What are notes but tears with wings? Duncan, Schubert, and the Sublime

‘If I had to grade the necessities of life, I should put them in this order: the sun, for without it we are dead; horses, for without them to look at we are blind; music, for otherwise we are deaf.’
(Duncan, 1964, p. 101)

It is not entirely surprising that Ronald Duncan, close friend of and and sometimes librettist for Benjamin Britten, had a deep and intricate relationship with music, a fact touched upon occasionally in the first volume of his autobiography, All men are islands. Duncan makes mention of often visceral responses to musical works, of the bust of Beethoven that he kept with him, of his encounters with musicians (including Stravinsky), and of how he would invent poems to the rhythms or melodies of pieces that he knew; however, his connection with music was at a distance, and, a little below the comment quoted above, he goes on to write

‘Sadly I realised I had been deprived of the one language I needed. For I could not write or read music.’
(Duncan, 1964, p. 101)

Above all other music, Duncan loved that of Franz Schubert, whose birthday it is as I write this post. As described by Duncan, it was a love, like many of his loves seem to have been, immediate in its conception:

‘I was about twelve years old when I met the influence in my life that has affected me more than anything. I went to the theatre and heard Schubert … The play was a sentimental musical comedy, supposedly based on Schubert’s life, called ‘Lilac Time’. It contained a number of his songs. I was quite unable to keep away from the theatre. I went to it twenty-seven times … I cannot possibly explain why I found Schubert an irresistible influence at the age of twelve, or why he has always remained my favourite composer.’
(Duncan, 1964, p. 44)

Part of Schubert’s appeal, in Duncan’s later life at least, may have been the directness of melody and affect in his music, a quality that has made his lieder (songs) amongst the most enduringly admired of the Western tradition, and which permeates his instrumental work also. This directness of communication would have been attractive to Duncan, who considered poetry and, by extension, art more generally, to be a mode of communication:

‘If you can’t hear me, it is probably because I don’t speak loud enough; and, if you don’t understand me, it is because the poetry isn’t any good, because I really feel, very strongly, that poetry should be lucid. I mean it as a communication, and if I fail to make that communication, I ask you to blame me. I do not believe that poetry should be obscure. What I have to say, if I fail to say it, then it’s my fault.’
(Duncan, transcribed from an audio recording of a poetry reading)

The nature and emotional affect of Schubert’s writing is a large subject, but its effect on Duncan is perhaps best illustrated in his own words. The following is extracted from an anecdote about enduring a potential lover playing the piano badly at her home:

… suddenly I heard a melody I had never heard before. It was so beautiful I had to rush from the room, from the house, before the girl or the mother could see my tears. Years later I heard the melody again. Of course it was Schubert – “The Shepherd on the Rock.”
(Duncan, 1964, p. 124)

Duncan’s fascination with Schubert reached its apotheosis with his play, Schubert, completed late in his life (1980), and performed in the same year. The play takes the form of what might be described as an occasionally interrupted monologue by the composer, who works at an ‘untuned rotten piano’. It is, perhaps, a distillation of Duncan’s view of the artist at work: the genius who is at once confident of the brilliance of his own abilities and wrestling with a vortex of social anxiety and emotional (not to mention physical) pain and frailty. Whether or not these romantic ideas appealed to Duncan’s sensibilities of his own artistic and emotional challenges, it is clear from his other writings that he developed an affinity for and, in his own mind, with Schubert that extended beyond simple admiration for the composer’s music. In a poem from 1970, Duncan describes time as a ‘saboteur’ for separating him from his idol, and laments

‘…
What songs we could have written
If your genius with mine
     had been combined
Harnessed by our single mind.
Now only silence sings them
The wind mourning for their loss.’
(Duncan, Weston-Smith, 2003, p. 185)

As evidenced in other poems, particularly Franz Schubert, the affinity felt by Duncan for Schubert seems to have had the effect of turning the latter into a distant beloved, to borrow a phrase from Beethoven’s song cycle, with Duncan describing a love

‘…
Far deeper than
                     I ever knew
For any woman[.]’
(Duncan, Weston-Smith, 2003, pp. 311-3)

Page one of the manuscript copy of 'Franz Schubert.

Page one of the manuscript copy of ‘Franz Schubert’.

Page two of the Franz Schubert manuscript, decorated by an idiosyncratic sketch of the composer.

Page two of the ‘Franz Schubert’ manuscript.

