamber End, Hampshire. The Museum holds a number of rakes, rake parts, handles, and tools purchased from Sims.

Rake. Object number: 53/93/1_2.

Rake. Object number: 53/93/1_2.


This rake was made in the workshop at Pamber End on the 22nd April 1953; it is only half-made, so that the stages of manufacture are clearly seen.  The rake is in two sections: the handle and the rake head.


Rake heads. Object number: 83/2/1_10.

Rake heads. Object number: 83/2/1_10.


Ten unfinished hay rake heads with holes drilled but no tines inserted. They are made of willow. They were purchased from Ernest Sims.



We plan to display several of the newly acquired engravings in the Museum’s permanent galleries, due to open later in 2016 as part of the Our Country Lives redevelopment programme. However, the engravings can also be consulted by appointment. Please contact Art Collections Officer Jacqueline Winston-Silk for further details


Art Fund

We would like to thank the Art Fund, the national fundraising charity for art, for their support in helping to purchase the artworks. This marks the first occasion on which the Museum has received an Art Fund grant. We would also like to acknowledge their support in enabling us to devise a bidding strategy that ensured our success at auction.


Explore Your Archive: Interview with Guy Baxter, University Archivist

Whitney, our marketing volunteer, has been continuing her exploration of the world of archives in an interview with University Archivist, Guy Baxter…


Guy image interview

  1. What is your job title and what do you do within the museum?

I’m the University archivist. I’m responsible for the University’s archive collections. Most of the archives I look after are the ones the University has collected but I also have responsibility for University’s own records that are of historical importance. The high profile archives we have are the archives of the Museum of English Rural Life, the archive of British Publishing and Printing and the Samuel Beckett archive

  1. What skills have you learnt within the world of archiving?

To be an archivist you need to have enthusiasm for history. You often have to deal with complex information in a way that has long term outcomes. In order to achieve that you must learn how to deal with people; sometimes people facing delicate circumstances in the context of bereavement, going into residential care or becoming redundant.

  1. Did you study a degree relevant to what you are doing at the moment?

I did history as my undergraduate degree and I did a one year taught master’s professional qualification in archive administration. There aren’t many archive courses but to get into a museum you need to have large blocks of experience, so after your degree you generally do a year’s graduate trainee type experience which is something we support here.

  1. Has your job role changed since you started?

I think my role has broadened.  You end up involved in lots of different things when you work somewhere like MERL where it’s a small team. You have to be able to cover for each other. I now spend a lot of doing things like facilitating relationships between different stakeholders and supporting academics, or negotiating how we make archives available.

  1. What type of jobs and projects do you manage or oversee?

Some are externally funded projects and some are in-house projects. There might be digitisation, cataloguing or outreach projects. We’ve got short terms and long term projects, like our relationship with the Landscape Institute which I oversee which is a cataloguing and engagement project they’re funding. So it’s very varied. At the moment a lot of our focus is on the new Museum of English Rural Life galleries

  1. Have you had to branch outside of archiving and adapt yourself to other museum roles throughout your career?

Yes. In my previous role I was the Archivist as well as the Conservation Manager across collections. At one point I was managing the Loans Officer which means I had to understand that whole process. You need to understand elements of lots of different roles which makes for a varied career but obviously it’s a big challenge.

  1. Does it help to understand the bigger picture of your work and the organization as a whole?

The University needs us to be keyed into lots of things that are going on. We can’t just do what we want we need to think about the University’s priorities. We therefore have to be broad in the kind of things we support. That’s one of the great things about working here.

  1. What has kept you passionate and curious about museum work?

What I really love is making links between things that people haven’t thought of before and being able to see those pathways and occasionally even make new discoveries. You need to want to create order out of chaos and you have to get a certain amount of innate satisfaction from that to keep the drive going. The end result is that people discover new things they didn’t know which they can put into their essays.

  1. What is the most important quality you look for in an archivist?

You need a good level of attention to detail and accuracy. You need to be able to prioritize. I always look for people who have good professional instincts. Archive work is tricky if you overthink it because although we have to base decisions on some evidence, we don’t always know what the future research value of something will be. So we have to make informed guesses about what’s important and what’s a footnote. You need to have a passion for the stories that would come out of our past.

  1. Whats the most exciting part of your job?

I always really like teaching especially when the students give me something back or they’ve discovered something new. I find that really amazing. I like it when we make progress on things that have been waiting for a long time. For instance, we’ve had an archive on loan for about 40years which has finally been granted to the University.

