The Arts of Peace : Two Rivers Press poetry readings at MERL

MERL and local publisher Two Rivers Press brought together twenty-one local poets (collectively known as a ‘rhyme of poets’ perhaps?!) on the evening of Monday 28 July to launch the publication of the new Two Rivers Press book, The Arts of Peace: An Anthology of Poems, edited by Adrian Blamires and Peter Robinson.


Front cover of ‘The Arts of Peace’ anthology

Forty-five people came to enjoy a glass of wine and an evening of poetry at the Poetry in the Garden event, now in its sixth year, in which each of the poets read one of their poems from the anthology. The evening was hosted by Adrian Blamires, one of the editors of the anthology, and the poets included Claire Dyer, Peter Robinson, A F Harrold, Ian House, Gill Learner, Derek Beaven, Susan Utting, Vahni Capildeo and Lesley Saunders.

This was a different arrangement from our usual ‘four poets’ format but the variety of styles blended well together, united by the themes of peace and war and, in a number of cases, drawing on family stories, wartime experiences and personal memories. As one visitor said, it was such a privilege to hear poets reading their own work.

As rain was forecast for the late afternoon at one stage, Poetry in the Garden became Poetry in the Museum but the introductory area of the museum with spot-lit stage area and dramatic screen backdrop provided an intimate yet professional-looking performance space for the readings.

Poetry evening 2014

The poet Adrian Blamires gives an introduction to the anthology

Many thanks to Two Rivers Press and to all the poets for a very enjoyable evening!

The making of an exhibition: Max Weber

Professor Anna Gruetzner Robins (Department of Art, University of Reading) has been instrumental in building the current exhibition at London’s Ben Uri Gallery on the cubist painter Max Weber. The exhibition, which is on until 5 October, includes paintings and rare books from our collections.

Portrait of Max Weber from Alvin Langdon Coburn's Men of Mark (1913) (Coburn Collection)

Portrait of Max Weber from Alvin Langdon Coburn’s Men of Mark (1913) (Coburn Collection)

The making of Max Weber: An American Cubist in Paris and London 1905–15, currently on at the Ben Uri Gallery in London, took place over several years. The exhibition focuses on a collection of Weber  pictures  left to the University in 1966 by the photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn, who also features. I was unaware of their existence until a few years ago. I knew little about Weber but I remembered that his name cropped up in books I had read about the Bloomsbury Group, and  I could see that the pictures were of good quality. After reading Coburn’s letters to Weber, I realised that they represented some of Weber’s best early work, and that they had a great historic value for British Modernism. Many of them were in a 1913 exhibition organised by the critic and painter Roger Fry, and Coburn subsequently made his Hammersmith photographic studio a showcase for the entire collection. 

I  decided to plan an exhibition which would tell the story of the collection, and I approached Sarah MacDougall , the Eva Frankfurther Research and Curatorial Fellow for the Study of Émigré Artists and Head of Collections  at Ben Uri. Sarah is a Reading graduate  and well known for her work on Mark Gertler and other British Modernists. Sarah came to see the collection with David Glasser, the Director of the Gallery. David was a great fan of Weber, who is very well known in America where his work is in all the major museum collections.

Weber's the Dancers

Max Weber, The Dancers (1912). Pastel and chalk. University of Reading Art Collection

We decided to make the exhibition in three sections: 1) the formative years Weber spent in Paris, where he persuaded Matisse to set up a teaching studio and got to know Henri Rousseau and Picasso; 2) Weber’s friendship with Coburn; 3) Fry’s 1913 First Grafton Group Show. To do this we needed to borrow pictures from America for the first section, and also comparative works by  British artists that had been shown alongside the 11 Webers in Fry’s show. The last task was problematic because  while Fry identified the exhibits by Weber and Kandinsky, he chose not to indicate which picture was by which British artist, all of whom were nameless in the catalogue. It was only by reading reviews of Fry’s show that I identified some of the British works. We borrowed them from the Ashmolean, the Courtauld Galleries, the Government Art Collection, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Tate, the Victoria and Albert Museum and several private collectors. The exhibition and accompanying book also include photographs taken by Alvin Langdon Coburn of Weber, his contemporaries and his art from the University of Reading Special Collections.

