British art and tradition: exploring an eclectic cultural heritage
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Liverpool
Unit of AssessmentEnglish Language and Literature
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Language, Communication and Culture: Cultural Studies, Literary Studies
History and Archaeology: Historical Studies
Summary of the impact
This study outlines the ways in which Alexandra Harris, Senior
Lecturer in English at the University of Liverpool, has engaged public
interest in modern British art and literature.
Harris has demonstrably encouraged both art-world professionals and
members of the public to appreciate more fully the rich variety of modern
British art, and to realise its contemporary relevance in exploring
British landscapes and identities. Between September 2010 and July 2013,
her books, radio programmes, literary festival appearances, and
collaborations with art galleries have had a major impact on cultural
life. They have helped to raise the profile of British painting, and
brought diverse audiences to challenging literature (especially the work
of Virginia Woolf). They have heightened public consciousness of the ways
in which contemporary debates and indeed the habits of daily life can be
informed by cultural history, giving `the long view' on national identity,
notions of `home' and tradition, and particularly the potent relationships
between art and place.
The largest body of underpinning research for this impact was published
in Harris's book Romantic Moderns (published 2010; based on
AHRC-funded doctoral research at the University of Oxford 2004-7 and as
Lecturer at the University of Liverpool 2007-10). Focusing on the
period 1930-45, the book traced a broad shift in English art and
literature away from explicit radicalism and towards new relationships
with landscape, locality, inheritance and tradition. The research involved
extensive reading of periodicals, anthologies, guidebooks and
correspondence from the period, as well as informed close analysis of
literature, art and music. By developing intimate knowledge of the
period's cultural debates, Harris was able to show how artists and writers
opened up new dialogues between past and present, and between English
tradition and international modernism.
The research for Romantic Moderns was innovative in a
number of ways. It emphasised the place-consciousness of modernism. It
argued for the significance of `taste', studying not only the art
produced in the period, but the shifting reputation and popularity of work
from the past. And it demonstrated the pervasiveness of ideas across art
forms high and low: the validity of the argument rested on a truly
interdisciplinary approach incorporating painting, literature, food,
gardening, architecture and design.
As a direct result of Romantic Moderns, Harris received numerous
commissions which allowed her to shape and revise public understanding of
twentieth-century art; four essays for exhibition catalogues are cited
below. A show of E. McKnight Kauffer's graphic work (Estorick Collection,
2011) provided the occasion for Harris to work with extensive archive
material, assessing the role of Kauffer's design work in shaping modern
taste. An exhibition of five artists at the Slade before WWI (Dulwich
Picture Gallery, 2013) occasioned an interdisciplinary essay on group
identity and elegy, relating the paintings on display to contemporary
writing by D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf.
Harris's Virginia Woolf was published in 2011 (research carried
out 2009-11 at the University of Liverpool). It covers much ground already
familiar to specialists but refreshes the material by making new
juxtapositions and by incorporating new research findings throughout (eg.
on Woolf's reading in 1910, and connections between Orlando and
other novels). Harris has been concerned to shift the focus away from
Woolf's much-sensationalised illness and death towards a new appreciation
of locality and tradition in Woolf's writing, and the passionate,
conscious daily living in which her novels are a continuous education.
References to the research
— Alexandra Harris, Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and
the Imagination, from Virginia Woolf to John Piper (London: Thames
and Hudson, 2010) [REF2 output]
Winner of the 2010 Guardian First Book Award (judged by a panel of writers
including Richard Holmes and Adam Foulds, in collaboration with a national
network of Waterstones reading groups), and a Somerset Maugham Award from
the Society of Authors (judged by writers William Fiennes, M.J. Hyland,
and Rachel Cusk). It was also shortlisted for the Duff Cooper Prize for
Non-Fiction, and was chosen as a `Book of the Year' by commentators
including Andrew Motion, Peter Conrad, Charles Saumerez-Smith, and
Extensive review coverage of RM praised its `extraordinary
breadth' (Times) and noted that it is `emphatically a book about
how we live ... about how we are shaped by history and culture' (Observer).
— Alexandra Harris, Virginia Woolf (London: Thames and Hudson,
2011; paperback 2013) [REF2 output]
VW was described as `a miracle of clarity and concision... one
could hardly ask for a better inducement to read, or re-read, more' (Washington
Post). `This is the kind of provocative shift of the lens at which
Harris excels', according to a review in the Times Higher.
