Writing Britain's Ruins, 1700--1850: The Architectural Imagination

Lead Research Organisation: Manchester Metropolitan University
Department Name: English


This interdisciplinary research project seeks to explore the often acknowledged but, to date, critically under-researched relationship between Gothic architecture and literature in British writing of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (1700-1850). Over its 18-month duration, the project seeks to bring to completion a major academic monograph entitled _Gothic Antiquity: History, Romance and the Architectural Imagination, 1760-1840_. This study seeks to analyse a selection of poetic, fictional and dramatic texts alongside, and in relation to, contemporary architectural tracts, antiquarian tomes and illustrated topographies, travel-guides, popular journalism and selected aesthetic debates, paying particular attention to the ways in which the widespread cultural fascination with Gothic architecture in Britain in the period, both original and Revivalist, at once prompted and relied upon competing, highly politicised conceptualisations of the British 'Gothic' or medieval past. Far from being a monolithic construct, the visions of the British nation's ancient medieval or 'Gothic' heritage that were inspired by real and imagined sites of architectural ruin were marked by a lack of consistency: for some, Gothic antiquity was a barbaric epoch of feudal tyranny and Catholic superstition, while for others, it constituted the zenith of the nation's cultural and political achievements. In turn, these competing constructions of the nation's history fed directly into political debates of the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century present. Through a series of focused case studies, the research draws attention to the fictional, poetic, dramatic, antiquarian and popular-historical texts that were prompted and inspired by some of the actual Gothic architectural ruins across the landscapes of England, Scotland, Wales, and, after 1801, Ireland, among them Netley Abbey, Southampton; Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire; Alnwick Castle, Northumberland; Furness Abbey, Cumbria; Bothwell Castle, Lanarkshire; Conwy Castle, Conwy; St Alban's Abbey, Hertfordshire; Tintern Abbey, Monmouthshire; Mellifont Abbey, County Louth; and Alnwick Castle, Northumbria. Through this, the project aims to address the role played by literature in the rise of the heritage movement in Britain from the end of the eighteenth century onwards. Paying equal attention to the texts written about, or set within, imaginary and Revivalist architectural sites, the study argues for the centrality of architecture, both literally and as metaphor, to eighteenth-century aesthetic debates and to the rise of Romantic conceptualisations of the literary imagination in the early nineteenth century. In seeking to encourage scholarly dialogue across disciplinary boundaries, the project, in a second but overlapping phase, aims to host an academic conference, 'Reading Architecture Across the Arts and Humanities', an interdisciplinary, trans-historical event designed to initiate scholarly exchange between scholars working on topics of architectural interest across a broad range of disciplines. Focusing its interests on Britain in the period 1700-1850, the project then draws together into a research network a number of invited academics from the fields of literature; history; art history; and Heritage studies with complementary interests, hosting two academic symposia and collaborating on a vigorous programme of public engagement: 6 public lectures on the theme of 'Writing Britain's Ruins, 1700-1850' at Strawberry Hill House, London, and the collaborative publication of a book of that title aimed at the non-specialist reader. Extending its reach to learners beyond the academy, the project aims to run a non-credit-bearing Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on the theme of 'The Gothic Revival: Interdisciplinary Perspectives'. Across its various events and outputs, 'Writing Britain's Ruins' aims to develop leadership potential in the fields of research, impact and knowledge transfer

