The 2020-2021 Programme

16 Nov. – 17.30-18.30: Marine Bellégo (LARCA – CNRS) – “”Plants and papers : imperial lives of botanical things, 1848-1914.” [séance commune avec l’axe histoire du politique]

This paper will examine a central function of colonial botanical gardens in the late 19th century : the production, circulation and conservation of botanical objects. Much has been written about the difficult circulation of living plants, which were often sent from one botanic garden to another for acclimatization. However, the conditions under which plants were turned into dried specimens, which in turn were used to produce official botanical knowledge, has been less studied. Through the case study of the Calcutta botanic garden, I will show that the transformation of plants into objects served the colonial appropriation and legitimation of local botanical knowledge. The logistics of plant production and conservation were far from secondary to the colonial project; they played an important part in the broader imperial system of paper and information management that underpinned the British Raj in the 19th century.

Marine Bellégo has recently joined the LARCA as MCF (lecturer). She specializes in history of science, environmental studies, material culture and Indian history. She is currently preparing a book about the history of the Calcutta Botanic Garden in the 19th century.

14 Dec. 17.30-18.30 : Dr. Serena Dyer (De Montfort Univeristy, Leicester): “Fashions in Miniature: Laetitia Powell’s Dolls and Material Life-Writing”.

Dolls may be mute and their eyes glassy and lifeless, but the tiny stitches used to construct them hold a myriad of stories about their makers, owners and users. Between the age of thirteen in 1754 and her death at the age of sixty in 1801, Laetitia Powell carefully dressed at least twelve dolls which, together, tell her personal and material story. Begun in childhood, but continued throughout adulthood, these dolls acted as a sartorial biography. Notes tacked to the hems of the dolls’ petticoats reveal the date they were stitched and proffer a description of each doll’s outfit. These snippets of information reveal that these garments were not generic specimens or imaginative fancies. Instead, they were often miniature versions of Powell’s own garments. This life-narrative through fashion, layered with the development and improvement of Powell’s own skill as a maker, can be read across the twelve dolls.  Through these dolls, this paper suggests, the dynamics of making and buying dress were intricately entwined with biography. Dolls could be conduits for a wealth of personal and sartorial information.

Dr Serena Dyer is Lecturer in History of Design and Material Culture at De Montfort University, Leicester, UK. She has edited, with Chloe Wigston Smith, Material Literacy in Eighteenth-Century Britain: A Nation of Makers (Bloomsbury, 2020) and is author of Material Lives: Women Makers and Consumer Culture in the 18th Century (Bloomsbury, 2021).

11 Jan. Monday 17.30-18.30 – Bénédicte Miyamoto (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle), “Dirty Books: Stains and Holes in 17th-and 18th-century Drawing Manuals

Was reading actually a learning process for craftsmen? To answer Pamela Smith’s question, I have surveyed 10,000 pages of drawing manuals for their visual marginalia. What was done to books informs us of what was done with books, where they were read, and what the practical end of reading was. Paint stains, pin-pricks, graphite or gridding traces show these manuals were used to record the trial and error of professionals, rather than to transfer knowledge from master to apprentice. Many bear traces of expert use (authoritative corrections meant to improve plates, tables or texts for example) or intensive use (traces of drawing practice, of plates delineated for transfer, or of palette and pigment experiments). These user marks diverge with the traditional narrative according to which drawing manuals were primarily used by amateurs and youth, and hint at a use as reference tool and workshop staple.

Bénédicte Miyamoto is an Associate Professor of British History at the Université Sorbonne-Nouvelle, 2020 short-term Fellow at the Folger Shakespeare Library and Resident Scholar at the Dibner Smithsonian Library. She co-edited with Louisiane Ferlier Forms, Formats and the Circulation of Knowledge: British Printscape’s Innovations, 1688-1832. Brill, Library of the Written Word – The Handpress World, 2020. Her research focuses on the artistic culture and trade of Britain, 1600-1800.

