By Emily Knight, Current DPhil student
Each year of my DPhil has been different as my research project has taken shape and my skills as an art historian have developed. Along the way, I’ve had the opportunity to take up fellowships, make research trips, speak at conferences and teach, as well as gain work experience within museums and heritage organisations. This post gives a taste of my work as a DPhil student over the last academic year and what I hope to achieve in the next few months before finishing up.
© Emily Knight
My research looks at posthumous portraiture in Britain from the mid eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries. At the beginning of the year, I went to Cumbria and Lancashire to dig around an archive and get up close to some works of art I’d read about and wanted to study more closely. With the help of a Postgraduate Grant from Trinity College, I went to the Cumbria County Archive to look at the papers of the Wilson family of Dallam Tower. A mother and daughter from the family, Ann and Sibyl respectively, were painted by the portraitist George Romney to commemorate the death of six-year-old Sibyl. I had the opportunity to study the painting last year, thanks to a Visiting Scholar Award at the Yale Center for British Art and it features prominently in my thesis, so I was eager to see if there was any undiscovered correspondence or other kinds of reference to the young girl’s death. Like many archival trips, I didn’t find what I expected to uncover, but came away with new and unexpected research leads that provided the starting point for one of my chapters.
George Romney, Ann Wilson with Her Daughter Sibyl, c.1776, Yale Center for British Art. © Yale Center for British Art
On my way back down south, I stopped at Lancaster to visit the Priory, which has a monument to the young Sibyl Wilson by the Fisher Brothers of York. I was curious to see how the work compared to Romney’s painting, particularly with regards to the neoclassical motifs used in both. As all art historians know, seeing works of art up close can never be adequately recreated and it was fascinating to see the work in situ.
Monument to Sibyl Wilson, 1773, Lancaster Priory. © Emily Knight
A few milestones
Last year, I gave my first hour-long research paper at the History of Art Department Research Seminar and received some really helpful feedback on work that would ultimately become a chapter. I was also invited to participate in undergraduate admissions. In order to prepare for this, I undertook training through the Oxford Learning Institute, which, combined with the advice and support from members of the History of Art department, gave me the tools to undertake this tricky and important task. In Hilary Term, I completed my Confirmation of status, which involved submitting part of a chapter, providing an outline of my research project and projected timeline, and an interview with a member of the department. I found it an incredibly helpful process because I was required to prepare a chapter with some polish and receive in-depth feedback from both my supervisor and moderator, as well as giving me the opportunity to discuss my project as a whole and think about next steps career wise.
Seminars, conferences and workshops
Alongside my research, I have taken great pleasure in attending and contributing to various seminar series and workshops. For the past two years, I have co-convened a termly workshop series called ‘Reading Images’ at the Ashmolean with Dr Jim Harris, Andrew W. Mellon Teaching Curator at the museum. The idea behind the series is to encourage those who do not normally work with visual material to think about their research in relation to the Ashmolean’s collections. I also led a session with a researcher from the Experimental Psychology department who works on ‘prolonged grief’. We realised that a huge amount of our work intersected in really interesting ways and it was enlightening to discover a shared language when talking about complex emotional responses to objects.
Reading Images workshop, Hilary Term 2017
During the first two years of my DPhil, I spoke at various conferences around the country. With a number of these under my belt, I decided to apply to speak at just one conference last year, the Association of Art Historians Annual Conference, held at Loughborough University. I contributed to a session run by the Yale Center for British Art and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, entitled, ‘Sculpture in Motion’. The focus of the session was on both motion (in the broadest possible sense) and animation. I had recently been considering the ways in which artists augmented death masks to make them appear more lifelike and so I thought that this would be an exciting opportunity to try out some new ideas. In preparation for this, I worked with two researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute, Dr Kathryn Eccles and Jamie Cameron, to create 3D images of death masks in the Anatomical Museum in Edinburgh. Hoping to ‘move’ around these images on the projector, the images were sadly not ready in time, but I now have a set of images that I can use in future presentations and perhaps an online journal article.
3D image of the death mask of Sir Walter Scott at the Anatomical Museum, University of Edinburgh. © Emily Knight
This year, I tutored three visiting undergraduate students through the Sarah Lawrence Programme at Wadham College (eighteenth-century British art), the Middlebury CMRS Oxford Humanities Programme (seventeenth-century Dutch painting), and the Oxford Study Abroad Programme, Washington International Studies Council (the history of royal collecting). Having already completed the DLT and PLTO training programme at the Oxford Learning Institute, I was interested to receive further training and hear about alternative teaching methods so I signed up to an ‘Art Group Crit’ workshop for Humanities researchers at the Ruskin School of Art with Martina Schmuecker and undertook a weeklong workshop at the Ashmolean Museum called, ‘Eloquent Things: Teaching Using Real Objects’, led by Dr Jim Harris. Both workshops provided me with a variety of creative teaching methods and I look forward to using some of these in the future.
Alongside my DPhil, I also joined the AAH Students Members Committee, which has involved judging the Undergraduate Dissertation Prize and organising this year’s careers day that took place in Oxford earlier this month. I’ve also recently been appointed co-convenor of the Paul Mellon Centre’s Doctoral Researchers Network and I’m currently working on a programme of events for doctoral students working on British art.
Alongside my DPhil, for the past two years I’ve also worked part-time at TORCH | The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities as a Graduate Project Coordinator. This has involved running the AHRC-TORCH Graduate Fund and Student Peer Review College, as well as organising the AHRC-TORCH Public Engagement with Research Summer School. The experience has taught me a huge amount about the role and value of public engagement with research, as well as project and budget management. The job came to a fantastic end when my team, led by Dr John Miles (former Humanities Training Officer), were highly commended for our work at the university’s Public Engagement with Research Awards. I’ve also contributed to various late night events at the Ashmolean and wrote my first article for the Oxford/National Trust project Trusted Source. For the latter, I wrote a short piece on national mourning following the death of Princess Charlotte in 1817. The Trust then asked me to deliver a lecture on the subject this month as part of its events programme to commemorate 200 years since the death of the princess at Claremont, her former home.
At the beginning of the summer, I was offered a five-month position as Postdoctoral Fellow/Curatorial Assistant at Historic Royal Palaces to work on the exhibition ‘Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte and the Shaping of the Modern World’. I’m still writing my thesis as well and in the new year I’ll be heading to the Huntington in California for a Robert R. Wark Fellowship, which will be the perfect way to kick off the final few months of my DPhil.
Emily Knight is a 4th year DPhil student, her research topic is “Art, Death and Memory: Posthumous Portraiture in Late Eighteenth- to Early Nineteenth-Century Britain”.
For more information about the History of Art DPhil, please see the Department’s Research Degrees page.