PMC Notes

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PMC Notes No .


Ephemeral Arts Page 16

The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art is an educational charity committed to promoting original research into the history of British art and architecture. It is a part of Yale University and its activities and resources include research events, public lectures, publications, fellowships, grants programmes, and a library and archive. PMC Notes, the Centre’s newsletter, is published three times per year.

Events Calendar See cover wrap Interview: Food, the Senses, and Art History 16 A Treatise on the Art of Dance 26 PMC Notes No . 24 Welcome 2 Extreme Culture: Rolf and Margaret Gardiner 8 New Books 4

Hello! It is with great pleasure that I welcome you to this issue of PMC Notes as acting director. We have recently bid Mark Hallett farewell after his ten-and-a-half years’ service as director of the Paul Mellon Centre. I know that everyone who is reading this will want to join me in wishing Mark every success as he takes up the post of the Märit Rausing Director of the Courtauld Institute of Art.

At the Centre, one of Mark’s many legacies as director will be an openness to experimenting with the forms and formats through which art history is researched and how it is communicated to audiences, whether this is in print, through digital publication, via film, podcast, or at one of the many live events we host at the Centre or partner institutions. This creative and critical spirit of enquiry, towards enriching and expanding the histories of British art, will remain firmly embedded in the work of the Centre.

PMC Notes offers a snapshot of some of the ideas and projects being developed by members of the Centre’s community. The articles in this issue speak to this opening up and questioning of the boundaries of British art. Holly Shaffer and Sussan Babaie’s text on food and the ephemeral arts is developed from a dialogue


they had this spring at the Centre as part of the series titled “In Conversation: New Directions in Art History”. Holly and Sussan take foodstuffs not only as representational subject matter but also ask us to think more conceptually about art history as a methodology for studying perishable goods and ephemeral arts across time zones and continents.

Tanya Harrod, a recipient of a PMC fellowship, also gives insight into her research-in-progress on the artistic and political lives of art collector Margaret Gardiner and her brother Rolf Gardiner, reflecting on the genre of biography as adapted to the life stories of two siblings. Margaret’s collection now forms the core of the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness, Orkney.

Finally, our colleague Hannah Jones shares recent research on a rare book in the Centre’s library, which simultaneously sheds light on the history of ballet, and publishing and research collaboration on European dance between Cecil Sharp and Paul Oppé. Through all of these articles, there is a call for histories of art to pay attention to figures and art forms that, for several reasons, have until recently played minor roles within standard accounts of British art. This kind of art history is complex cultural work which poses many questions about who and what is visible, and the suitability of existing arthistorical methods.

This issue of PMC Notes gives a sense of hope about the incredible range and breadth of work that is happening in the field of British art – and what remains to be done. I hope you will be inspired by what you read here to interact with the Centre further in the coming months: either in person at Bedford Square to attend an event (remember to look on the inside of the removable cover wrap for our calendar) or to use our library and archives; or to delve deeper into research through a PMC publication online or in print. I look forward to continuing these conversations, and beginning many new ones, over the coming months.


In Tudor and Jacobean England, visual art was often termed “lively”. This word was used to describe the full range of visual and material culture – from portraits to funeral monuments, book illustrations to tapestry. To a modern viewer, this claim seems perplexing: what could “liveliness” have meant in a culture with seemingly little appreciation for illusionistic naturalism? And in a period supposedly characterised by fear of idolatry, how could “liveliness” have been a good thing? In this wideranging and innovative book, Christina Faraday excavates a uniquely Tudor model of vividness: one grounded in rhetorical techniques for creating powerful mental images for audiences. By drawing parallels with the dominant communicative framework of the day, the book sheds new light on a lost mode of Tudor art criticism and appreciation, revealing how objects across a vast range of genres and contexts were taking part in the same intellectual and aesthetic conversations.