With his earthlier and sometimes frustrated relationship with Britten in mind, it was, one might suppose, the very separation and lack of artistic consummation that helped Duncan’s nostalgic and idealised affair with Schubert to flourish. This idealisation of Schubert and his music can be felt most strongly, perhaps, in the lines:

‘Only the deaf
                    dare listen to Schubert,
Music is noise, or too meaningful to bear.
(Duncan, Weston-Smith, 2003, pp. 313)’

Taken with Duncan’s comment, ‘great art affects me like great pain’ (Duncan, 1964, p. 88), this allows us to posit that Schubert specifically, and great music more generally, becomes, for Duncan, a symbol of aching perfection, a reification of and metaphor for the sublime. It is from this position, perhaps, that one of Duncan’s more poignant questions arose:

‘What are notes but tears with wings?’

Manuscript bearing the words 'What are notes but tears with wings?' decorated by Ronald Duncan with a drawing of music manuscript with the notes decorated with read paint, as if bloody.

Manuscript, What are notes but tears with wings? as decorated by Ronald Duncan.

Amongst the Schubert-related items held in the Ronald Duncan Collection are those connected to his plays ‘Girl Friday’ and ‘Schubert’ (including the script, an audio recording of a performance replete with the occasional wrong note at the piano, the music to be played at the ‘untuned rotten piano’, and programmes from performances), his correspondence (particularly with the prominent music lover and patron George Harewood), a film script (Obsession), the scores of some Schubert songs, and materials relevant to his work as the literary editor of ‘The Penguin Book of Accompanied Songs’ (also known as ‘Classical Songs for Children’).

For an enjoyable and easily accessible source of further information on Franz Schubert’s artistic and musical struggles, I would recommend the episode of BBC Radio 3’s ‘The Listening Service’ entitled ‘Schubert’s Dark Side’, which is available from the BBC website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0801l4l

Andrew Cusworth, 31.1.2018

Quoted sources
Duncan, R., All men are islands, Rupert Hart Davies, 1964.
Duncan, R., Weston-Smith, M., Ronald Duncan Literary Foundation, 2003.

Volunteering at the Ronald Duncan Collection

University of Exeter Special Collections is lucky to have a number of enthusiastic and dedicated volunteers. In this blog post our Volunteer Rhiannon McLoughlin talks about her experiences volunteering with the Ronald Duncan Collection.

When I say I work in a library people often respond with “Oh do you like reading?” Whilst I do like reading this doesn’t tend to be part of the job description! However, my time volunteering at Exeter University Special Collections during 2017 in order to gain some insight into the differences between library and archive work did, I am happy to report, involve a lot of reading.

When I found I was to work alongside Project Archivist Caroline Walter on the Ronald Duncan Collection I was intrigued as he is not an author I had come across before. Caroline kindly loaned me the first volume of his autobiography and I enjoyed getting to know this colourful character alongside the work.

I started out cataloguing the Ronald Duncan book collection. Cataloguing books for an archive is a far slower process than the new library books I normally deal with but can be much more fascinating. I found myself leafing through items looking for anything that made them singular – notes, dedications, markings, edition numbers, or inserts of letters, press cuttings, even a risqué postcard!

I was impressed by the wide variety of writings Duncan produced. Writer, poet, playwright, librettist and editor the collection shows his interests lay in many directions. As a Devonian I particularly enjoyed the local connection and could not help but stop occasionally to read bits and pieces about North Devon life. Whilst his former home and rented buildings may look idyllic now it sounded a far more hardy existence then in wartime and winter months. The tales of pouncing on items washed up on the beach particularly made me chuckle whilst his “Guide to housebuilding and smallholdings” and volume on tobacco farming demonstrated his determination to turn his hand to self-sufficiency.

The book collection contains not only his own writing career but writings and responses by others to his work- from letters in journals to student theses about him. There are works in progress, annotated books, proof copies and newsletters pieced together. There are a large number of different literary journals he contributed to and programmes for his plays. There are anthologies where his verse was included – “The site: choose a dry site…” seems a particularly popular choice. There are also items translated into other languages including Polish and Turkish and of course various musical scores and items relating to his work with Benjamin Britten.

I found some of Ronald Duncan’s self-published items by his own Rebel Press to be of especial interest. These are often short limited edition runs such as the volume “Auschwitz” with sobering illustrations and a volume of poems by Virginia Maskell under a pseudonym [Leaves of Silence by Simon Orme].

The book collection indicates the important relationships in Ronald Duncan’s life. Most copies of his own work are signed by him and many are also signed “desk copy” so were clearly his own personal copies – one amusingly “if anywhere else it was stolen”! But many of his books are variously inscribed to friends and family – including a multitude to his wife Rose Marie – usually loving inscriptions but some hinting at more challenging times in their relationship. A particular marker of his friendship with Gandhi are gifts of tiny books of silvery woody paper with Gandhi’s writings – one complete with woodworm holes spiralling throughout.

