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Signed, first edition copy of The Anatomy of Melancholy

Robert Burton was a scholar at the University of Oxford 400 years ago. He drew on the collections of the Bodleian Library and Christ Church, where he was himself Librarian, to seek to understand the human condition, in its full emotional range.

But his declared subject was 'melancholy'. The Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621, is an extraordinary and enormous attempt to grapple with the causes, symptoms, and treatments of that universal human experience. 

Four hundred years later, when clinical depression is stated to be the leading cause of global disability, and there are many challenges to our mental health, a new radio series for BBC Radio 4 is asking: how far have we come? And is there anything we can learn from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy to help us today?

Amy Liptrot and Kathryn Murphy at the Bodleian LibraryAmy Liptrot and Kathryn Murphy at the Bodleian Library
Writer Amy Liptrot has been digging into Robert Burton's massive 400-year-old text to uncover its riches and begins her journey at the Bodleian where she meets Dr Kathryn Murphy from Oxford’s Faculty of English, an expert on Burton’s Anatomy. Together they look at books Burton owned where you can see his hand-scribbled notes, and reflect on Burton as a person and an Oxford scholar who devoted himself lifelong to the task of anatomizing melancholy.

With Burton as a guide, the series hears from leading experts in mental health research today, and from those who manage their struggles with sadness and depression in a variety of ways - including the gardener and broadcaster, Monty Don, pioneering cell biologist and author of Malignant Sadness: the anatomy of depression, Lewis Wolpert, and a young survivor from the Manchester Arena attack.

Professor John Geddes, Head of the Department of Psychiatry at Oxford University, meets Amy at Christ Church Cathedral, beneath the bust of Burton, and speculates about the range of mood in The Anatomy. His own specialism in mood disorders and research into the use of wearables as a means of monitoring and managing mood has special relevance in the context of Burton who himself suffered from depression and mood instability.

Each episode takes on a different theme from Burton's Anatomy, covering causes such as: genetics ('an hereditary cause'), inflammation ('inflammations of the head'), inequality ('poverty and want'), trauma ('terrors in the night') and possible 'cures' such as nature, 'merry company', ‘divine music’, sleep, friends, exercise. 

Bust of Robert Burton at Christ Church CathedralBust of Robert Burton at Christ Church Cathedral
The presenter, Amy Liptrot, who has written about her recovery from alcoholism in her 20s and the impact of her dad's bipolar disorder, says: ‘In making this series, it's been fascinating to compare the cutting edge of today's psychiatry and people's 21st century experiences with depression, with the ideas of Robert Burton. It's often amazing how relevant and prescient he was, writing 400 years ago. 

‘We've explored the part of melancholy in the human condition, how it can be alleviated and lived with - and the unique voice of Burton has been a brilliant guide though it all.’

The series shines a light on common experiences and connections over time and the ways in which science is catching up with the intuitions and understanding from 400 years ago and beyond.

Robert Burton talks about his own struggles with melancholy and reveals a personal vulnerability when he says: 'I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy.' The series explores the potential of writing and reading to give purpose, better understand one's experiences and connect with others. Perhaps there has never been a better moment to pause and reflect on melancholy: ways to understand it, alleviate it and accept it.

The actor Simon Russell Beale narrates sections of Robert Burton’s text throughout the series.

Professor John Geddes is series consultant for The New Anatomy of Melancholy.

Dr Kathryn Murphy’s book Robert Burton: A Vital Melancholy will be published in 2021.

The Bodleian Library is curating an exhibition based around The Anatomy of Melancholy, due to open in the autumn, 2021.

The 10-part series The New Anatomy of Melancholy begins on BBC Radio 4, Monday 11 May 2020 at 1.45pm.

Listen here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000j1jq

EMPRES award

Research at Oxford has shown music brings people together and makes them feel better - and social distancing has provided overwhelming support for such academic music theories.

To celebrate music of the lockdown, Oxford’s music faculty is today inviting entries for a unique competition focusing on safe collaboration, networking and virtual collectivity

To celebrate music of the lockdown, Oxford’s music faculty is today inviting entries for a unique competition focusing on safe collaboration, networking and virtual collectivity. At the same time, Oxford music students are giving an online performance tonight [24 April] for the YoungDementia UK charity.