Tudor Liveliness: Vivid Art in PostReformation England

Christina J. Faraday

Publication date

April 2023


270 × 216 mm

Pages 208 Illustrations


In Tudor and Jacobean England, visual art was often termed ‘lively’. This word was used to describe the full range of visual and material culture – from portraits to funeral monuments, book illustrations to tapestry. To a modern viewer, this claim seems perplexing: what could ‘liveliness’ have meant in a culture with seemingly little appreciation for illusionistic naturalism? And in a period supposedly characterised by fear of idolatry, how could ‘liveliness’ have been a good thing? In this wide-ranging and innovative book, Christina Faraday excavates a uniquely Tudor model of vividness: one grounded in rhetorical techniques for creating powerful mental images for audiences. By drawing parallels with the dominant communicative framework of the day, Tudor Liveliness sheds new light on a lost mode of Tudor art criticism and appreciation, revealing how objects across a vast range of genres and contexts were taking part in the same intellectual and aesthetic conversations. Resurrecting a lost model for art theory, Faraday re-enlivens the vivid visual and material culture of Tudor and Jacobean England, recovering its original power to move, impress and delight. Dr Christina J. Faraday is a research fellow in art history at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and an ahrC/BBC New Generation Thinker. Vivid Art in Post-Reformation England Front jacket: Unknown artist, Edward Russell, Son of Francis Earl of Bedford (detail), 1573. From the Woburn Abbey Collection Back jacket ‘R.S.’, ‘Interiorum Corpus Humani Partium Delineatio’ detail with skin flaps lifted, bound in Thomas Gemini, Compendiosa Totius Anatomiae Delineatio (1559 edn). Wellcome Collection Library Printed in China Tudor
Christina J.
Christina J. Faraday TUDOR LIVELINESS Vi V id a rt in Postr e F ormation e ngland
Tudor Liveliness

From Victorian breakthroughs in synthesising pigments to the BBC’s conversion to chromatic broadcasting, the story of colour’s technological development is inseparable from wider processes of modernisation that transformed Britain. This revolutionary history brings to light how new colour technologies informed ideas about national identity during a period of profound social change, when the challenges of industrialisation, decolonisation of the Empire, and evolving attitudes to race and gender reshaped the nation. Offering a compelling new account of modern British visual culture that reveals colour to be central to its aesthetic trajectories and political formations, this chromatic lens deepens our understanding of how British art is made and what it means, offering a new way to assess the visual landscape of the period and interpret its colourful objects.

The Rainbow’s Gravity: Colour, Materiality and British Modernity

Kirsty Sinclair Dootson

Publication date

May 2023


255 × 230 mm





New Books


Spanning the designed landscapes of England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, the American Revolution of 1776 and the Irish rebellion of 1798, with some detours into revolutionary France, this book traces a comparative history of property structures and landscape design across the eighteenth-century Atlantic world and evolving concepts of plantation and improvement within imperial ideology. Revolutionaries such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, George Washington, Arthur Young, Lord Edward FitzGerald and Pierce Butler constructed houses, farms and landscape gardens –many of which have since been forgotten or selectively overlooked. How did the new republics and revolutionaries, having overthrown social hierarchies, translate their principles into spatial form? As the eighteenth-century ideology of improvement was applied to a variety of transatlantic and enslaved environments, new landscape designs were created – stretching from the suburbs of Dublin to the sea islands of the state of Georgia.

Landscape Design and Revolution in Ireland and the United States, 1688–1815

Finola O’Kane

Publication date

June 2023


280 × 245 mm

Pages 304



LANDSCAPE DESIGN & REVOLUTION LANDSCAPE DESIGN & REVOLUTION in Ireland and the United States 1688–1815 Finola O’Kane finola O’KANE in Ireland and the United States 1688–1815

This pioneering book explores how art shaped the nationalisation of the East India Company between the loss of its primary monopoly in 1813 and its ultimate liquidation in 1858. Challenging the idea that parliament drove political reform, it argues instead that the Company’s political legitimacy was destabilised by novel modes of artistic production in colonial India. New artistic forms and practices – the result of new technologies like lithography and steam navigation, middle-class print formats including the periodical, the scrapbook and the literary annual, as well as the prevalence of amateur sketching among Company employees – reconfigured the colonial regime’s racial boundaries and techniques of governance. They flourished within transimperial networks, integrating middle-class societies with new political convictions and moral disciplines, and thereby eroding the aristocratic corporate cultures that had previously structured colonial authority in India.