Once I had finished cataloguing the book collection I began to read through some of Rose Marie’s diaries in preparation for digitisation and also to sort photographs into archival wallets. Rose Marie’s diaries are written in a lively and readable style and give a real sense of the challenges of their North Devon lifestyle (including having the band Deep Purple stay in their rental property) and provide a further window onto Ronald Duncan’s work. Repackaging photographs offered pictures of their life I had been getting to know through words – family members, the house, the coast and their beloved horses.

I volunteered to get experience of archival work but found myself equally glad to have gained experience of Ronald Duncan. Working on this collection I got drawn in by the writing and whilst I found myself often having to record that there were signs of damp in the condition note of the books I rather liked the sense that gave of somebody working away at the edge of the sea in his little writer’s hut.

Exploring Christmas at Syon Abbey

My name is Sophie and I am currently a third year student at the University of Exeter, studying for a BA joint honours degree in History and Archaeology. In September I began volunteering at the University’s Special Collections, allowing me to gain valuable work experience, as I hope to pursue a career in the heritage sector. I have spent my time as a volunteer working with the Syon Abbey archive. My main role has been cataloguing the 99 diaries of the community from the late nineteenth to the twenty-first century at item level. I have enjoyed this task as it has provided me with a detailed insight into the daily life of the community.

Sophie with a sheet of 1950s Christmas wrapping paper found inside one of the diaries in the Syon Abbey archive

References to Christmas in the Syon Abbey diaries

As Christmas is fast approaching, I wanted to share some details of the celebrations that are recorded in the diaries. Many of the diaries mention the sisters’ festive decoration of the Abbey. For example, in a diary kept in 1955, an entry states that ‘the sisters’ gifts were hung on a large Xmas tree gaily decorated and illuminated with colourful lights’ and that ‘all danced around the tree and sang the Jubilee song’ [EUL MS 389/ADM/5/53]. This heart-warming image of the community is particularly festive and is one of my favourite entries from the diaries.

The sisters gave gifts as a sign of their love and affection for each other, especially during the Christmas period. The diary for 1906 contains a beautiful handmade paper snowflake, given to the abbess as a gift [EUL MS 389/ADM/5/1]. The community’s enthusiasm for gift giving can also be found in the diary for 1954 which records the gifts given to the Abbey’s gardeners and farm hands. The presents included: an electric kettle, socks, tobacco, biscuits, cake, pudding, butter, tea, and a hen [EUL MS 389/ADM/5/51]. This particular diary contains many more festive references, and even an inserted piece of 1950s Christmas wrapping paper. It also contains a lovely anecdote about how the Abbess ‘thoroughly enjoyed herself’ when she carved the Christmas turkey!

Elsewhere in the Syon Abbey Collection…

In addition to the diaries that I have been working with, the Syon Abbey Collection (which includes the archive and collections of printed books and manuscripts from the Syon Abbey library) contains further material relating to the celebration of Christmas. For example, within the Medieval and Modern Manuscript Collection is a Syon manuscript entitled ‘A Discourse or Entertainment for ye sacred time of Advent’, written by the abbess in 1657, containing instructions for activities that the nuns should undertake during Advent [EUL MS 262/add1/B/5].

 

A particular favourite of mine in the Syon Abbey archive is a box containing small illuminated prayer cards with detailed calligraphy and hand drawn images relating to Christmas [EUL MS 389/97/1]. These beautiful pieces of art were created by Sister Mary Veronica during her religious life at Syon Abbey between 1933 and 2008.

EUL MS 389/97/1 – A Christmas prayer card created by Sister Mary Veronica Kempson, c 1933-2008.
Provided for research and reference only. Permission to publish, copy, or otherwise use this work must be obtained from University of Exeter Special Collections (http://as.exeter.ac.uk/heritage-collections/) and all copyright holders.

The Syon Abbey Medieval and Modern Manuscript Collection contains an illuminated transcript of the words and musical notation for ‘In Vigilia Nativitatis’ (which translates to ‘On Christmas Eve’) from the Roman Martyrology [EUL MS 262/add1/A/38]. This is a proclamation of the birth of Christ and would traditionally have been chanted or recited on Christmas Eve. It also contains a note on the back which details that the ‘Syon melody’ was originally taken from the Lisbon book and was handed down orally with some alterations. This ‘Christmas Martyrology’ was created in 1952 by Sister Mary Stanislas, of whom more artwork can be found in the Syon Abbey archive.

EUL MS 262/add1/A/38 – ‘In Vigilia Nativitatis’, created by Sister Mary Stanislas in 1952.
Provided for research and reference only. Permission to publish, copy, or otherwise use this work must be obtained from University of Exeter Special Collections (http://as.exeter.ac.uk/heritage-collections/) and all copyright holders.