The EMPRES Award 2020 invites creative, collaborative responses to the global challenge, of making music and art during the Covid-19 pandemic. Entries can come from any member of the University of Oxford and their creative associates. This could include filmmakers, writers, visual artists, composers and musicians. 

Meanwhile, Oxford musicians became involved with the Oxfordshire-based charity as part of the Turtle Song project. The aims is to reach out to people with dementia and engage with them socially and creatively. Music is proven to be of great physical and emotional benefit to people living with dementia.

The work was cut short by the lockdown. But the whole group, include those living with dementia, came together by Zoom last Friday and hope to ‘meet’ regularly during this difficult time. According Turtle Song project director Carolyn von Stumm: ‘The joy at the group being reunited as we all sang and danced in our living rooms was palpable.  A wonderfully, uplifting, positive story with a very human perspective.’

Oxford music students are giving an online performance tonight [24 April] for the YoungDementia UK charity

Will Prior, an Oxford music student who has been involved with the project, says: ‘Volunteering...has been eye opening and inspirational in equal parts....it is a great shame that we were not able to meet as a group in person for the (final performance) we have found a way, through the wonder of Zoom, to connect with each other...Although the social dynamic is vastly altered...there’s something rather special about seeing a group of people...dancing round their living rooms without a care in the world whilst belting out...songs that you wrote together.’

The EMPRES competition is also aimed at engaging people with music during these challenging times. The Music faculty’s electronic music studio manager and EMPRES artistic director, Daniel Hulme, comments: 'We are living through times inconceivable just a few months ago, that will no doubt resonate for many years to come. This is both an extraordinary crisis, and potentially an extraordinary stimulus to do something remarkable.'

This is both an extraordinary crisis, and potentially an extraordinary stimulus to do something remarkable

 The deadline for submissions is Monday 15 June. There are two broad categories:

  •  Experimental Electronic Music and
  • Sound Art.

Submissions in both categories are welcomed from collaborations with other artists, researchers and disciplines. There will be prizes in both categories and online publication – with a live performance of selected works later in the year.  A key requirement is that the works are deliverable within the current UK guidelines around social distancing – and could include a digital experience or a web-based installation. And they must be no longer than eight minutes.

Submissions for the EMPRES, Electronic Music Research, competition should be sent via WeTransfer (or another web transfer service) in a single ZIP file to empres@music.ox.ac.uk.  For full details please see https://empres.music.ox.ac.uk/empres-award-2020

Turtle Song has run 28 projects throughout the UK over the last 11 years, involving 800 participants, 150 music students and 10 universities and music colleges.  You can see their performances at  https://www.turtlekeyarts.org.uk/turtle-song


Holy Week in Spain 2018

With churches and places of worship closed, this would seem a very unholy Holy Week. Palm Sunday got it off to a modest start, with a video of a lonely-looking Pope Francis holding a massive palm, to remind us that this is the most important week of the Christian year. Processions of hooded penitents are absent from Coronavirus-hit Spanish squares and, around the world, even Easter Sunday will see pews empty and peals un-rung. Meanwhile, in the Jewish world, Passover meals, which take place this evening [Wednesday 8 April] will not be the usual large family gatherings. And all because of Covid-19.

Oxford Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch dismisses the Papal Interdict of 1208 as utterly different [from the Covid-19 closures]: a ‘political’ move by the papacy, not intended to protect churchgoers

A vocal group of angry churchgoers has maintained that, not since King John have the churches of England been shut. But Oxford Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of the History of the Church, dismisses the Papal Interdict of 1208 as utterly different: a ‘political’ move by the papacy, not intended to protect churchgoers.  Nevertheless, more than a few people have asked where God is in this crisis and why churches are closed during the time of Covid-19.

In the United States, some churches have remained defiantly open, while others have followed medical advice and closed their doors. In the UK, it has become a controversial matter in church-going circles, although not in general and one letter to the Daily Telegraph pointed out that pubs were closed, so why not churches – likening religious life to a form of leisure activity.