Unmaking the East India Company:

British Art and Political Reform in Colonial India, c. 1813–1858

Tom Young

Publication date

June 2023


254 × 190 mm


304 Illustrations


New Books

British Art and Political Reform in Colonial India, c.1813–58

Extreme Culture: Rolf and Margaret Gardiner

Tanya Harrod, an independent author and art historian, reflects on her project of writing a joint biography of Rolf and Margaret Gardiner, and explores how their lives entwined with artistic and political movements of the twentieth century. In Spring 2021, Tanya was awarded a senior fellowship by the PMC to support this research.

Rolf Gardiner (1902–1971) and Margaret Gardiner (1904–2005) are names that will be familiar to very different kinds of readers. Rolf Gardiner’s achievements have been debated by historians of organic farming and forestry. He is central to discussions of “Englishness” in the context of the folk dance and song revival as it developed in the early twentieth century. He also floats up as a link with the German youth movement in the 1920s and he has been categorised as a fellow traveller of the right in the 1930s. His sister, Margaret Gardiner, is recognised as an important patron and collector of modern art, but she will also be familiar to those investigating antifascism in Britain in the 1930s. After the Second World War, she emerges as a prominent campaigner for nuclear disarmament and against the continuance of the Vietnam War.

Why then research Rolf and Margaret Gardiner, in a double biography, given that the various literatures in which they are discussed make absolutely no connection between the two? One reason might be that to write about siblings is to investigate a relationship that is too often taken for granted. While there is an


extensive literature on the Oedipal triangle and on mother–child relationships, siblings have been relatively little studied, despite the vital importance of what is often life’s longest relationship. Another reason for examining them in tandem is that their joint lives touch on a startling range of twentieth-century issues, as both sought to be modern and to make meaningful contributions to society – at home and in Europe. Brother and sister introduce us to painful decisions in personal politics, art, ecology, and the idea of Europe in their own time and beyond. Their activities thread through the twentieth century in ways that challenge simple assumptions about choice.

Rolf and Margaret were exceptionally close and their varied friendships with figures as diverse as the poet W.H. Auden, the writer D.H. Lawrence, the anthropologist John Layard, and the educator A.S. Neill were often intertwined. Their thinking was affected by new intellectual disciplines as they entered popular discourse, in particular psychoanalysis and comparative anthropology. Their marked and specific ideas about what constituted art and their responses to the visual world are of particular interest and helped shape their political ideas. If Margaret lent emotional and financial support to individual artists, Rolf reacted against the individual in favour of communitybased activity, making him an early advocate of socially engaged art. For Margaret, art resided in discrete objects – progressive painting and sculpture, taking in poetry and fiction – produced by remarkable individuals. She was a patron who also, unconfidently, wanted to be an artist of a kind herself, initially as a writer of short stories and biographical sketches and, intermittently, as a painter. Artists, writers, and intellectuals became central to her circle of friends. For Rolf, by contrast, art was to be embedded and anonymous, framed by ritual, and involving dance, song, and ways of cultivating the land and managing forests.

As a Cambridge student in 1921, Rolf Gardiner was already in revolt against what he saw as devastating societal failures in postFirst World War Britain. This led, although not inevitably, to an interest in ecology, good husbandry and, more ideologically, the repopulation of the countryside. In political terms, he looked abroad, becoming part of the conservative and anti-capitalist wing of the German youth movement. In 1928, his mother’s friend the artist Maxwell Ashby Armfield painted Rolf as a young wanderer with a rucksack and stick, a poetic visual record of the young Rolf Gardiner’s dream


of revitalising the land. If Rolf saw art in terms of action, not least, in working among the unemployed in the North of England, Margaret was at first less certain, taking part in her brother’s enthusiasms, admiring his idealism.