To close…

The Syon Abbey Collection contains an array of fascinating material, including many insights into how the community celebrated Christmas. To find out more about the Syon Abbey Collection click here, or head to the Special Collections website to search our online archives catalogue. For those feeling festive, why not take a look at our Twitter account, where we are posting images from across the collections in our very own virtual Advent Calendar.

By Sophie Morgan, Volunteer

Britten, Kennedy, Duncan

The 22nd of November 1963 was the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The first broadcast assassination of a world leader, the murder of the President of the USA at the height of the Cold War, this was the epicentre of a political and media cataclysm the resultant ripples of which are still present in our thinking.

The 22nd of November 1963 was also Benjamin Britten’s 50th birthday – occurring on the feast day of St Cecilia, patron saint of music. Despite some public fanfare, Britten’s birthday must have been all but forgotten in the furore emerging from the USA.

In her diary entry for the day, Rose Marie Duncan, Ronald Duncan’s wife, noted both events:

‘Bunny rang up in evening to say Kennedy had been shot. State of shock and amazement and real sorrow – watched T.V – news etc – and also tribute for B[enjamin] B[ritten]’s 50th birthday – rather boring and sententious – shot of R[onald] in very long floppy shorts, going off to play tennis, flanked by Ben and Peter like warders.’

The next entry continues the connection in the most unexpected of ways:

‘Still upset about Kennedy’s death. Watched 1-0 news on TV – pictures of Mrs K and general mix up – also the assassin – looking like a young Benjamin B[ritten]!’ (Rose Marie Duncan, 1963 Diary, EUL MS 397/18/1/9)

At 50, and a year on from his completion of his seminal War Requiem, Britten was no longer the ‘promising young composer’ to whom Ronald Duncan had been introduced, probably in 1936, by his college friend Nigel Spottiswoode. (Ronald Duncan, All Men Are Islands, Rupert Hart-Davis 1964, p. 130) Facilitated by the interest of all three men in the Peace Pledge Union and by Spottiswoode’s involvement in the production of the GPO Film Unit’s enduringly popular Night Mail (for which Britten wrote the score), the introduction led to a fast friendship between the two writers and instigated a creative exchange that would interest them for the remainder of their careers.

The first buds of this exchange appeared in the form of the Pacifist’s March, a ‘youthful’ work which Britten apparently showed little interest in revisiting later in life; (Duncan, 1964, p. 131) their creative engagement blossomed more fully in the late forties, following Duncan’s intervention in the libretto for Peter Grimes. This period saw the creation of The Rape of Lucretia, which was swiftly followed by works including a wedding anthem (Amo ergo sum) for their mutual friends George Lascelles (Lord Harewood) and Marion Stein, and music for the plays This way to the tomb, Stratton, and The eagle has two heads. Not all of their ideas were to come to fruition, and it is tantalising to know of works that were never realised, including at least one opera (based on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park), a large work referred to in correspondence as St Peter, and a response to the bombing of Hiroshima (referred to as Mea Culpa), which Duncan lamented as the potential War Requiem that never was. (Humphrey Carpenter, Benjamin Britten: A Biography, Faber and Faber, 1992, pp. 242, 405; correspondence, Benjamin Britten to Ronald Duncan, EUL MS 397/644)

The traces of their friendship and collaboration kept in the Ronald Duncan Collection include photographs, libretti, news-cuttings, programmes, letters, copies of musical scores, and audio recordings including elements of the rehearsals for This way to the tomb. Amongst the more touching items is Lament for Ben (EUL MS 397/1046), a song contrafacted by Duncan from the trio of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A minor (No. 16, D. 845). Duncan underlaid the score in minute and heavily revised scrawl with a new poem lamenting the passing of his great friend, and signed it at the foot of the page ‘RD. 4.XI.76’ (Britten died on the 4th of December 1976, rather than the indicated November). The choice of Schubert is a poignant one: not only was Schubert Ronald Duncan’s favourite composer, but Britten himself performed and recorded a not inconsiderable number of Schubert’s works, and would play some of them for Duncan in the early days of their friendship. In his autobiography, All men are islands, Duncan wrote: ‘Britten and I were now constant companions. He used to play Schubert to me. I had been looking for Britten for ten years. Sometimes he would play Chopin, but it was Schubert that I would make him play over and over again.’ (Duncan, 1964, p. 132) And so, almost exactly forty years later, Duncan memorialised Britten through a piece that Britten may well have played for him in their youth.

The text of this appropriated song is barely legible in situ, but the poem Lament for Ben appears in the collected poems – albeit in a form that does not quite match the lyric so tortuously worked out under the musical score. Working from both the manuscript and the published poem, I have attempted to reconstruct this very personal tribute. In order to do so, I have blended the printed poem with that of the manuscript, adjusted one or two rhythms and word placements, and transposed the piece into a key more amenable to the average voice. Finally, I have made a recording of myself singing and accompanying the song to give a sense of what Ronald Duncan may have had in mind – possibly its first singing in any public sense.