— Alexandra Harris, `The Road South' in John Piper in Kent and Sussex,
exhibition catalogue ed. by Nathaniel Hepburn (Kent: Mascall's Gallery,
— Alexandra Harris, `Introduction' in The Poster King: E. McKnight
Kauffer, exhibition catalogue (London: Estorick Collection, 2011)
— Alexandra Harris, `Sutherland's Metamorphoses' in Graham
Sutherland: Unfinished Worlds, exhibition catalogue (Oxford: Modern
Art Oxford, 2012)
— Alexandra Harris `We Are Making a New World: Art, Youth, and War' in A
Crisis of Brilliance, exhibition catalogue ed. by David Boyd Haycock
(London: Scala, 2013)
Harris won the Julia Briggs Memorial Prize (2009) for work on Woolf; and
a Leverhulme Fellowship (2011-2) for her new project, The Weather
Details of the impact
Writing in the Times (July 2011), James Fox cited Romantic
Moderns as `one of the first signs' that `Modern British art is
back'. The book provided an intellectual framework for many exhibitions of
British art staged in 2011-13, and in some cases directly influenced the
curators. Introducing an evening devoted to Graham Sutherland, Michael
Stanley, Director of Modern Art Oxford, said that `Alexandra Harris has
been one of the main forces behind the surge of interest in British art
which has led to the exhibition of Sutherland in Oxford and Tate's
landmark show Picasso and Modern British Art in London'.
Considering its revaluation of British art, writer Martin Gayford
identified Romantic Moderns as a powerful intervention in
political debate about national identity: `it's a book that makes you
think freshly about the perennially puzzling questions of what it means to
be British' (Sunday Telegraph).
Harris has taken an energetic role in furthering this new interest in art
and national culture: she has written catalogue essays; lectured regularly
in galleries; worked with Sotheby's to promote modern British collections.
Evidence of her sustained and high-profile influence came in Spring 2012
when the Royal Academy proposed that she stage an exhibition at Burlington
Practising artists, including Turner Prize-shortlisted George Shaw, have
cited Harris's research as the prompt for new engagement with the history
of British painting. The painter Stephen Taylor wrote that RM gave
him `hope that all was not lost for British art' (correspondence, 2012),
and turned increasingly from abstraction to locality. Romantic Moderns
gave draughtsman and print- maker Jonathan Newdick an expanded context for
his work on vernacular buildings, and in return Harris provided a preface
for Newdick's 2012 book Out of Time. The writer Richard Mabey
(frequently hailed as `the greatest living naturalist') wrote that Romantic
Moderns had been `tremendously helpful to [him] personally' in
writing about the twentieth-century relationship between literature and
Broader public interest in Harris's work is evidenced by the sales
figures for her books. Romantic Moderns sold 16,800 in the
assessment period; Public Lending Right figures show 2750 public library
loans in 2012. Virginia Woolf sold 9,000 copies in the assessment
Harris has used the internet to make her work widely available. Extracts
from Romantic Moderns are featured on her website,
along with links to her events diary, journalism and media work. Traffic
has been high, with a monthly average of c.1300 visits (see section 5).
Both books have attracted extensive media coverage, bringing the
subject-matter to a diverse audience. Romantic Moderns was
reviewed in all the national broadsheets, many foreign newspapers, a range
of magazines from the Spectator to Country Life to Tribune,
and numerous local papers. It was featured on BBC 2's Review Show
(average audience 376,000), and on national and local radio stations with
varying audience demographics from Radio 3 to Five Live. Media discussion
of the Guardian First Book Award focused on the potential for
academic research to inspire general audiences, responding to Claire
Armitstead's claim that `Harris's book is a reminder of how important
higher education is to literature' (Guardian, 2011).
Romantic Moderns and its offshoots have brought diverse audiences
to British art and to writers such as Elizabeth Bowen and Henry Green.
Reviewers have noted Harris's balance of rigour and accessibility:
`Lesser-known aspects of Woolf's character — such as her humour, tenacity,
and flair for friendship — are brought movingly to the fore in this crisp,
insightful, and mercifully down-to- earth literary biography' (Telegraph).