  1. Do you have any projects or ongoing work youre doing at the moment?

A lot of our work is going into the relaunch of new galleries and on the Landscape Institute archive with the initial stages for the funding now coming to an end. We are also engaged in a lot of academic projects.

  1. What advice would you give to students hoping to become archivists or work in a museum?

Get work experience! I know it’s hard to volunteering work or an internship when you need paid work. I would suggest just getting good blocks of experience as well. You can pick up a flavour of somewhere from a short stay but you really need to be in every day to get an idea of what the place and the job is really like.


#merlshopisopen : Christmas!

The Museum might be closed, but we’re not missing out on a bit of Christmas cheer in the MERL shop! Find out more about some exciting new ranges and future plans…

Christmas is upon us! But here in the MERL shop, we’ve been ready for Christmas since early November. Out came the decorations, the beautiful Christmas cards and our special Christmas knitted sheep, perfect for hanging on the tree. This year we’re trying to make shopping easier, with specially selected gifts that make the perfect present and items that are great stocking fillers. With our wrapping paper and gift tags, you can get all you need for Christmas right here!

Shop Christmas sheep

The famous MERL sheep in her Christmas jumper

As a museum shop, we pride ourselves on being different from the high street chains and sourcing local products whenever we can. Our gifts are not only themed to fit our museum and archives, but also quirky and original. Our Suzy T range is exclusive to MERL and we also have a selection of gifts based on the Huntley and Palmers archive.

H&P shop3

Even though the museum galleries are currently closed, the shop is still open, 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. With the museum developing, our shop will develop too. We’ve got plans for a larger shop area and have been expanding our stock, finding some great new gifts. We now have an even wider range of cards with beautiful designs, great for every occasion.

Shop Farmers Daughter

A tea towel in the Farmer’s Daughter range

Two new ranges we are selling are A Farmer’s Daughter, which has a lovely selection of kitchen items including place mats and tea towels, and Hanna products which use the beautiful images from the Country Fair magazines held at MERL.

Shop Hanna sheep tin

Sweet tin in the Hanna Country Fair range

We still have a large range of books, handmade pottery and locally produced chutneys, honey and fudge, so there is something for everyone.

With more space and stock, our shop will get even better whilst still maintaining the qualities that make us unique.

Rural Reads Review

Common_groundThis October we read Common Ground by Rob Cowen; it was different from our usual rural reads and offered a fresh perspective. Common Ground  is a fusion of biopic and nature writing, expertly woven together to take the reader through a piece of land that we all have experience and knowledge of; those edge lands just outside your village, town or city.

With a move to a new town in Yorkshire, his employment in jeopardy and a baby on the way, Cowen finds solace in the outskirts of the town. This is a half-forgotten place where nature breathes, survives and thrives.  Cowen takes the reader to this outer remit and casts a light. Each chapter is themed around an inhabitant of this environment, which we as a group really enjoyed and thought worked well.

Whether the chapter was discussing the hare, kestrel or owl, they were interwoven with biographical elements or (what we assumed) fictional stories that resonate with the land. I personally enjoyed the chapter about the owl, interweaving the owl’s masterful hearing with the first ultra sound of his unborn baby.

Cowen’s writing is often beautiful, his descriptions of kestrels had me moving with them. Even if you aren’t very knowledgeable about owls, hares or kestrels, Cowen’s evocative writing richly brings them alive and provides you with snippets of information.

As a group we thoroughly enjoyed Common Ground.  Many of the readers found it a perfect bedtime read. It has spurred us on to read similar books in the future, but to also think about our own relationship with our ‘common ground’.

Reading Common Ground has encouraged me to walk out of Reading and into the ‘no man’s land’ that is tucked between the M4 and the town. I’ve walked through meadows I had no idea existed, I’ve come across wildlife that I wouldn’t expect to see. I also realised how unused and at times unkempt the perimeter is; but for the wildlife this is a blessing, allowing wildflowers and fungi to thrive, alongside insects, mammals and fish.

For our next meeting on Thursday 26th November we’re reading The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson.

Volunteers’ Voice: day trippers

One of the ways we recognise the efforts of our volunteers each year is to organise a special day out. A couple of weeks ago the team went on a trip to Wales (unsurprisingly, since our Welsh colleagues, Rob Davies, Volunteer Coordinator and Rhiannon Watkinson, will never miss an opportunity to head down the M4!)