And so, with apologies for the recording quality and my mid-November cold-filled voice, a musical offering from the Ronald Duncan collection in time for Britten’s birthday on the feast of St Cecilia: a song which, by coincidence, is not wholly inappropriate to the more lamentable events for which the date is sometimes remembered.

This post was written by our Digital Support Officer Andrew Cusworth.


Recorded in the Mary Harries Memorial Chapel, University of Exeter, with thanks to the chaplaincy and director of chapel music for permission for the use of the piano and chapel.

 

Lament for Ben
(to Schubert’s Trio Opus 42)

Is life, this life, his life
now lost, was that a dream,
And death, a dream too?
Whose sleep, whose dream
Are we who live?
This death, his death
makes all of us die too.
His life was ours;
His death is ours;
We grieve, for whom?
We grieve for ourselves.

May Bach and Purcell
Bend down to this bier
But let music sing
to sing their song
Their song, their song
Though poetry’s dumb.

In this waste, this grief
these notes alone lend us
yields us
give us
some relief
though brief
though brief

(Ronald Duncan, ed. Miranda Weston-Smith, Collected poems, Ronald Duncan Literary Foundation, 2003, pp. 226-7)

An adapted score for Ronald Duncan’s ‘Lament for Benjamin Britten’ set to the Trio from Schubert’s Piano Sonata D845

Why not try playing it for yourself?

It’s National Poetry Day!

To celebrate Exeter Poetry Festival and National Poetry Day I have been tweeting one of my favourite Ronald Duncan poems every day this week. Why not take a look at the @UOEHeritageColl twitter feed and read a few?

Ronald Duncan published five main collections of poetry during his lifetime (Postcards to Pulcinella [1941], The Mongrel [1950], The Solitudes [1960], Unpopular Poems [1969], For the Few [1977]). In addition to these he also published a five-part epic poem ‘Man’ (1970-74) and many other individual poems. On National Poetry Day I’m moving away from the polish of published works and taking a look at some of the unique manuscripts held within the collection which offer an insight into Duncan’s life and writing process.

The poet at work

Portrayals in film and TV mean that I often imagine the writing process as a deeply organised one. The poet sits in front of his favourite typewriter, or pulls out a pocket notebook carried for such occasions, and reels off lines of beauty conveniently supplied by a voiceover. Working on the Ronald Duncan Collection has swiftly disabused me of this notion.

While the collection does contain many workbooks, and these seem to be an integral part of Duncan’s early working process, it also contains poems scribbled on paper plates, napkins, the backs of old letters and various assorted scraps of paper. To me this suggests a furious kind of franticness to the writing, an urgency that the poem must be recorded now while it is still fresh. One of the paper plates has clearly been used before being re-purposed and though it isn’t perhaps the romantic ideal of a typewriter, there’s a certain charm to the thought of Duncan wolfing down a finger sandwich or sausage roll before flipping the plate to compose a poem.

 

The gift of words

Like many other poets, a great number of Duncan’s poems are dedicated to family members and friends. Weddings, birthdays and christenings are all celebrated in verse and the grief of death is likewise immortalised. The idea of poetry as a gift is well established.

Duncan, however, takes this idea a step further than most. A manuscript poem dedicated to his granddaughter Karina reads ‘No Easter egg, my child, because I forgot to get one’ and provides a poem as a substitute. Though I’m not sure that I personally would have appreciated this exchange of chocolate for poetry as a child, it provides a lovely glimpse of family life. Another poem is dedicated ‘For Rose Marie, as good a craftsman in exchange for her parsley sauce’.

 

The art of poetry

Many of Duncan’s poems use colourful imagery to describe the natural world and a small proportion of the manuscripts in the collection have been illustrated to reflect this. The illustrations tend to be painted onto the manuscript and vary from simple bright swirls of colour to abstract representations of the poems’ subjects. The vibrant designs give a tantalising glimpse of what was in Duncan’s mind when composing the poems.

