Postgraduate Profiles: Ed Barrett – History through Illustration

This post comes from Ed Barrett, currently a PhD student in both History and Illustration at the University of Gloucestershire.

My research is an interdisciplinary practice-based project in which I’ll use drawing to analyse and interpret historical sources, using contemporary relations at a boarding school in early 19th century Yorkshire as a case study.

I am an illustrator, having attained my BA and MA in Illustration at UoG in 2015 and 2017. I have been interested in history for as long as I can remember, especially if a good narrative is involved. My previous projects have featured topics including politics in the reign of Richard II; boarding schools in early 19th century Yorkshire; the early history of the Metropolitan Police; ancient Egyptian mummies from the royal mummy caches; British folklore; and most recently, the Naga Labour Corps in World War One, to which I will be returning for an improved postdoctoral project. I could not bear to do an entire PhD’s worth of drawings that are not related to anything historical, and I could not bear to do an entire PhD’s worth of historical research that did not involve any drawing, so I decided to combine them!

I find myself returning to early 19th century Yorkshire boarding schools quite a lot in my work. I first found out about them through Charles Dickens’ novel Nicholas Nickleby, and thought that a place like Dotheboys Hall would be good to illustrate, so I set off researching them. Fictional versions featured in my BA work, and my Final Major Project was a graphic novel about an imaginary boy’s misadventures at the very real Bowes Academy.

My case study is William Shaw’s Bowes Academy, which he ran as the sole owner from 1814 until about 1840. I’ll be investigating contemporary relations (both internal and external) at the Academy. On the internal side, I’ll be looking at interactions between Shaw, his family and his pupils, as well as the teaching and domestic staff. On the external side, I’ll be looking at how Shaw and his Academy interacted with and may have been perceived by people in Bowes and the surrounding area, and by people further afield, such as parents and guardians in London, as well as Charles Dickens and his illustrator, Hablot Knight Browne.

Shaw’s Academy was situated in Bowes, a village in Teesdale. North Yorkshire was the epicentre of the multitude of boarding schools aimed at middle-class families, typically from London. This type of school operated mainly between 1750 and 1850. There seems to be a decent amount of evidence about Shaw and his Academy, including the reminiscences of old boys, the building itself, adverts, slightly suspicious letters, a card of terms, newspaper reports of two trials in 1823 when two sets of parents took Shaw to court when their sons lost their sight at the Academy, and other sources.

In addition to this evidence, I want to use non-traditional sources, including the building itself and the surrounding landscape, to help me depict what people at the time might have experienced. I will also be using contemporary illustrations and artefacts in museum collections, such as clothing and household objects, to give further context. I would also like to find out about mentalities of the time as these would influence people’s behaviour which, in turn, affects how I draw them.

I have attended the HM5001 lectures (many thanks to Melanie and Christian for letting me sit in) to gain an understanding of how historical research is conducted. I will also be looking into other practices that could aid my project, such as contemporary image-making (including methods of image reproduction such as wood engraving), and psychogeography (concerning how people experienced the landscape around Bowes). I’ll be undertaking site visits, and experimenting with exciting illustration exercises and strategies that challenge my illustrative practice and cause me to process information in ways that I wouldn’t normally consider.



My project could potentially result in a book or an exhibition, or both, which would draw from my research (which is likely to be a collection of sketchbooks) to communicate my findings visually to a wider audience. I can’t be entirely clear about the exact result at this early stage in the project, but it will become clearer as I make progress, the work I produce will inform the result. This project is not just a new academic challenge for me, but also for the School of Art and Design and for History. The University has not had a project that requires supervisory collaboration between these two subject areas before, so the whole thing will be a fantastic learning experience for me and my two excellent (and very patient and supportive) supervisors.

I’m really excited to see where my research project leads. Follow me on Instagram @smikestock to see what I do next!

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