Travelling in Central Europe in the early 1920s both Rolf and Margaret had seen the human devastation caused by the First World War. Both visited Vienna in the early 1920s to stay with their mother’s relatives. Rolf, however, longed to leave what he regarded as a decadent city, living briefly among the peasants of the South Tyrol. Margaret, by contrast, revelled in her mother’s circle of friends within a cultivated assimilated Jewish community. She befriended the artist Franziska (Franzie) Zach whose work in fresco and oil on canvas has a monumental quality, peopled with women working or bathing. This contact with an artist who was to die of complications caused by malnutrition in 1930 affected Margaret deeply. It was no coincidence that in the year Franzie died, Margaret first came to know the sculptor, Barbara Hepworth. She became a focus and inspiration, Margaret becoming a friend and a patron of both Hepworth and Ben Nicholson. She also became an activist against fascism, serving from 1936–1940 as the secretary of For Intellectual Liberty.

Rolf’s interests and loyalties were put to the test in 1933. His friend and mentor Georg Götsch ran the Musikheim in Frankfurt an der Oder, its medieval-modern buildings designed by Walter Gropius’s colleague Otto Bartning. There Rolf and Götsch taught early dance and folk dance and polyphonic music in a progressive spirit: “Why should not the re-discovery of Josquin des Pres or the old ballad-form prove the height of modernity?”. As an admired place to train teachers and youth groups, it immediately came under surveillance when Hitler took power. Rolf was to endorse the so-called German Revolution in order to help save the Musikheim, writing, at Götsch’s suggestion, to Joseph Goebbels in its defence. His unconditional love of Germany subsequently led him to support National Socialism in the British press, bringing about a parting of ways with Margaret that kept them apart for more than a decade.

Margaret’s tastes, achievements, and way of living now seem uncontroversial and can be celebrated. Rolf’s causes and enthusiasms hardly appear part of a progressive twentieth-century narrative. As an anti-modern modern, an intellectual anti-intellectual seeking older less rational forms of wisdom, world events overtook him. Only now does it seem possible to analyse his political and artistic trajectory.


Writing about Rolf in relation to Margaret helps us understand them both and also suggests the contingency of their shared desire to do good politically and artistically. Both live on, Margaret through her collection of art at the Pier Arts Centre on Orkney and Rolf through his writing about good husbandry, more relevant than ever, and through the forested landscapes around Cranborne Chase in Dorset, still farmed organically by his son, the conductor John Eliot Gardiner.

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Detail of Maxwell Ashby Armfield, Rolf Gardiner, 1928, tempera on board, with frame 61.5 × 34.2 cm, without frame 51.5 × 24 cm. Private collection. Image courtesy of the Estate of Maxwell Ashby Armfield / Bridgeman Images / Photo: Matthew Hollow (all rights reserved).

Page 11 (clockwise from top)

“Going out to bring home the last sheaves of the harvest, Aug 34”, Gore Farm, 1934. Private collection. Photo: Matthew Hollow (all rights reserved).

Margaret and Rolf Gardiner hiking, circa 1919. Private collection. Photo: Matthew Hollow (all rights reserved).

Rolf Gardiner dancing a jig, late 1920s. Private collection. Photo: Matthew Hollow (all rights reserved).

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The Theatre Hall at the Musikheim, Frankfurt an der Oder, completed 1929. Architect Otto Bartning; furniture Erich Dieckmann; lighting Wilhelm Wagenfeld; wall colouring Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack. Private Collection. Image © Atelier Leopold Haase & Co. Photo: Matthew Hollow (all rights reserved).

Page 15 (clockwise from top left)

Ramsey & Muspratt, Margaret Gardiner, inscribed on back “Xmas 1932”. Private Collection. Photo: Peter Lofts Photography / Matthew Hollow (all rights reserved).

Maxwell Ashby Armfield, Margaret Gardiner, for Maxwell Ashby Armfield, The Woodlanders, 1911, pencil on paper, 22 × 17 cm. Private Collection. Image courtesy of the Estate of Maxwell Ashby Armfield / Bridgeman Images / Photo: Matthew Hollow (all rights reserved).