 

The final word

However familiar I become with the Ronald Duncan Collection, I am always aware that my interpretation of Duncan’s work is only one possibility. With this in mind I leave you with an audio clip of Ronald Duncan talking about poetry, one line of which I particularly enjoy;

“If you can’t hear me it is probably because I don’t speak loud enough, and if you don’t understand me it is because the poetry isn’t any good”

(please note that in some browsers the ‘Play’ button does not seem to appear. If you click before the timer on the left hand side of the sound bar it should start playing)

Thoughts of a GBP intern: my internship in Special Collections

From January to March 2017, we were very lucky to have Emma Burman working with us as an intern on the University of Exeter’s Graduate Business Partnership scheme. Now Emma looks back at her internship and reflects on how working in Special Collections has helped her on her chosen career path…

 

My name is Emma and I worked as a GBP (Graduate Business Partnership) intern in the University of Exeter’s Special Collections for three months from January to March 2017. GBP is a scheme designed to help get graduates into paid internships in organisations usually based in the South West. Before you ask, ‘isn’t an internship just slave labour?’, the answer is no; the best part of these schemes is that you truly are valued. You gain paid work experience, and you are assigned a job role with its own projects and responsibilities. So they really are the perfect opportunity for any graduate!

I graduated from the University of Exeter in July 2016 with a BA honours degree in History. I had known that I wanted to work in the heritage sector for a couple of years, and I had already gained voluntary experience within several museums and heritage organisations. However, after completing my university degree I found it really difficult to find a job. Most roles required relevant work experience, but in the typical catch 22 scenario, the only way to get the experience was by securing one of these jobs. As a result I ended up working part-time in customer service, trying to gain more work experience by volunteering, whilst also applying for countless jobs.

As a recent graduate of the University of Exeter, the Career Zone had regularly sent internship opportunities to me. They were generally science, geography, marketing or student services related roles, which didn’t suit my interests. However, one day I saw an advert for two heritage and museum roles. They looked perfect, so I applied for them both in the hope that this could be my chance to get some paid experience. Lo and behold, I was offered the role of Heritage Collections Support Officer, working within the University’s Special Collections team.

So for three months I worked full-time within a heritage organisation – my dream come true! And it really has been a wonderful experience. My main role when I arrived at Special Collections was to update the Heritage Collections website with information about various collections from the archives. I really enjoyed this project as it required a lot of in-depth research into the collections, and it provided me with the opportunity to look at and handle archival material. I also used social media and other forums, such as articles for the Arts and Culture Magazine, to advertise these updates and the work I was doing for Special Collections.

The updated Collection Highlights on the University of Exeter’s Special Collections website

My final project was to design, research and curate an exhibition on the Norman Lockyer collection, which went on display in July as part of the International Astronomical Union symposium at the University of Exeter. It was a real honour to be entrusted with the responsibility of independently curating the exhibition for this event.

The exhibition of material from the Normal Lockyer archive for the International Astronomical Union symposium

Through these projects I have learnt a lot more than just the basics. As an intern, everyone on the team has offered me the opportunity to learn about their role. I have learnt skills such as cataloguing, website maintenance, and copyright procedures.

Helping an archivist to catalogue material from the Syon Abbey archive

I was even invited on a trip to the South West Film and Television Archive in Plymouth by one of our archivists to research and listen to reel to reel tape recordings from the Ronald Duncan Collection, and I became a bit of an expert on using the machines! As a result I have gained many new and different skills that are really useful in this profession.

Using a reel-to-reel tape recorder at the South West Film and Television Archive

I think the GBP schemes are invaluable as they offer university graduates the opportunities that many employers ordinarily might not be able to. They give them a chance to get their foot in the door, gain new skills, learn about the working world, and earn a good salary. I feel the importance of these schemes is evident in the fact that since being employed by the University, I have been offered a job in a heritage institution and I now feel optimistic about the future. So for any graduates, my best piece of advice would be to apply for a GBP scheme internship, because the skills and experience you will gain from it will really help you to pursue your career and achieve your goals.

Click here to find out more about Graduate Business Partnerships at the University of Exeter.

Click here to view some of the collection highlights held at the University of Exeter’s heritage collections.

Cataloguing the Syon Abbey archive: project highlights

Eight months have elapsed since I began working on the Syon Abbey archive cataloguing project, and since then I have been cheerfully cataloguing my way through a multitude of fascinating records. You can find out what has already been catalogued via our online catalogue here.

As I reach the halfway point, with a further eight months still ahead of me, I take a look back at some of my highlights of the project so far…

 

Profession papers

A very special collection of records within the archive are the profession papers, which I first looked at in January 2017. The profession papers record the vows made by novices when they officially entered the order (often referred to as ‘simple’ or ‘temporary profession’) and the renewal of these vows at a later period (often referred to as ‘perpetual’ or ‘solemn profession’). The handwritten profession papers in the Syon Abbey archive date from 1607, when the community was living in Lisbon in Portugal, to the late twentieth century, when the community was settled at South Brent in Devon. It is clear that these documents were of great importance to the community, not only because we know they were kept in a safe at Syon Abbey before they were deposited at the University of Exeter, but also due to the very great care that was taken in creating them. The vows have all been lovingly transcribed and signed, and a large majority of the vows have been beautifully decorated, illuminated and illustrated. Below are four examples of vows illustrated by one of the Syon nuns, Sister Mary Stanislas, in the 1920s. I’m looking forward to cataloguing the profession papers soon as part of the ‘Community’ section of the archive.