The Daily Mail ran a double spread encouraging its readers
(circulation c.2,050,000) to try Woolf: `by the final page Harris has made
you desperate to tackle the novels'. At a `School of Life' workshop (July
2013), Harris led an audience through a structured `menu' of conversation
topics, inviting participants (most of whom had no literary background) to
use Woolf's ideas in thinking about place and tradition in their own
lives. Harris has brought scholarship to the high street by
collaborating with Toast womenswear and furnishings retailer to
explore literary traditions behind the styling of fashion collections.
Harris has given 45 public lectures in the assessment period.
These have ranged from the major literary festivals (Hay, Cheltenham,
Oxford, Edinburgh) to small events in village halls (as at Wantage and
Malmesbury). Harris has also led sessions with specialised groups,
such as the Virginia Woolf Society, The Betjeman Society, and The T.S.
Eliot Society. In this way she has engaged with a total of c.10,000
members of the public, many of whom have written to say that they are
reading more widely as a direct result of Harris's lectures. Many of the
lectures included specially-prepared material on the place in which the
lecture was being given, making a specific bond between the body of
research presented and the local knowledge of the audience.
Harris's research and impact has primarily been aimed at British
audiences, but she has nonetheless achieved international reach.
Translation rights for VW have been sold in Croatia and the Czech
Republic, with much interest from elsewhere, especially Spain and South
America. In North America press coverage has been enthusiastic and the
academic response warm (eg. in the invitation to give a plenary address in
Canada). International interest in Romantic Moderns has been
especially exciting because British art has a lamentably low profile
abroad. Features in the foreign press (eg. Australian Book Review,
Washington Post, Radio Europe) suggest receptive audiences
around the world and the potential for further engagement.
In June 2011 Harris was selected as a New Generation Thinker
(funded by the AHRC and BBC Radio 3). Since then, as a regular contributor
to Radio 3, she has drawn on her research to participate in high-profile
public debates about British culture and tradition. Speaking alongside
National Trust director Fiona Reynolds in a Nightwaves special
(April 2012), she urged the vital importance of literary history in
understanding attitudes to landscape and, in a programme on the
`well-being agenda' and its policy implications (September 2012), she
brought insights from fiction to bear on a debate otherwise dominated by
economists. Harris's radio essays have featured on Radio 4's Pick of
the Week and her broadcasting is showcased in the AHRC's 2013
Sources to corroborate the impact
provides details of public talks since 2010, links to BBC iPlayer for
her radio programmes, links to newspaper websites for her journalism,
and several profiles of Harris's work. Listings on the 'Events' pages
give evidence of the number and variety of festivals, galleries and
groups who have invited Harris to give public talks. Listings and
iPlayer links on the 'Radio' pages provide evidence of her regular
contributions to Radio 3. The Website Administrator can be contacted to
for the traffic to Harris's website.
of press cuttings: Harris has personal files of press cuttings
which corroborate all press quotations in the statement above,
demonstrate the extent of media interest in Harris's books, and show how
Romantic Moderns has been connected with rising interest in both
British Art and broader questions about national identity. Similar files
are also kept by Thames & Hudson.
of correspondence from readers, kept by Harris: Many hundreds of
letters/e-mails from readers, evidencing the diverse ways in which the
research has enriched their reading and thinking.
- Former Nightwaves producer at BBC Radio 3 and organiser of
the AHRC New Generation Thinkers scheme 2011, can be contacted to
corroborate details of Harris's work for radio, and comment on its
originality and effectiveness in bringing academic research to general
listeners. She can attest to Harris's commitment to the AHRC/BBC New
Generation Thinkers scheme.
- Publicist for Thames & Hudson, can be contacted to attest to the
scale of interest from the press, the size, range and enthusiasm of
literary festival audiences, and the degree to which Harris has been
able to pose challenging questions of aesthetics in large public forums.
- The Head of Collections at Pallant House Gallery, who is active and
influential in the British art world, can be contacted to corroborate on
the influence of Harris's work on curators looking to showcase modern
British painting, and on members of the public whose understanding of
British art has been deepened by reading Romantic Moderns and
attending Harris's lectures.
- Former Learning and Events Manager, National Portrait Gallery, can be
contacted to attest to Harris's commitment and rigour in giving public
talks that bring current research to bear on aspects of the National
Portrait Gallery collections.