Barbara Hepworth, Two Heads, 1932, cumberland alabaster, 30 × 37.5 × 22.7 cm. Collection of The Pier Art Centre, Stromness, Orkney (PAC 015). Image courtesy of Barbara Hepworth © Bowness (all rights reserved).


In this conversation, Sussan Babaie and Holly Shaffer reflect on art history as a methodology for approaching ephemeral and multisensory art forms, considering the example of food. They first explored this subject together in January 2023, at an event in the Paul Mellon Centre series titled “New Directions in Art History”. Sussan is Professor in the Arts of Iran and Islam at the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, and Holly is Assistant Professor of History of Art and Architecture at Brown University.

Food, the Senses, and Art History

16 Interview

Holly: Let’s begin with a seemingly simple question, which is how has food offered each of us new ways to think about art-historical material?

Sussan: What really interests me is that people have studied food in all fields of European arts, from the Greeks and Romans, to the medieval table, the Renaissance table, feasts, through to contemporary practices and issues such as food waste. I work on the arts of Iran and Islam, but many aspects of art history have perhaps been the purview of European arts, so that practitioners assume if you use a certain term, you mean the same as in a European context. But that’s a problem, a bit like thinking that oil painting was the invention of artists in Europe – and that if anyone else adopts oil on canvas, they are derivative and followers. Just because human beings have feasted and gathered together, it doesn’t mean only one method or set of questions can be articulated.

Holly: That makes me think about a type of Safavid ceramic platter with exquisite calligraphy and prayer written around the edges that you explore in your work, which encourages one to think visually, materially, and with concepts of ephemerality. There is the ceramic form and glaze, the written blessing that acts on the food put in the dish, and then of course the food itself, which can bring its own colour palette, say, from golden saffron, green herbs, and pomegranate red.

What you said also makes me think about the European term “still life”. If you take, for example, paintings from eighteenth-century India of foods, gardens, or platters of delicacies, “still life” isn’t the correct term. First, because the foods are often within a context of cultivation, sale, and entertainment and pleasure rather than being the sole focus of an image. Or if they are the sole focus, they are often depictions of natural history rather than a collection of foodstuffs and goods. Second, because they are working within a different symbolic or moral context.

Sussan: What’s interesting about that is that still life, like a great many genres of European painting, is tied up with methods of iconographic studies. And I find, as you know well, that scholarship on Persian and Indian painting, for instance, has been bound by iconographic approaches: who does what in these pictures? What’s happening? What’s the story? Why are the figures wearing those colours?

But there are other things involved, which have to do with the particularity of materials, technologies, how you hold the object in your hand. For example, paintings are often in bound volumes and part of a poetic or historic narrative.


A field like ours has to grapple with the objecthood of the objects that are the primary material of our research. You mentioned a platter earlier; I was trained as an art historian when platters and pots were the decorative arts, wondrous things to decorate a palace. Whereas it has colours, texture, a certain weight when full of rice, and evokes smell and taste, perhaps even making somebody’s mouth water at the sight of it.

Holly: I agree, one has to peel back some of that training and return to an objectcentred analysis. One can ignore previous hierarchies and follow the works themselves. That’s a really interesting tension in the study of ephemeral things. On the one hand, there’s an impulse to understand what an experience was like in an historical moment that has passed. And to ask, does the painting or object bring you closer to that experience or give access to the past? But, on the other hand, the image or object has its own history, and as a representation is working within its own aesthetic framework. It seems to me that many representations are selfreflexive about ephemerality; they do really anticipate that time will pass, and that the original moment will be gone, and they aestheticise it.

There’s an eighteenth-century Mughal depiction of a mango, which you could see both as a natural history illustration of a mango plant or as an evocation of the taste and smell of the mango in season. What I like about this particular manuscript, which was collected by Sir John Soane, is that it also has mango-shaped decorative designs above and below the mango, with patterns in the mango’s colour palette, which acknowledges the aestheticisation of the whole page: the mango as a fruit, as a design, as a pigment. Across all of the ephemeral arts, we’re looking at these aestheticising moments in their representation.