Planned Impact

This project's impact agenda is the natural consequence of its intellectual and scholarly endeavours, and one that, given the current popular interest in the Gothic worldwide, seems particularly timely. In aiming to communicate the results of the research to a broader audience beyond the academy, the project includes 3 specific impact and knowledge-transfer activities: a series of public lectures at Strawberry Hill, Twickenham; a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on the topic of 'The Gothic Revival: Interdisciplinary Perspectives'; and the publication of a popular, collaboratively written and co-edited trade publication, _Writing Britain's Ruins, 1700-1850_, published by British Library Publishing and aimed at the general, non-specialist reader. In each instance, the project aims to enrich non-academic understandings of the British nation's rich literary and architectural heritage through foregrounding, in relevant, engaging and accessible terms, the vast network of political and aesthetic meanings in which ruins were inscribed in the period 1700-1850, aspects of which are still perceivable in notions of cultural Heritage today. In its focus on the eighteenth century, the project provides modern-day Gothic enthusiasts with an accessible point of entry into the mode's origins, its early forms and its disputed meanings. Supported by the named R.A., these events have been devised with specific target audiences in mind: general members of the British public with interests in eighteenth-century cultural, architectural and literary history who regularly attend educational events held at Strawberry Hill House (Public Lecture Series); students, non-academic enthusiasts and life-long learners from non-traditional learning backgrounds with interdisciplinary interests in the eighteenth-century Gothic Revival in Britain (MOOC); and a national and international market of readers with general, non-specialist interests in the cultural 'afterlife' of architectural ruin in the literature, historiography and antiquarian activity of the long eighteenth century (Co-edited volume). While the Public Lecture Series aims to recruit members of the public who are local to Strawberry Hill, Twickenham and London, the MOOC and the co-edited volume are intended to reach audiences beyond this immediate locale, extending the impact of the research to national and international user-groups further afield. The confirmed participation of Dr Jeremy Ashby (Head Historic Properties Curator for English Heritage) in the network 'Writing Britain's Ruins, 1700-1850' will also facilitate direct exchange between the project's intellectual endeavours and English Heritage, an executive non-departmental public body of the British Government sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. As discussions with Dr Ashby have confirmed, the project, in its preoccupation with the cultural 'afterlife' of specific sites of Gothic architectural ruin, is of particular interest to English Heritage, since this is a concern that is currently at the forefront of the institution's aims to foster the cultural appreciation of the nation's architectural history. Through the involvement of English Heritage, the project is thus likely to generate measurable impact upon the British public through the organisation's robust programme of educational, outreach and knowledge-transfer activities. Dr Oliver Cox, another confirmed network member, is currently employed as Knowledge Exchange Fellow for the Thames Valley Country House Partnership Project, University of Oxford. In this capacity, he is charged with all of Oxford University's external collaborations with the Heritage industry, including the National Trust; the Historic Houses Association; and English Heritage. Bringing his experience and extensive network of professional contacts to bear on the project, Dr Cox will seek out further, hitherto unforeseen pathways to impact, with view to an eventual 'Follow-on Funding' bid.


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Townshend, Dale (2017) Writing Britain's Ruins

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Townshend, D And Lindfield, P (2018) Recovering Fonthill: A Cultural History

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Townshend, D. (2017) Writing Britain's Ruins, 1700-1850

Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
AH/M00600X/1 01/06/2015 31/08/2016 £181,863
AH/M00600X/2 Transfer AH/M00600X/1 01/09/2016 31/03/2017 £23,423
Description Please see extensive report attached to the earlier report: this is the same award, but was transferred to MMU in September 2016.
Exploitation Route See earlier report.
Sectors Education,Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description See the earlier entry: this is the same award, but was transferred to MMU in September 2016. The extensive impact report that I submitted last year for this award still stands.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Education,Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description Collaboration with English Heritage on the 'Writing Britain's Ruins, 1700--1850' edited collection 
Organisation English Heritage
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Dr Michael Carter, a member of English Heritage, is one of the three co-editors of _Writing Britain's Ruins, 1700--1850', an edited collection of essays to be published in 2017 by British Library Publishing. The chapters of this collaboratively written volume have been written by the members of the research network associated with this AHRC project. The collection will go to press on 31 March 2017; publication scheduled for November 2017.
Collaborator Contribution Dr Carter has advised on the content of the book, as well as on possible avenues for follow-on funding. He has also written the introduction to the edited collection, and co-edited the 7 chapters that comprise the contents. He was also an active member of the 'Writing Britain's Ruins' network, and assisted with the organisation of the public lecture series at Strawberry Hill.
Impact The primary output of this collaboration will be a co-edited collection of essays, _Writing Britain's Ruins, 1700--1850'. Upon publication in Autumn 2017, it is likely to produce and inspire a number of public events, including a 'study day' at the British Library, London.
Start Year 2015
Description Collaboration with Strawberry Hill House on a public lecture series, 'Writing Britain's Ruins' 
Organisation Strawberry Hill House Trust and Charity
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution I collaborated with Strawberry Hill House Trust and Charity on a series of public lectures entitled 'Writing Britain's Ruins', delivered at the House, Twickenham, in May and June 2016.
Collaborator Contribution The Trust hosted the lecture series in the Gallery at Strawberry Hill, setting up the ticketting service for the events, and assisting with its promotion.
Impact The outcomes of this collaboration are three-fold. First, it involved a free public-lecture series on the theme of 'Writing Britain's Ruins', aiming at disseminating the intellectual fruits of the broader AHRC project to a broader, non-academic audience, and thus serving as a 'Pathway to Impact' for the larger grant. Secondly, insofar as the lectures were delivered by the members of the AHRC-funded research network, they occasioned rich intellectual exchange between a range of researchers working in separate but related fields, among them history of art, literature, conservationism, history and heritage studies. Thirdly, these lectures have been converted into the various book chapters that comprise the contracted edited collection, _Writing Britain's Ruins, 1700--1850' (Forthcoming from British Library Publishing, 2017).
Start Year 2015
Description Public Lecture 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I presented a public lecture on the cultural afterlife of the ruined Cistercian Abbey at Abbey, Hampshire, between 1700 and 1850, as part of the 'Netley Literary Festival' series of events.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.visit-hampshire.co.uk/whats-on/discover-historic-literature-art-and-tourism-at-netley-ab...