This year we took our volunteers to St Fagans National History Museum, just outside Cardiff, in order to explore hundreds of years of Welsh history. Another reason for choosing to visit St Fagans is that, like us, they are going through a major HLF redevelopment and we thought it would be a great chance to see another museum that is on the same journey as MERL.

Volunteer group shot

We headed off nice and early and there was an audible cheer from the almost exclusively Welsh staff members as we crossed over the Severn Bridge! After a slight hiccup with a large coach and a small lane we arrived at St Fagans to be met by Gareth the Senior Curator for Rural Economy. We were extremely lucky to be given a behind-the-scenes tour of one of the museum’s stores by Gareth; taking in amazing furniture such as Eisteddfod chairs, Welsh dressers, and some very impressive harps. Unsurprisingly, the volunteers were very excited about the collection of tools and agricultural equipment in the store; flails, shepherd’s crooks and even a candle making stick all went down a treat with our group and we enjoyed being able to compare St Fagans impressive hoard of tools to our own at MERL.

Next for the group came a well-deserved lunch and bit of free time where some of us explored the wonderful Rhyd-y-Car Ironworkers’ Houses which show what home life was like in Merthyr Tydfil from 1805 to 1985. Seeing the gradual change in the houses was absolutely fascinating; moving from the dark interiors of the early homes to the bright pastel décor of one of the 20th Century properties. We were also very taken with an authentic outside loo!

St Fagans Scenery 5

After lunch one of Gareth’s colleagues, Daffyd, showed us an aspect of the redevelopment which was hugely exciting: Llys Rhosyr, one of the courts of the Princes of Gwynedd. This court is currently in the process of construction but from the site you could get a real sense of the large scale of the project. Daffyd told us of the plans they have for the new structure as a place where school children can stay overnight and our volunteers have already decided a trip to stay in the court of a Welsh Prince is a must for a future volunteer trip!

Finally we went to see St Teilo’s Church which was originally erected in stages from around 1100 to 1520 and moved stone by stone to St Fagans over a 20 year period. There were gasps as we entered the church and saw the beautiful paintings that adorn every wall of the building. It was also particularly special as earlier in the day during our visit to the store we saw some of the original wall art which had been removed from the church and is now being conserved. It was a real spectacle and didn’t fail to impress a single one of our group.

St Teilo's Church

We all had a fantastic day and can’t recommend St Fagans highly enough. It is so important for all of us at MERL to show how much we appreciate our volunteers and as museums are a shared passion for both volunteers and staff what better way than a trip to one to say thank you.

Consuming the fat cows

Livestock portraiture depicting prize animals – cattle, oxen, pigs and sheep – began to appear in the mid-eighteenth century. We derive much historical value from these commissioned paintings through their collective recording of the process of English livestock improvement. It was a period in which livestock was being altered from medieval to modern purposes. In a time of rapid population increase, these adaptations were designed for one end: the production of meat to cater for the “the growing demands of the urban tables of Britain” (Trow-Smith, 1957).

We consumed not only the meat. New developments in the history of printmaking – such as mezzotints, aquatints and lithographs – emerged contemporaneously with the period of agricultural reform. A surge in the interest of scientific approaches to breeding, and the “mania for improvement” (Walton, 1984), meant enthused audiences readily consumed the reproductions as fashionable prints to be hung on walls.



Jacqueline our Art Collections Officer and Hillary our Post-Graduate Researcher working in the collection storeroom. Showing framed print 64/96, the ‘North Devon Ox’. Photo by Dr Martha Fleming, Collections Based Research Programme Director.


New ideas on the farm

Methods of livestock improvements included the shortening of the period between birth and maturity for meat-producing animals.  Flesh was redistributed upon the most edible parts of the body, and the weight of the animal carcass was increased. Farmers developed a number of pioneering ways to achieve these adaptations. The in-breeding and line-breeding of cattle allowed the most desirable qualities to be selected, and fixed, by mating within a single breed. Out-crossing cattle allowed for new qualities to be sought across various breeds, and fixed in one new breed by mating. The latter could also include the import and use of animals from overseas on British stock.


MERL accession number 64/100


This is a hand-coloured aquatint entitled ‘A Shropshire Pig’. It was designed by W. Gwynn, engraved by W. Wright, and published in 1795 by W. Gwynn of Ludlow, Shropshire. The pig depicted was owned by Sir Charles William Rouse Boughton of Downton Hall, near Ludlow.