I think that’s why I’ve tended to study representations alongside other objects, narratives, and stories, to build up material from different vantage points, almost like a prism, as a collective method or assemblage for accessing ephemeral arts.

Sussan: Absolutely, your object is part of an assembly of things, memories, poems, sounds, smells, performances, all of which, by the time you get to representation, are past and no longer accessible or tangible. As an art historian, you can attempt perhaps not at confident knowing, but more at an insinuation of knowing the past. That uncertainty runs awkwardly against the urge for us to capture and publish our research for posterity, as if the subject has been firmly uncovered and is now known.


Holly: Increasingly, rather than trying to access an actual experience, I aim to understand a certain degree of potential around experience. Working on albums has helped me to think through this, because any given album page may contain multiple images, say a painting juxtaposed with poems, prints, or drawings. It is up to the viewer to draw connections between them and to see what thoughts or additions they might spark. That open-endedness has so much in common with how one might approach ephemeral arts.

Sussan: Yes, and because of this, audiences are important – a lot depends on who has an album. Whether it starts with a Mughal emperor, then goes to another emperor’s library and collection, if he looks at it alongside his courtiers and women in the household, and so on. In each case, the experience of the object must be different.

In Islamic arts, there is also tremendous creativity, but innovation comes not so much from having changed the style, as having changed the way you encounter an object, story, painting, textile, dish, whatever the case may be –to intimate meanings in a new context.

Holly: Do you think generosity is a part of the approach to ephemerality?

Sussan: I like that, and of course generosity is part of the food metaphor. When I think about stories, or access to them, changing over time, the recipe is an interesting model. The recipe also calls to mind how the particularities of place – such as agricultural outputs and methods or cooking techniques –alter the experience of an object, for example, a French baguette.

Generosity, the pleasure of memory, and imagination are all entwined. If I’m looking at a feast in a Persian miniature painting, perhaps nobody is putting food in their mouths, but there is still an evocation of taste. The artist can give you hints: for instance, is the rice bowl depicted shallow or deep? I’m looking for intimation rather than confirmation. It’s not ekphrastic, and whereas art history in the European tradition has always been logocentric in its practice, the Persian or Indian painting asks us to bring in the collective of evidence: the sound of the poetic recitation, the smell of the flowers, the evocation of taste of the fruits, and the like.

The only painting in the Persian manuscript tradition that I’ve found where somebody is actually tasting food is in a sixteenth-century anthology of poetry. It’s part of a scene across two paintings that depicts food


preparation: a man carries a basket of melons on his head, birds grill on a rotisserie, empty platters are stacked for serving, large pots of food cook as wood is brought for the fire. We can look at these paintings to describe what we see and enjoy a magnificent sense of recognition. But, how do I go beyond that? And see these images not so much in terms of stylistic elements like a lack of naturalism and perspective – their flatness – all of which go against thinking there is life in them, and instead think about movement, taste, smell, and sound?

Holly: I’m also wary of using paintings as illustrations – of natural history, or a story, or manners and customs. I like how you’re thinking about how to draw out movement, taste, smell, and sound from paintings and objects. For natural history paintings, it has helped me to think about them as one piece of a sequence and ask, what happened when cultivated plants were sold in the market by greengrocers? How were they displayed? How did their images participate in storytelling? Seeing them in a less singular way, as one among a data set or as part of a collection or assemblage of plants, gardens, markets, feasts, or famines, can pull them out of arthistorical categories and typologies and allow images to speak to each other, and in that way spark other ways of thinking and knowing.

Page 17

Detail of Unknown artist, ‘Kunjra’, an occupational group represented by a greengrocer, in Tashrih al-aqvam, an account of origins and occupations of some of the sects, castes and tribes of India, 1825, written at Hansi Cantonment, Hissar District, for Colonel James Skinner. Collection of The British Library (Add. 27255, f.234v.). Image courtesy of British Library Images (all rights reserved).