 

History of Women Religious of Britain and Ireland conference

A great highlight of the project for me personally was the opportunity to attend the annual conference of the History of Women Religious of Britain and Ireland (H-WRBI). H-WRBI is a research network which encourages research of women religious, and includes academics, archivists, students and others interested in the history of women religious. This year the conference took place in June at the University College Dublin and the theme was: ‘Sources: Archival, Oral, Visual, Material, Digital’. I gained new knowledge and insight into current research from the fascinating series of papers, which has proved invaluable in understanding the context of the records I have been cataloguing. The conference also impressed me with the sheer variety of research interests and the different ways in which archives have been used and interpreted by those engaged in the study of women religious. I therefore left Dublin feeling inspired and excited to continue cataloguing the Syon Abbey archive, to ensure the archive is as usable as possible for future research and innovation.

You can visit the website of H-WRBI here.

The O’Brien Centre for Science at the University College Dublin, where the conference took place.

What the Abbey Cat Saw

Whilst creating a box list of some unlisted boxes in the archive in December 2016, I came across a pamphlet with the rather delightful title ‘What the Abbey Cat Saw’. I was pleased to have another opportunity to look at it in May this year, when I catalogued it as part of the section ‘Syon Abbey publications and printed matter’. This pamphlet was published in 1957 and written by Abbess Mary Magdalen Nevin. Written from the perspective of Punch, the Abbey cat, it describes daily life at Syon Abbey, providing insight into the structure of a Syon nun’s day and the different personalities within the community, as well recounting some humorous incidents involving the cat! You can find the pamphlet in our catalogue here.

 

Finding a fragment!

In August 2017, I catalogued the financial records in the archive, including a large number of account books. Within one account book I was startled to discover a fragment of parchment that appeared to be from a medieval manuscript! There was significant fire damage to the fragment; however, it was still legible and had a lovely decorated initial in blue and red ink. In addition to the Syon Abbey archive, the University of Exeter’s Special Collections also looks after Syon Abbey’s medieval and modern manuscript collection. Within this collection (reference EUL MS 262) is a folder containing fragments of manuscripts that were found c 1990 in the attic of Syon Abbey in South Brent, Devon. Upon looking through the folder, I was thrilled to find a fragment that corresponded to the newly discovered fragment in script, decoration, and fire damage. The newly discovered fragment has now been removed from the account book (a slip of acid-free paper marks the page from where it was removed) and has been placed with the other fragments in EUL MS 262/fragments. The discovery of this fragment and the reunification with its other half was a very exciting moment. It just goes to show that exciting things can be found in the most unexpected of places – especially in archives!

Detail from a newly-discovered manuscript fragment in EUL MS 262/fragments.

Looking ahead to the next eight months…

Over the next eight months until the project completion at the end of March 2018, I will continue cataloguing the Syon Abbey archive and making the description of the records available for you via our online catalogue. I also hope to carry on promoting the archive in a variety of ways, including via this blog, on Twitter, through an exhibition, and at conferences next year. At the end of the project I hope to leave behind an archive that is much easier to search and use, as well as some new highlights to share with you!

 

By Annie Price, Archivist, Syon Abbey archive

 

 

The Writer that Rocked

 

In the swinging sixties the bedrooms of Britain vibrated to the sounds of Rock and Roll. Opposing the monopoly of the BBC, pirate radio stations were broadcasting popular music to the masses, with none more infamous than Radio Caroline.

News cutting of an article by Ronald Duncan

50 years ago today, indignant at this flagrant disregard for its laws, parliament passed the 1967 Marine and Broadcasting Offences Act. This Act banned not only the act of broadcasting, but the operation of broadcasting equipment, or the knowing collaboration or assistance with the broadcasting of Pirate Radio stations. This meant that for the first time writers supplying Radio Caroline with scripts would also be risking jail.

Ronald Duncan was one of a number of writers who openly campaigned against the act on the grounds of freedom of speech. Writing a number of newspaper columns on the subject and going so far as to openly claim that he had broadcast from Radio Caroline every day for a month in protest, despite attesting that he hated pop music.

Extract from a workbook showing a handwritten script for Radio Caroline

A handwritten script and recording held within the Ronald Duncan collection suggest that Duncan likely followed through with his claim to write for Pirate Radio, though as these were written under the generic pseudonym ‘Mr X’ it would take a great deal of research into the depths of Radio Caroline’s archives to see if he did indeed ever spend a week aboard the ship. Either way, his campaigning on behalf of the pirate stations’ freedom of speech earns him a small place in the
annals of radio history.