The book that accompanies the exhibition  makes a lasting contribution to Weber scholarship. My essay explains the exhibition history of  the University of Reading Webers, but with so many stories to tell we decided to bring in a team of international art experts including Weber scholar Dr Percy North, Dr Nancy Ireson, who researched Weber and Paris, Coburn expert Pamela Roberts and Lionel Kelly, who the professor responsible for the paintings coming to the University.

Max Weber's Cubist Poems (1914) (Elkin Matthew Collection)

Max Weber’s Cubist Poems (1914) (Elkin Matthews Collection)

The day finally came when we stood in Ben Uri watching large crates of pictures from as far away as New York being unpacked and hung by a technical team trained to place pictures safely on the wall. Sarah and I had worked out where we wanted to place the pictures and the accompanying explanatory texts  beforehand. Everyone was delighted with the installation. The exhibition looks superb, and the 250 people who attended the private view seemed to agree. I urge you to go and see it.

Max Weber: An American Cubist in Paris and London 1905–1915
Ben Uri Gallery
108a Boundary Road , off Abbey Road, NW8 ORH
Tuesday–Friday 10am–5.30pm; Sunday 12 noon–4pm

The accompanying book, Max Weber: An American Cubist in Paris and London 1905–1915, is available for sale in the gallery, and is distributed by Lund Humphries.

Rugby, cricket and sports – oh my!


WG Grace, one of England’s ‘cricket greats’

Today marks the anniversary of the birth (1848) of WG Grace, one of the world’s great cricketers. It has been a good month (or two months!) for English sport. 1 July saw the anniversary of the 1812 death of WW Ellis, who is often credited with the invention (of sorts) of the game of rugby – and of course we’ve all been swept away by the World Cup, the Tour de France and the upcoming Commonwealth Games.

This photograph, taken by Eric Guy during the late 1930s, shows a cricket match in progress. A group of villagers follow the score from the edge of the pitch (MERL P DX289 PH1/4393)

This photograph, taken by Eric Guy during the late 1930s, shows a cricket match in progress. A group of villagers follow the score from the edge of the pitch (MERL P DX289 PH1/4393)

There’s a wealth of sporting related material in our special collections (and in the MERL collections). From boy’s annuals to books on country life, sporting graces the covers and the pages of many of our best collections – there are even cricket books in our Beckett Collection! It is the Children’s Collection that really shines here, however, and a morning’s browse through the stacks turned up a few gems.


The history and uptake of rugby, cricket and many other sports in Britain is closely linked to children’s sports, and – like today – many of the children’s magazines and annuals were full of teams stats, match info and tips. Cricket featured early and often in children’s publications. Cricket’s origins date to the 16th century (at least!); in our collections, you first see cricket in books like the 1857 Book of Sports for Boys and Girls; the 1800s saw renewed excitement for cricket  following the establishment of county clubs, an international team (the All-England Elevens) and the debut of WG Grace, pictured above. Cricket doesn’t fade from fashion though, and we have modern children’s guides like the Ladybird Story of Cricket (1964).


The Boy’s Own Annual, v. 48 (1926)

Rugby is a less common feature in our collections; though Webb Ellis’s apocryphal run is attributed to 1823, the sport grew more slowly before the ‘great schism’ and the formation of the Football Association in 1863. It begins to appear in children’s publications more and more in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – quite probably as it featured more and more in public school sporting life. Images of ‘healthy and hale’ young lads playing rugby were a common feature on Boy’s Own covers and spines, and fictional stories dealt with sporting competition and friendships.


Cricket and rugby are by no means the only sports featured in the Children’s Collection; from golf to hopscotch, indoor games to football, the collection is a great way to explore the history of children’s games and sport – from what was considered appropriate for 19th-century little girls to play to which 1920s sporting figures caught the attention of Boy’s Own readers. For more info, see the collection webpages.

Rural Reads celebrates its 4th birthday

Rural Reads is the MERL book club, focusing on books with a rural theme in the atmospheric setting of the Museum or garden. There are plans afoot to expand the book club’s remit over the following year, and we’ll be looking at our publishing collections and other special collections material.

Even if you haven’t been before, do come along to the birthday party to help us decide what we’ll be reading over the next year – and enjoy some cake! For more info, see the Rural Reads webpages.



Rural Reas

The A-list archive: filming the Mills & Boon collection for the BBC’s Celebrity Antiques Road Trip

Today’s guest post from Judith Watts explores our Mills & Boon Collection. Judith is studying for her PhD as part of a unique collections-based research project at the University of Reading. The working title of her thesis, which explores the nexus between publisher, author and reader, is The Limits of Desire: the Mills & Boon Romance Market, 1946-1973.

