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Black Country Studies Research Network II: Black Country Landscapes

February 20, 2020 @ 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm

Tom Hicks Multi Storey Wolverhampton
Image: Multistorey, Wolverhampton by Tom Hicks – Black Country Type

The Black Country landscape has always been, and remains, diverse. From the bucolic idyll of the Leasowes to the once-smoking chimneys’ of Chances; the fossil-rich limestone of the Wren’s Nest to the tainted earth where the Blue Billies once smouldered; the now-quiet canals to the curves of motorway viaducts; empty factories and buzzing trading estates; bustling high streets and out of town shopping centres; playing fields, housing estates, back yards, allotments and the whole sweeping and shimmering conurbation viewed from Clent on a clear day.

Our landscape, both natural and man-made, tells the story of the region dating back millennia. It has captivated artists, writers and poets with its strange and sometimes terrifying beauty.

The second Black Country Studies Research Network event embarks on a thought-provoking journey through this unique environment, past, present and future. What makes a Black Country landscape distinct? How does nature persist and even thrive amidst industrialisation? Can ecological balance be possible in urban spaces and places? How do we connect with the natural/unnatural world around us? What traces of its past can we find and what will be its future?

The evening features five 10 minute talks based upon speakers’ research, practice and unique experiences amidst, and inspired by, the Black Country landscape. After the presentations, a discussion forum will be held followed by opportunities to network with others undertaking research. As always, the event is open to all who believe their work to align with Black Country Studies.

Light refreshments will be served following the presentations. Please notify the organisers of any accessibility or dietary requirements.

Speakers (full details below):

  • Clare Weston and Nadia Awal – Black Country Living Museum
  • Dr Connie Wan – University of Birmingham
  • Tom Hicks – Black Country Type
  • Dr Rob Francis – University of Wolverhampton
  • Dr David Heesom and Paul Boden – University of Wolverhampton

Black Country Past

Clare Weston and Nadia Awal – Black Country Living Museum

Set across 26 acres, the Black Country Living Museum (BCLM) hosts an array of shops, houses and industrial sites. Beyond the bellowing chimneys, framing these buildings and sites are gardens. These green spaces demonstrate that the Black Country wasn’t just gritty industry; its landscape was different to that of heavily industrialised cities like Manchester. This talk will explore how the different gardens at BCLM, such as that of the Tilted Cottage, are rooted in personal stories, local histories, and national narratives.

The current gardens at the museum will be compared to those which are being researched and developed as part of BCLM: Forging Ahead and other upcoming projects. Particular focus will be paid to the Aston family, who lived in a cast iron house in the Brewery Fields estate in Dudley. Comparisons will be drawn between BCLM’s existing gardens and those that are yet to be created, thus demonstrating how gardening lives have evolved through time.

The talk will conclude with a consideration of the value of these gardens, with reference to three questions: “Why do gardens matter at BCLM?”, “Why do gardens matter in the museums and heritage sector?”, and “What they can teach us about our lives today?”

Nadia Awal and Clare Weston are researchers at the Black Country Living Museum. Their work focuses on researching and developing engaging historical content and programming. Their most recent work includes BCLM Forging Ahead, which will recreate a Black Country town of the 1940s-1960, as well as developing content for Black Country gardening projects

Nadia Awal has a BA in Classics and History from the University of Birmingham and an MA in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester. She has worked in university museums for over ten years. Alongside her role at BCLM, she currently works at Research and Cultural Collections – University of Birmingham as an Interpretation and Access Manager. Her work at the University focuses on interpretation and access projects, with a particular focus on the University Heritage and Campus Art Collections.

Clare Weston has worked at BCLM since 2011, initially as Curator of Domestic and Cultural Life. Clare has a BA in History from the University of Hull and an MA in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester. Prior to her current role Clare worked at Birmingham Museums from 2004, at Soho House, home to industrialist and entrepreneur, Matthew Boulton (1728-1809) and at Hull Museums from 1998 working with the social history collections.

Dr Connie Wan – University of Birmingham

This talk explores images of the Black Country’s past through the repertoire of ‘Poet-Painter of the Black Country‘, Edwin Butler Bayliss. He was the son of industrialist Samuel Bayliss, who owned the local iron foundry Bayliss, Jones and Bayliss. Butler Bayliss showed little interest in working for his father’s firm and without any formal artistic training he established himself as the go-to painter of the Black Country, exhibiting works in London, Glasgow and Birmingham during his lifetime.

Butler Bayliss excelled in painting in oil and watercolour, but he was also an outstanding printmaker. His landscapes showed an artist keen to work out of doors, yet his scenes of the smoggy, smoke-laden skies seem an unlikely source of inspiration for any artist. His portfolio is abundant with these Black Country landscapes and there are views of familiar places such as the furnaces at Darlaston and Bilston, depicted as eerie towers glowing in the distance.

The Bayliss’s were a wealthy family and owned holiday homes on the north coast of Wales. Some of his lesser-known works feature the Welsh coast, painted in an expressive and Impressionist manner. In contrast to his smoggy Black Country scenes, he turns to painting his family sat on the beach and people going about their everyday business.

This talk shows some highlights from his repertoire and hopes to trigger conversations around the Black Country of the past.

Connie Wan is a researcher and art historian. She graduated from the University of Birmingham in 2012; her PhD was focused on Birmingham-based artist Samuel Lines and his artistic legacy. Her doctoral research covered themes including nineteenth-century landscape painting and Birmingham artists and art education during the period. As a curator, she has written and edited a number of publications ranging from Black Country artists to Pop Art. She has also worked on number of international research collaborations and touring exhibitions. She is continuing her research as an Honorary Research Fellow with University of Birmingham’s School of History and Cultures. Connie is currently Researcher Engagement Manager at Universitas 21, a network of 27 global research-intensive universities.