According to Professor MacCulloch, social attitudes about church going changed in the late 1950s, when it ceased to be seen as a likely criterion for middle-class respectability: ‘There was a remarkable move away in the 1960s...followed by the collapse of the Sunday School movement...Church attendance was no longer a component of respectability.’

Yet the author of Reformation - Europe's House Divided 1490-1700 says, the current debate over church closures has a lot to do with Protestantism – which thrives on large-scale, noisy worship and does not have any history of silent spirituality. This, he says, was dispensed with, along with the monasteries at the time of the Reformation. Professor MacCulloch maintains: ‘Historically, Protestants do not have many spiritual resources to deal with spiritual isolation...sixteenth century Protestant churches were all about crowds getting together to hear sermons and to sing, especially metrical psalms.’

It is noticeable, he says, that in the US the divide on staying open has been very much along political party lines, with large Protestant mega-churches trying to remain busy: ‘There is a cultural chasm...mainstream churches such as the Episcopalians have closed, as the right thing to do.’

Once the monasteries were closed in the sixteenth century, Protestant churches lost spiritual resources associated with them

Professor MacCulloch, who also wrote Silence – A Christian History, adds: ‘Once the monasteries were closed in the sixteenth century, Protestant churches lost spiritual resources associated with them. The only Protestant Church to include silence in worship was Zwingli’s in Zurich and it wasn’t long before congregations got bored with it.’

He maintains: ‘It’s a long catch-up for the Protestants on silence. In the 20th century they started to realise this and ceased to be averse to monasticism.’

But, he points out, attempts to recreate such spirituality is a bit like trying to reinvent the wheel. 

This Holy Week, though, Covid-19 social distancing means that many churchgoers in the UK and around the world have a chance to experience contemplation and meditation more commonly found in the cloister. 

Learning languages

By Sarah Whitebloom

A surge in interest in language learning has emerged as a phenomenon of the current social distancing. One popular language learning apps has claimed increased usage of more than 200%, while others are reporting new sales up more than 50%.

Academics maintain it shows a pent-up interest and wish to study languages. For a nation supposedly averse to speaking other languages, the British have been turning in numbers to foreign tongues as a first resort – in the absence of more traditional forms of entertainment.

For a nation supposedly averse to speaking other languages, the British have been turning in numbers to foreign tongues as a first resort

‘It shows there are a lot of people who want to learn a language,’ says Oxford Professor Katrin Kohl. ‘It’s surprising how often you meet people in all walks of life who are taking language courses.’

But, she maintains, many people have been put off by unrealistically difficult exam syllabuses at school: ‘GCSE and A level papers are too demanding and grading is too harsh when compared to other subjects.'

‘The exam system conspires against language learners...they’re discouraged on all fronts.’

Professor Kohl says that, while many people therefore believe they are ‘rubbish at languages’, there is clearly interest. She also highlights that there is a huge pool of talent for languages in the UK.  In England, for more than one in five primary school children and almost one in six students at secondary level, English is a second language. ‘This means they already have well-developed language learning skills, a benefit that isn’t sufficiently valued at present.’

It might seem that, with globalisation, everyone speaks English. But Professor Kohl says: ‘That simply isn’t the case. The world isn’t just culturally diverse, it’s also linguistically diverse. People care about their distinctive languages, as we can see in Wales and Ireland.

'Developments such as this surge in interest shows that people see language learning as a fruitful way to spend time.’

Apps have revolutionised what’s on offer for learners. You can get quite a long way with apps and they can continue to support your learning, even if you later join a class

She dismisses the idea that online and app learning will not assist people to take up classes in future: ‘Apps have revolutionised what’s on offer for learners. You can get quite a long way with apps and they can continue to support your learning, even if you later join a class. They incentivise you, send you reminders and introduce competition, allowing you to test yourself.’

Professor Kohl insists: ‘Language learning thrives on variety of learning styles and options.’