Listen to a short extract of a recording of Ronald Duncan’s script for Radio Caroline below.

Happy Birthday Ronald Duncan!

 

Ronald Duncan on his 50th birthday 6th August 1964

I can’t think of a better way to mark Ronald Duncan’s birthday than with one of his own poems.

They tell me it’s my birthday. How old am I?

Too innocent to be 10;

Too arrogant to be 20,

Too rich to be 30

Too poor to be 40.

Not ambitious enough to be 50;

Not wise enough to be 60

If 70, women would need me

and love me more; if 80, my family

would look more hopeful;

If 90, they would appear more frustrated

Nor can I be 100 for then I,

as all the world will know.

So, 15 must be the age of me

If age is measured by maturity.

 

Ronald Duncan, 1970

 

Ronald and Briony Duncan celebrating Ronald’s birthday in August 1969

Exploring daily life in the twentieth century at Syon Abbey

What was life like for the community at Syon Abbey in the twentieth century? What did the nuns and sisters do during the day? And did major world events have an impact on life in this enclosed community? These questions and more can now be explored through recently-catalogued material in the Syon Abbey archive.

Photograph of the community in 1961. From ‘The Poor Souls’ Friend’ 1960-1, p. 178.

Community Diaries

A valuable archival resource for exploring daily life at Syon Abbey are the 101 diaries, kept by the community between 1890 and 2004. These diaries provide details relating to spiritual matters, such as prayer, feast days, and religious ceremonies, but also offer greater insight into the intricacies of day-to-day life in a religious community. These include references to: recreation; visitors to the Abbey; growing crops and raising livestock; construction and repairs to buildings; correspondence sent and received; and observations about the weather. The diaries also reveal that the Syon nuns were aware of national and international news outside of the enclosure, including the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and the death of Joseph Stalin. Furthermore, the diaries indicate that global events, such as the First and Second World War, did have an impact on the community. For example, the diarist writes much about the Belgian refugees living in the local town of Chudleigh between 1914 and 1916, as well as the American soldiers who in the 1940s were encamped on land belonging to Syon Abbey. Finally, the diaries also bring to light the personalities and interactions within the community through several light-hearted as well as heartfelt entries.

The community diaries can be searched in our online catalogue here.

Syon Abbey Community Diaries (Ref: EUL MS 389/ADM/5)

Diary 1947-1950 (Ref: EUL MS 389/ADM/5/47) The entry for the 26 April 1947 reads: ‘1st annivers:[ary] of Lady Abbess Consecration – day opened with a chimney on fire in Presbytery – sung mass – tea & happy recreation.’

The Book of Customs

Another useful document for gaining insight into the daily routine at Syon Abbey is the so-called ‘Book of Customs’ or ‘Customs Book’, which provides guidelines on community life, both spiritual and secular. It includes instructions on conduct in the choir, where and when silence should be kept, and how often different types of laundry may be washed. The Book of Customs also contains details of the duties of the different offices the nuns could hold, such as those of the cellaress (responsible for food and drink), the sacristan (responsible for church furnishings), and the infirmarian (who nursed the sick). There are a number of manuscript copies of the ‘Book of Customs’ in the archive, transcribed into notebooks and dating from the late nineteenth century to approximately the mid-twentieth century. Several notebooks contain handwritten amendments, indicating that the Book of Customs was revised regularly.

Material relating to customs can be searched in our online catalogue here.

The Book of Customs (Ref: EUL MS 389/RUL/4)

Minutes of the Chapter and the Council

The minute books of the Chapter (all the sisters in solemn vows, as well as the sisters in temporary vows who had been professed for three full years) and the Council (a small group of advisors to the abbess) shed light on a broad range of matters regarding the management of Syon Abbey. The Conventual Chapter generally discussed and voted on matters such as the election of abbesses and councillors, new admissions to the Order, and any sister wishing to make her vows. The Council would meet with the abbess to discuss issues on a wide variety of administrative matters relating, for example, the appointment of staff, revisions to the constitutions, and the management of the estate. The minute books of both the Chapter and the Council provide fascinating insight into the day-to-day administrative challenges of managing a monastery in the twentieth century.

The Minutes of the Chapter can be searched in our online catalogue here.

The Minutes of the Council can be searched in our online catalogue here.

Notebook entitled ‘Minutes of the ‘Discreets”, 1898-1907 (Ref: EUL MS 389/ADM/2/2)

On a personal note…

As an archivist with little knowledge of religious orders and women religious prior to embarking on the Syon Abbey archive cataloguing project, these records were invaluable in gaining an understanding of the community and the day-to-day operation of a monastery. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!

By Annie Price, Archivist, Syon Abbey archive