Mills and Boon books

Judith shows off a selection of Mills & Boon books for the BBC

What happens when the archive you’re researching is a star attraction?

Since I began my PhD last October in the British Publishing and Publishing Archive at Reading, I have been thinking about how and why different people have used the Mills & Boon collection to tell a story or support a particular point of view. As mentioned in a previous blog post, the fact that Mills & Boon is a household name means that it has been the subject of a number of TV and radio programmes – especially around the 100-year anniversary of the company in 2009. If you haven’t watched Consuming Passion, Guilty Pleasures, or How to Write a Mills and Boon they are well worth the time. The people behind these projects have approached archival material in different ways to tell their tale of the house of romance. It’s now my turn.

On Valentine’s Day this year I worked with the inspirational archives team here to showcase the collection using the ‘naughty notebook’. In selecting the ‘innuendo’ angle we were able to suggest in a short article how the language of love and desire has changed over time – a narrative which holds special interest for me. It led me to wonder how much we appropriate collections to enhance our own critical thinking or creative acts – and if our subjectivity helps or hinders when we want to engage the interest of others? On 9 July I had to think about this again when reading Special Collections hosted the Celebrity Antiques Road Trip team. This time it was a dual between presenter Rebecca Wilcox and her mother, Esther Rantzen (who had been a guest at the Evacuee archive the previous day). In part of the show the TV personality, together with an antiques expert – in this case, the charming Will Axon – visit a place of interest and are shown its treasures.

So how do you decide what to share when so much is so significant? Which letters do you extract from thousands to demonstrate the archive’s social, cultural and historical importance? Of the many and varied authors, who do you choose to best represent key parts of the story? Which covers are most evocative or cherished? Squeezing a whole collection into a five-minute broadcast means hard choice. Naturally you think of the audience. What might appeal to the widest range of viewers? How can you catch their attention without perpetuating the myths that exist? Fortunately the BBC researcher had done his homework – we needed to provide context, to cover how M&B grew and reflected the changes in society and notions of romance. But what criteria should I use to select material for its short moment of fame?

In the end I deferred to a thought-provoking article I’d read called Materiality Matters: Experiencing the Displayed Object. While it made sense to choose Betty Beaty and Violet Winspear as different yet representative authors, I selected the objects (letters, a photograph, a postcard, a sketch) which had ‘spoken’ to me, that I had connected with emotionally during my research. Through these evocative objects I felt confident about sharing my passion for the archive with Rebecca and Will. What I hadn’t expected to witness was the spark when Rebecca connected to a letter from Violet to Alan Boon. It referenced her forthcoming appearance on the BBC’s Man Alive programme. Rebecca’s father, Desmond Wilcox, had produced the programme in 1970 when Winspear achieved notoriety for her comments about male heroes. It was fascinating to experience the archive coming to life in this way. In some special way it reduced the distance between us all.

Judith and the BBC team 're-enacting' M&B covers

Judith and the BBC team ‘re-enacting’ M&B covers

The following day I read a letter in the files about how nice Desmond had been. I’m glad.
I have become very fond of Violet – protective even. She is too often characterised in the Mills & Boon story as the spinster who lived at home with her mother and cat writing racy books. Her thoughts on writing and desire have engaged me at a fundamental level, and I like to think that the archives can tell a fuller version of her story than they have so far. There is also so much more to write about how we attribute meaning and value to objects and how we experience them in archives. But for now I can say that exposing even a small part of the Mills & Boon collection for national TV was great fun – even if it took four hours of filming to create four minutes. Who knows what will make the final cut! I can’t imagine that I won’t be embarrassed when it airs in November, but I hope we managed to leave the viewers wanting more.

Further watching and reading:

And of course, Celebrity Road Trip in November!

With thanks to all the archives and library team for their help, especially Nancy Fulford for her role as ‘runner’.

Graduation parties notice

Wednesday 9 to Friday 11 July

As a University museum and service we are delighted to be able to host graduation day parties for students and their families celebrating the occasion. The Museum, exhibitions and reading room will be open as usual throughout the week, but our garden will be very busy, and not quite the usual peaceful haven for visitors! Our car park is not used by graduation visitors but there will be no overflow parking available on the adjacent Acacia Road, and the entrance is likely to be busy. We apologise for any inconvenience caused. If you have any queries, please call 0118 378 8660 or email