Existing animals were diminutive when compared to the improved livestock bred after the mid-18th century. The growth was “rapid and wonderful, like their evolution into distinctive breeds” (Walker’s Monthly, 1936).


Livestock Portraiture

Livestock portraiture developed out of the tradition of sporting painting. Sporting pictures reflect a passion for field sports and country life. Under the patronage of gentleman, paintings depicted scenes of hunts and races, with portraits of greyhounds and horses. Examples of these prints and watercolours adorn the walls of a sitting room at Canterbury Quadrangle.


George Payne, Interior of a Sitting Room, Canterbury Quadrangle, Christchurch, Oxford. Mid-eighteenth century. Private Collection



MERL accession number 53/382


Agricultural enthusiasts followed suit and commissioned painters to record their favourite and prize winning animals. Paintings were prepared at the expense and upon the instruction of gentleman breeders for whom pedigree breeding was a fashionable hobby.  The portraits, most often of a specific animal, were executed in side view and often included the individual animal’s name, pedigree and physical description. Over-fed animals were represented because of their high meat or milk yields. The animal’s physical appearance, corpulence and lineaments were captured by the painter.

Artists were often itinerant sign painters; a law passed in 1763 limited the number of shop-signs on London streets meaning craftsmen were looking for work. However, some painters were able to earn a handsome living from the patronage of their breeders.

Artists were often encouraged to over-emphasise the effects of improved breeding. In a 1964 catalogue of the livestock painting collection held at MERL, the author notes that the commissioner “paid for exactly what he held in his eye as the most desirable features … they were to be figured monstrously fat before the owners of them could be pleased” (Jewell, 1964).



MERL accession number 64/44.


This is a formal portrait, painted by Thomas Weaver of Shrewsbury in 1831. It is worth remembering that considerable licence was practiced – and expected – from the painter and engraver. Likewise, the preoccupation with fashionable breeds means the paintings are not always representative of the range of British cattle and sheep.



William Henry Davis is considered to be one of the most prolific artists. Already a reputable sporting painter, Davis responded to the demand for livestock portraiture by utilising lithography and publishing within his practice. Farmers’ Magazine, the agricultural journal, commissioned Davis to record winning animals at agricultural shows. This association lasted for almost 30 years and resulted in over 160 livestock paintings being reproduced in the publication.



MERL accession number 64/96


This is a print from a lithograph of a painting, entitled ‘Portrait of T. W. Coke and North Devon Ox’, c.1837. The ox was bred at Holkham in Norfolk and was considered to be the perfect specimen. Short-horn cattle feature most prominently in Davis’ work, but he also painted sheep and pigs. Davis’ prints declared he was ‘animal painter to Her Majesty’; however this was a self-styled title. This nomination was not uncommon and would be used by proxy if a painting had been purchased by a member of the Royal Family.


Consumption of images

With the establishment of agricultural societies, innovations in breeding received impetus by circulating new ideas in journals like Farmers’ Magazine. Publishing images of livestock portraiture in animal husbandry books was an ideal way of disseminating new practices to farmers, many of whom were illiterate. Early breeders were therefore not only “involved in improving their own livestock but conscious of the need to disseminate their ideas and advertise their practice” (Ayrton, 1982).

As agricultural societies spread and as methods of transport improved, animal shows were organised. This was an opportunity to bring together, in fierce competition, breeders and their stock. Prizes meant enhanced reputations. The subsequent demand for livestock portraiture to capture these decorated animals was high. The most remarkable beasts travelled as popular exhibitions and profitable wonders. Prints were sold as tickets or as souvenirs of the spectacle. The paintings and prints functioned both as advertisements for animals available to stud, but also to “reinforce their owner’s amour propre’” (Melly, 1982).



MERL accession number 64/40


This is a painting of ‘The Champion Shorthorn’, showing the shorthorn cow, a man and dog, with a landscape background.  It was painted and signed by William Smith of Chichester in 1856.  The Champion Shorthorn won 1st prize at the Chichester Cattle Show in 1856.

Portraits therefore up-held and reinforced the success of the improved breeds. “Breed was nothing more than an ingenious marketing and publicity mechanism. Certain identifiable physical characteristics were imprinted in animals of a particular strain, and prospective purchasers were then encouraged to associate those markers with some attribute or attributes of productivity… the success of a breed depended to some extent on the visual impact of the chosen marker or trade mark” (Walton, 1986).

Testament to their visual impact, the consumption of prints flourished. Producing prints to be hung on walls was an entirely new venture which emerged at the end of the eighteenth century.



