Dr Robert Burroughs lecturer in Victorian Literature at Leeds Metropolitan University reflects on the Power of the Symposium: British Waters and Beyond.
“On Monday 12 May, I, along with Dr. Janette Kerr (President of the Royal West Academy) and Professor Christiana Payne (Oxford Brookes University), convened a symposium titled ‘British Waters and Beyond: The Cultural Significance of the Sea since 1800′ at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol. The event was supported by Leeds Met’s Centre for Culture and the Arts, as well as Oxford Brookes University and Nautilus International.
The symposium marked the wonderful new The Power of the Sea exhibition at the RWA, and we concluded the day with a really informative guided tour of the exhibition with Janette and Christiana. While focused on the visual arts, ‘British Waters and Beyond’ brought together scholars and artists with interests in the sea working in various disciplines and media. Prof. John Mack, author of The Sea: A Cultural History (2013), gave a very wide-ranging and interdisciplinary plenary talk, which was followed by 19 papers. I was struck by the sheer diversity of the topics under discussion. We ranged from the influence of Shakespeare upon John Keats and Herman Melville to the issues faced by contemporary workers at sea, and from ship figurehead carvers of the 18th and 19th century to contemporary artistic responses to ecological collapse—and much more besides. I came away with a sense of the inexhaustible richness of studying human interaction with the waters surrounding the British Isles (let alone ‘beyond’!), and of the vitality of current work in this field in the arts and humanities.
Contingency Research Platform: John Hartley’s (Falmough University) seagoing inuit kayak made from recycled objects including discarded office detritus.
Here is the perspective of Laura Ettenfield, currently writing her PhD thesis on the sea in nineteenth century literature at Leeds Met, who attended the symposium: “Attending a symposium for the first time, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from my day at British Waters and Beyond.
“After some much-needed coffee and an introductory lecture from Professor John Mack, the day promised to hold a myriad of fascinating interpretations of the sea space. The first panel of papers I attended addressed literary themes of the sea; the variety of literature addressed, and the connections made between geographical, intertextual, and littoral sea readings provided a thought-provoking and invigorating morning.
“The afternoon panels proved to be likewise original and informative: a selection of artistic interpretations of the sea’s biological significance and its hypnotic movements, was followed by a panel which highlighted the geographical and historiographical significance of the sea, as well as including a paper which displayed a humorous but carefully theorised insight on how to build a boat from recycled materials.
“The day finished with a glass or two of wine and a tour around The Power of the Sea art exhibition, which showcased a vibrant and enchanting mixture of historical representations of the sea space alongside some contemporary canvases and sculptures. Having met some new faces, listened to some intriguing papers, and viewed some beautiful pieces of art, my symposium experience was a truly fantastic one – I was only sorry that it ended so soon.”
Especial thanks to the staff at the RWA who made the day possible, to our international guests, and our sponsors.