Page 19

Safavid dynasty, Kerman, platter, 1677–1678, underglaze painted stonepaste, 22 cm base diameter × 40.5 cm rim diameter × 9 cm height. Collection of the British Museum (G.308). Image courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Page 20

Detail of Unknown artist, A mango depicted against a white background, labelled anbeh (mango) in Persian characters, Mughal, Murshidabad, circa 1760, 8.9 × 11.6 cm in Sir John Soane’s Album: Indian miniatures. Collection of Sir John Soane’s Museum (Vol 145 f36b) ©Sir John Soane’s Museum, London. Photo by Ardon Bar-Hama.

Page 22

Detail of Alī al-Kātib Sulṭānī (scribe), ‘Aṭṭār, Farīd al-Dīn (author), Intikhāb-i Ḥadīqah, fol.5a, 1500–1600, decorative manuscript, 31.75 × 17.78 cm. Collection of Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford (MS. Canonici Or. 122). Image courtesy of Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford (CC-BYNC 4.0).

Page 23

Detail of Alī al-Kātib Sulṭānī (scribe), ‘Aṭṭār, Farīd al-Dīn (author), Intikhāb-i Ḥadīqah, fol.4b, 1500–1600, decorative manuscript, 31.75 × 17.78 cm. Collection of Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford (MS. Canonici Or. 122). Image courtesy of Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford (CC-BYNC 4.0).


A Treatise on the Art of Dance

Investigating a rare book from the collection of Paul Oppé, Hannah Jones, Archives & Library Assistant (Graduate Trainee) looks into the history of ballet and its study.

In a reference library, a publication can be significant for its own history, design, or rarity, as much as for the information it contains. At the Centre, one such title belonged to the British art historian, critic, art collector, and museum worker Paul Oppé, whose collection is owned by the nation and has been allocated to the Centre since 2017 (under the UK’s Acceptance in Lieu scheme) and includes a library of books, exhibition catalogues, auction catalogues, and periodicals on varied subjects such as British drawings and watercolours, artist biographies, and aesthetics and the philosophy of art. The book is a beautifully illustrated manual of dance discovered in the course of cataloguing the last items in the Oppé acquisition, titled Traité élémentaire, théorique et pratique de l’art de la danse: contenant les développemens, et les démonstrations des principes généraux et particuliers, qui doivent guider le danseur (which translated reads Elementary, Theoretical and Practical Treatise on the Art of Dance: Containing Developments and Demonstrations of the General and Particular Principles Which Should Guide the Dancer). Published in 1820 and written by Carlo Blasis, the book is extremely rare and only two other copies are held in UK libraries.


As well as wondering why Oppé had this item in his collection, I also had a strong personal interest and curiosity, as prior to my work at the Centre I trained as a professional ballet dancer and performed with companies including Ballet Cymru and Cork City Ballet.

Carlo Blasis (1797–1878) was an Italian dancer, ballet teacher, and writer; he is credited as the first person to collate and publish an analysis of classical ballet technique. As a teacher, he understood the necessity of daily class and taught through a programme of progressive exercises, which are explained and presented in this book, and designed to help improve a dancer’s technique and physical capacity.

The book also contains wonderful illustrations by the artist which accompany these principles. One example is Blasis’s description of the “attitude position” – a position he created in which the dancer stands on one leg, with the other raised and extended to the back, with a bent knee. Blasis credited Jean Bologne’s (1524–1608) statue of Mercury as his inspiration. Although the position has developed and been adapted over the past two centuries through dancers’ increased flexibility and range of movement, the position created by Blasis and depicted in this book is still recognisable as one that dancers learn to this day.

Further positions illustrated in the book reveal inspiration taken from other art forms, such as the “arabesque”, a French term derived from the Italian arabesco meaning “in the Arabic style”. Arabesques are a decorative art form

of repetitive patterns and motifs, often used to add ornate and intricate designs to buildings and objects. As such, Blasis describes how through this particular position dancers can mirror the art form by creating interlacing patterns and circular, spiral formations.