8 Feb. Monday 17.30-18.30 – Sophie Pitman (Aalto University, Finland) “A Nasty Black Doublet: the material and digital reconstruction of Renaissance everyday fashion”

Hardly any renaissance clothing worn by the non-elites survives in museum collections, so how can we experience the visual and material qualities of everyday renaissance fashion? This talk will explore the imaginative reconstruction of a doublet described in the post-mortem inventory of a seventeenth-century Florentine waterseller, currently being made by the Refashioning the Renaissance Project in collaboration with skilled makers and digital experts. The talk will explore how we might recreate an object that only survives in a brief written description by using a combination of sources and methods, while combining historical and cutting-edge making techniques, and will also address some of the advantages and pitfalls of these methods. It will describe the inspirations, research, and process of creating a full-size material reconstruction and digital animation of the waterseller’s ‘nasty black doublet,’ and will argue that his ‘nasty’ clothing actually represents key renaissance fashion innovations for the middling or popular class.

Sophie Pitman is the postdoctoral research fellow on the ERC-funded Refashioning the Renaissance Project based at Aalto University, where she leads the experimental strand of research. She holds a PhD in History from Cambridge University (2017), and was formerly a postdoc on the Making and Knowing Project (Columbia). Her research and publications explore issues of luxury and the everyday, sumptuary law, and artisanal knowledge in early modern clothing, textiles, and material culture, and she is interested in reconstruction as a methodology.

15 March – 17.30-18.30: [joint seminar with the Visual Studies group (ACV)] Hélène Valance (Université de Bourgogne/ délégation CNRS LARCA) “History in Motion: the Great Historical Clock of America

This paper focuses on the “Great Historical Clock of America,” a monumental clock which toured the United States, Europe, as well as New Zealand and Australia in the last quarter of the 19th century. The clock, a collection of automated vignettes representing characters such as Pocahontas or George Washington, acted as a compendium of the country’s history. Its complex mechanisms, as well as its international course, made it quite literally put American history in motion. Yet while it was meant as an edifying display of American patriotic themes for national and international audiences, and while it promoted technological progress and American ingenuity, it was built on an obsolete European model, that of the 1352 astronomical clock of the Strasbourg cathedral. This paper examines the conflicted impulses animating this fascinating object, and, through it, late 19th-century American culture’s relationship to its own history.

Hélène Valance (CNRS LARCA research fellow, 2020-21) is associate professor at the University of Bourgogne Franche-Comté. She is a specialist of American visual culture of the 19th-20th century, and is the author of Nocturne: Night in American Art, 1890-1917 (Yale University Press, 2018). Her current research focuses on the visual culture of historical reenactment in the19th and 20th centuries. Her work has received the support of the Terra Foundation for American Art, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Fondation de France.

12 April – 17.30-18.30 : Amanda Herbert (Folger Library / Invited Professor LARCA): “Interpreting Food Before ‘Farm to Table’”

Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures is a Mellon-funded collaborative research initiative in the humanities at the Folger Institute of the Folger Shakespeare Library. The premise of this project is that food, then as now, is a basic human need. It also has a long and complex history. Over the course of four years, we are examining paucity and plenty, systems of free and unfree labor, trade and exploitation, making and producing, constructions of race, class, and gender, and the many ways people thought about eating together or staying apart. Our team has taught courses, created exhibitions, hosted conversations, transcribed manuscripts, and collaborated with food professionals. We’ve also undertaken dozens of food experiments, making dishes in modern kitchens using early modern recipes. We hope that a close examination of food systems, practices, and inequities in the past will shed light on the ways we source, cook, eat, and think about food in the present.

17 May – 17.30-18.30: Raluca Parfentie, “Militant candies in the Soviet Union

Who said candies can’t succeed in politics? The analysis of 200 Soviet candy wrappers, printed in the 1920s-50s, gathered from different virtual sources, proves otherwise. In the USSR, candies have served not only to satisfy citizens’ sweet tooth. By reflecting the official ideology on their wrappers, they also fed people’s mind with propaganda, spreading ideas about the organization of daily life, children’s education, public enemies, and so on.This research tries to reveal the circumstances that led to the transformation of candies into communist militants and to highlight the main ideas promoted by this atypical political supporters, relating  their copious imagistic discourse to the time in which it was produced and the whims of the official leaders. In brief, it’s the story of how a totalitarian system tried to become “palatable”, and of how a few carefully kept candy wrappers have become tangible testimonies of a bygone era.

Raluca Parfentie holds a PhD in Philology (University of Bucharest; 2019), with a doctoral thesis about „Interwar Romanian food: a visual and linguistic approach”. She is interested in the connection between food, culture and society. Papers published in Romania, Republic of Moldova and England. Her study on propaganda and Soviet candies was printed in book form by Moldova State University Publishing House (2016).

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