MERL accession number 64/82


This is a print from an engraving of an original painting, ‘The Durham Ox’, by J. Boultbee in 1802.  It was engraved by J. Whessell of Oxford and was published by John Day in 1802. Over 2000 copies of this print were sold within the year.

Etchings, mezzotints, aquatints and lithographic prints are represented in the MERL collection. To satisfy commercial requirements, many prints are coloured by hand to replicate the original artworks.



MERL accession number 64/81


This is a coloured aquatint print of an original drawing by B. Taylor c.1819. The engraving was by Stadler. It is a formal animal portrait of a shorthorn bull, with a landscape in the background showing a bridge, Durham cathedral and woodland.

Operating in a time before photography, the artworks also became an important means of advertising. Manufacturers of animal food adopted the livestock portraiture aesthetic to foster early graphic sales promotions.



MERL accession number 64/72

64_72 detail

Detail of 64/72


This is a tinted lithograph print from an original painting, ‘Berkshire Pigs’, by A. M. Gauci, of Tottenham Court Road, Camden, in 1868. The inscription on the print reads ‘Berkshire pigs fed on food seasoned with Thorley’s condiment’.  The pigs won 1st prize at the Smithfield Club Show in 1867.


Collection and Research 

The collection of livestock portraiture at MERL consists of both paintings and prints; it can be viewed by appointment. Queries relating to the collection can be forwarded to the Art Collections Officer Jacqueline Winston-Silk

We are also pleased to welcome Hillary Matthews, a post graduate researcher, who has just begun working with the collection. Having previously studied agriculture, Hillary has just completed an MA in art history and intends to employ both of these disciplines within her PhD research, as she seeks to understand why many of these animals were represented in such an idealised way.  Hillary will also look at their impact within their local rural communities as well as how they were received by the larger British public in general.

Hillary and Jacqueline consulted paintings in the collection storeroom after Hillary completed an intensive course in Collections Based Research last week, as part of her University of Reading doctoral studies. The work produced will further enrich our understanding of livestock portraiture in the MERL collection.



Jacqueline our Art Collections Officer and Hillary our post-graduate researcher working in the collection storeroom. Showing framed print 64/40, ‘The Champion Shorthorn’. Photo by Dr Martha Fleming, Collections Based Research Programme Director.



Museums, archives and GIFs: a fine line between fun and foolishness?

Written by Adam Koszary, Project Officer for Our Country Lives.

GIFs have seen an explosion in popularity over the past few years, taking advantage of a more browsable internet and a multitude of social media platforms. As more and more museums, galleries and libraries have been communicating with GIFs online, it’s no surprise that it has been chosen as a Culture Themes hashtag on Twitter today.

If you don’t know what the Graphic Interchange Format (GIF) is, it is essentially a type of image that can be both static or animated. They play automatically in your browser and usually loop so that they play infinitely. They’ve become very popular on sites such as Reddit and Tumblr as a means of communicating, most commonly through ‘reaction gifs’. The downside of GIFs is that there is no sound and the animations tend to be short (although people have managed to fit the entire Star Wars saga into a single GIF..). Yet, they are a breath of fresh air for what is still a surprisingly static internet.

This GIF is a simple animation of the rain on the rooftops of our Grade II-listed building. Its original purpose was to warn Reading Festival goers of the poor weather, but has been picked up by Tumblr users for its atmospheric feel.

This GIF is a simple animation of the rain on the rooftops of our Grade II-listed building. Its original purpose was to warn Reading Festival goers of the poor weather, but has been picked up by Tumblr users for its atmospheric feel.

We have adopted GIFs as a form of communication because we believe museums, libraries and galleries should be relevant. To communicate with new generations of visitors we have to speak in their language, and those who have grown up in the digital world are as comfortable communicating with emojis and GIFs as they are in simple text.

This GIF combines an attempt at humour and our own collections, which in this case is a plate from the 1796 Ichthyologie, ou, Histoire naturelle des poissons. A person saying ‘huehuehue’ is a common trope/meme of internet humour, but has little connection to the illustration.

This GIF combines an attempt at humour and our own collections, which in this case is a plate from the 1796 Ichthyologie, ou, Histoire naturelle des poissons. A person saying ‘huehuehue’ is a common trope/meme of internet humour, but has little connection to the illustration.