In seeking to understand Oppé’s interest in the subject and his possible reasoning for acquiring the book, I came across another publication in the Centre’s library authored by Oppé and Cecil Sharp titled The Dance: An Historical Survey of Dancing in Europe (1924). The book presents the history and development of dance throughout Europe, discussing multiple genres of dance and their origins, including ballet. The text for the publication was written by Sharp, and the seventy-five plates and seven illustrations were sourced by Oppé.

Cecil Sharp (1859–1924) was a friend of both Oppé and his wife Valentine. He was a musician, author, and folklorist, collector of English folk songs and dances, and the founder of the English Folk Dance Society. In The Dance, Sharp references Blasis multiple times; he describes him as an “important figure” in the history of ballet and notes that in Traité élémentaire “the diagrams of the feet are fully turned out through an angle of 90 degrees”. While Sharp does not credit Blasis with introducing the idea of “turn out”, he does suggest that by teaching this technique, Blasis was able to provide his students with “a wide base-line and a stance of great stability. It thus brings within his range a large number of difficult


physical movements which he could not otherwise have attempted […] varieties of entrechats, pirouettes, fouettés, extended leaps and other athletic feats”.

Sharp also examines the origin of pointe work or what he refers to as “toe dancing”, in relation to Blasis: “I cannot find that toe-dancing was practised at an earlier date than 1830. Blasis in his treatise of 1820, already quoted, constantly uses the expression sur la pointe, but from his diagrams it is evident that by this he meant what is known as the half-toe or pied à trois quarts – double proof that the point position as now understood was then unknown. Noverre, who also used the expression, could only have given it the same sense. If Taglioni was the first dancer to practise the modern position, as tradition credits her – and I cannot find any picture of an earlier dancer in this position – it did not come into vogue before 1830.” This sort of reasoning shines light on the importance of illustrated manuals to understanding the history of an ephemeral art such as dance, prior to photographic or filmed records.

A letter in the Paul Oppé archive, which is also held at the Centre, expresses Sharp’s thanks for sending him a copy of the Traité élémentaire: “I have nearly finished going through it – it is very helpful and shows plainly that the splayed feet was definitely in use in his day […] It is interesting that he should call dancing of the half-toe when all his pictures show quite clearly – sur la pointe”.

Oppé may then have purchased Traité élémentaire to aid Sharp in his research for their joint publication, highlighting that an individual’s library often reflects their relationships and collaborations, as well as more personal interests and expertise. Working with materials in both the library and archives, we can develop a deeper understanding of such stories behind our collections.


Page 26

Detail of Plate 67 in Sharp, C.J. et al. The Dance: An Historical Survey of Dancing in Europe

London: Halton & Truscott Smith, Ltd., 1924. Image courtesy of the Paul Mellon Centre Library Collection (OPPE-1824-4).

Page 29

Pl. IX, Fig. 1 and Fig. 2 in Blasis, C. and A.P. Oppé. Traité élémentaire, théorique et pratique de l’art de la danse: contenant les développemens, et les démonstrations des principes généraux et particuliers, qui doivent guider le danseur. Milan: Chez Joseph Beati et Antoine Tenenti, rue de S. Marguerite (contr. di S. Margherita) no. 1066, 1820. Image courtesy of the Paul Mellon Centre Library Collection (OPPE-1820-4).

Pl. XIV in Blasis, C. and A.P. Oppé. Traité élémentaire, théorique et pratique de l’art de la danse: contenant les développemens, et les démonstrations des principes généraux et particuliers, qui doivent guider le danseur. Milan: Chez Joseph Beati et Antoine Tenenti, rue de S. Marguerite (contr. di S. Margherita) no. 1066, 1820. Image courtesy of the Paul Mellon Centre Library Collection (OPPE-1820-4).

Page 30

Plate 3 in Sharp, C.J. et al. The Dance: An Historical Survey of Dancing in Europe. London: Halton & Truscott Smith, Ltd., 1924. Image courtesy of the Paul Mellon Centre Library Collection (OPPE-1824-4).


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