Black Country Present

Tom Hicks – Black Country Type

Tom’s talk will begin by setting the scene and outlining his career and upbringing in the Black Country; both of which have shaped the Black Country Type project. His photographic work has its roots in humour and began with a short-lived project entitled ‘Doorways of Wolverhampton’, a commemorative calendar that never saw the light of day! Whilst playful, this contained the seeds of his current work.

Tom’s practice involves cycling and walking across the region and recording what he sees. This talk considers conceptual influences such as flâneurism, psychogeography, topography and mindfulness, all of which inform his work.

Tom will share images that encapsulate the Black Country Type project to date and capture the meaning of ‘type’: words in the environment and ‘types’ – types of structure or architectural features.

Key influences will be illustrated via images, including landscape painting and graphic design as photography. Parallels will be drawn between Tom’s work and that of typographer, Herbert Spencer and contemporary British artist George Shaw – as well as seminal American photographers such as William Eggleston and Stephen Shore.

The talk will conclude with considering the reception to Black Country Type and current collaborations and activity. This includes involvement in delivering ‘photowalks’, accessible events that encourage people to observe and appreciate the Black Country landscape.

Tom Hicks is an artist, writer and curator from Kingswinford. He is also the Faculty Librarian for the Arts at the University of Wolverhampton.

Tom is best known for his ongoing project, Black Country Type. In this series of images he applies his unique aesthetic to the region, focusing on words, typography, handmade lettering and signs. He also photographs ‘types’ of architectural features, objects in the post-industrial landscape of the area. Tom has exhibited widely across the Black Country and Birmingham and has recently been profiled on BBC Midlands.

Dr Rob Francis – University of Wolverhampton

Terrains of Transition and Transgression The Black Country Landscape is a strange mix of green and grey, new and old, rural and urban, revitalised and ruined, safe and unsafe. It is, as Freud might put it, Unheimlich – ripe for subversive transformations. Following his recent PhD research, this talk will discuss the literary landscape of the Black Country. Using a selection of work from contemporary Black Country writers, Francis will explore how writers use the off-kilter and unusual landscape of the region as sites for transition and transgression. He’ll explain how the terrain has influenced his own work, and provide a reading from his forthcoming novel, Bella.

R. M. Francis is a writer from Dudley. He completed his PhD at the University of Wolverhampton, where he now works as Lecturer in Creative and Professional Writing. He’s the author of five poetry pamphlet collections. His debut novel, Bella, is out with Wild Pressed Books in March 2020, and Smokestack Books are publishing Subsidence, his first full collection of poems, in October 2020. In 2019 he was the inaugural David Bradshaw Writer in Residence at Oxford University.

Black Country Future

Dr David Heesom and Paul Boden – University of Wolverhampton

The emergence of advanced measurement technologies has allowed researchers to measure, capture and record the urban landscape in more detail than ever before. The team at the University of Wolverhampton, School of Architecture and Built Environment are using Building Information Modelling (BIM) technologies, including High Definition 3D Laser Scanning, Photogrammetry and Drones to measure historic buildings and document them for future generations, preserving the tangible cultural heritage of the Black Country. David and Paul’s work in Heritage BIM (HBIM) has led them to generate highly accurate 3D data sets of buildings and monuments including the University’s Springfield Brewery development site, the Saxon Cross in St. Peters Church and the Dudley Priory. They are able to build up accurate 3D models of these with millimetre level precision then interact with them in an immersive Virtual Reality environment. The latest exciting project is supporting the Black Country Living Museum in using this technology along with 3D CAD models and the Internet of Things to assist the translocation of buildings from around the region as part of the Forging Ahead project.

David Heesom is a Reader in BIM at the University of Wolverhampton. He has spent 20 years researching the application of advanced digital technologies for architectural design and construction, publishing his work in international journals and speaking at events around the world including the US, China and throughout Europe. David has won numerous funded research awards and works closely with companies around the UK to support them in implementing BIM and digital technologies to enhance their processes. His current research focuses on the application of BIM for Heritage where he has published articles on new approaches to implement advanced digital techniques.

Paul Boden is a Technical Resource Manager in the School of Architecture and the Built Environment. For the last 15 years Paul’s work has been focused on the application of emerging technologies for the architectural sector including the use of 3D laser scanning, CAD modelling and 3D printing techniques. Fusing his passion for history and new technologies, Paul’s interest is now focused on the use of emerging metrology techniques to record and document the historic fabric of the Black Country and beyond.

About the Black Country Studies Research Network

The Black Country Studies Research Network is a new platform to celebrate and promote discussion and debate around the Black Country’s past, present and future. It is a core strand of the Black Country Studies Centre, a new initiative being driven by a partnership between the University of Wolverhampton and the Black Country Living Museum.

The network welcomes established scholars from all disciplines and those working outside an academic setting, such as museum and archive professionals, artistic and creative practitioners and independent researchers with an interest in all aspects related to Black Country Studies. We encourage the involvement of MA and PhD students, alongside early-career researchers.

In 2019-2020, four events will be held:

November 2019: What is Black Country Studies?

February 2020: Black Country Landscapes

May 2020: Radical Black Country

August 2020: Black Country Sources


Black Country Studies Centre
01902 322561


Black Country Living Museum
Black Country Living Museum, Tipton Road
Dudley, West Midlands DY1 4SQ United Kingdom
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