We know that the narratives, lives and themes bound up in our collections are supremely relevant to all: young or old, town or gown. In 2015, however, not everyone can visit our museums and collections in person, sequestered as our buildings are are on university campuses. To convince prospective audiences that we are worth their time and interest we had to go to where they live: the internet.

This GIF was part of a series celebrating the 200th birthday of Robert Hooke, the author of Micrographia. Hooke discovered cells using a microscope he designed himself, and the GIF above shows how it was used with a close-up of cells found in cork.   

This GIF was part of a series celebrating the 200th birthday of Robert Hooke, the author of Micrographia. Hooke discovered cells using a microscope he designed himself, and the GIF above shows how it was used with a close-up of cells found in cork.

This is why the University of Reading’s other museums and collections are on Tumblr, a micro-blogging site with a diverse but very often young audience that relies heavily on GIFs. We were inspired by institutions such as the Smithsonian Libraries, who bring static images to life through quirky but illuminating animation.

This GIF was a way of tracking the progress of MERL’s redevelopment, showing the removal of wagons which have been suspended above visitors’ heads for over ten years. A simple insight into our behind-the-scenes work but one we thought was more effective than a photograph.

This GIF was a way of tracking the progress of MERL’s redevelopment, showing the removal of wagons which have been suspended above visitors’ heads for over ten years. A simple insight into our behind-the-scenes work but one we thought was more effective than a photograph.

And, as you can see from the images in this blog-post, our own GIFs vary in their quality, relevance, impact and purpose. As museum professionals we are used to reviewing the point of what we do so that we can justify ourselves to our funders and to the public, and we already feel that we’re treading a fine line between frivolity and respect for the collections. There is nothing in our Mission Statement about making funny GIFs.

But can a University museum afford to ignore a model of communication used by its student body? Is it okay to use GIFs with no obvious educational value if it strengthens the image and reputation of a museum with younger audiences? And what are the ethical implications of subjecting our collections to digital manipulation? We already started this discussion after last year’s #ArchiveSelfie Day, when we photoshopped smartphones into archival photographs. After much thinking we decided that our photographs are off-limits for manipulation because they feature real people who may still be in living memory, but out-of-copyright illustrations are okay on a case-by-case basis. If you have an opinion, please let us know by commenting on this blog or tweeting @MERLReading or @UniRdg_SpecColl .

Rip Roaring Reading Room News: Full opening from Monday 28 September 2015

Our Reading Room

Our Reading Room

Great news everyone! We have extended our Reading Room opening hours. Up until now, although you have been able to visit our wonderful Reading Room Monday-Friday, 9-5, we have operated a restricted service on a Monday. This meant that, on a Monday, we opened later (10am) and we were unable to retrieve material from our store.

But we are delighted to say that from (and including) Monday 28 September – our Reading Room will be ready for your visit and fully accessible, open and with staff making trips to the store to retrieve material throughout the day:

Every Monday to Friday – 9am to 5pm!

Retrievals take place until 4.15pm, and we collect all closed access material in at 4.45pm.

(Allowing for a brief hiatus in retrievals from the store while our Reading Room staff take a hard earned lunch break between 1-2pm)

Our Reading Room

Our Reading Room

So why not pay us a visit?  You can find more information on using our Reading Room here.  If you have any queries or would like to order up material in advance, you can contact us at

Discovering the Landscape #19: From New York’s High Line to London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park (MERL and LI joint annual lecture on 22 October by James Corner)

Written by Claire Wooldridge, Project Senior Library Assistant: Landscape Institute

James Corner's New York High Line

James Corner’s New York High Line

We are delighted to announce that cutting edge Landscape architect James Corner – renowned for designing New York’s much loved High Line and the South Park Plaza of London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park – will deliver a lecture here at MERL on Thursday 22 October, as a joint MERL and Landscape Institute Annual Lecture.

Named by TIME Magazine as one of the ‘Top Ten Designers in the World’, James Corner is now working on several high-visibility urban projects around the world, such as San Francisco’s Presidio Parklands and London’s Battersea Power Plant Development.

The unrivalled library and archive of the Landscape Institute are currently being made available at the Museum of English Rural Life.

Here are the details, we look forward to seeing you for this exciting joint venture:

  • Thursday 22 October
  • 7.30pm (Doors open at 7pm)
  • Great Hall, London Road campus
  • Free admission
  • Booking required as places are limited
  • To book, please email or call 0118 378 8660

Members of the Landscape Institute only: Follow this link to book your tickets for the Lecture and AGM

Image credit: High Line project © Iwan Baan