She recommends:

  • Don’t set the bar too high
  • Set a modest minimum per day, and do more if you’re feeling energetic
  • Vocabulary learning can be fun with a helpful app, and you can measure your progress
  • Practice pronunciation – find how a word is pronounced online by typing in the word and ‘pronounce’
  • Read a novel in the language with a strong plot, e.g. a Georges Simenon thriller if you’re learning French, and refer to a translation. Or read a translated Agatha Christie and refer to the English original (Set yourself very short sections to begin with). There again, La Peste by Albert Camus is currently proving very popular.
  • Watch ads and kids’ stuff on YouTube.
  • Watch a non-serious film with subtitles, then watch it without, in very short sections.
  • Follow news stories – e.g. developments with the coronavirus crisis. Compare the reporting.
  • Research information about a hobby in a country where the language is spoken. Find a blog that’s relevant.
  • What place might you go to where the language is spoken? Explore local websites to find out what there is to see and do using local websites, and involve Google Translate to help you along.
  • Try your hand at translating a very simple text, with a dictionary and Google Translate·
  •  Find a language learning buddy. It’s much easier to learn a language and keep it going if you’re doing it with someone else or in a class.

 If you give up because it’s hard work and progress is slow, remember that’s normal. Start again and set the bar lower. The effort won't be wasted!  

It’s a great way to keep your brain in trim – studies have shown that using more than one language can delay the onset of dementia by four to five years, and language learning has similar benefits.

Spectacles Seller - Museum De Lakenhal.

By Sarah Whitebloom

Rembrandt, the Rembrandt, was not very good – at least not initially. Among a new and much-anticipated exhibition of his early works at the Ashmolean in Oxford are some pretty poor examples, according to the museum’s experts. But dogged determination saw Rembrandt develop from an, apparently, untalented amateur, who was his own muse, into an Old Master, courted by aristocratic patrons, and able to make paint do what he wanted.

It should be an inspiration to us all, according to An Van Camp, the curator of the exhibition, which looks certain to become the Ashmolean’s latest sell-out show, telling, as it does, the story of genius and hard graft. 

Dogged determination saw Rembrandt develop from an, apparently, untalented amateur, into an Old Master

But there will be no demands for refunds because the new exhibition is intended to show the artist’s development and painstaking attention to his art. In ten years, Rembrandt went from an uncertain 18-year old, with little apparent talent, to an artist whose works show the detail and mastery for which he is internationally known. He went from drawing himself to drawing himself, self-portraits are a particular favourite. But the difference in skills over this decade is remarkable.

‘This is not a matter of gradual and even development,’ said Professor Brown, describing Rembrandt’s progress as a ‘struggle’. He said the artist found the artistic process difficult and demanding. ‘He worked very hard,’ maintained Professor Brown, emphasising that Rembrandt was no child or even teenage prodigy.

 In these 10 years he makes rapid progress. It’s very interesting to see how he struggled. He was very hard-working and he is an example of [what you can achieve with] persistence

 From the very beginning, said Ms Van Camp, the museum’s curator of North European art, Rembrandt was full of creative ideas, even if some of the execution was ‘cartoonish’. And it is possible to see the artist’s early interests develop and continue into his later works, along with his fascination with drama and action. Rembrandt, the ninth of ten children, was always interested in older people and some of his earliest works are of his parents, who must have been in their 40s when he was born.

Portrait of an Old ManPortrait of an Old Man, Rembrandt c 1632
‘He was fascinated by old age,’ said Ms Van Camp. Along with the hard-work he put in during these apprenticeship’ years, this curiosity bears fruit in his later and better-known pieces.  It is the ability to detect and follow such interests and even facial expressions from early and unformed works into the accomplished works that makes the exhibition so compelling. Some of Rembrandt’s earliest sketches are of him pulling faces. But these grotesque expressions of surprise and scorn – along with his face - emerge again and again in subsequent years. And they are a stark contrast to later portraits, when he presents himself as a respectable, sombre and affluent artist.

 Aside from older people, another feature of Rembrandt’s work from his early days, is his interest in low-born subjects. At a time when most paintings were of wealthy subjects, Rembrandt returned again and again to draw peasants and ‘washerwomen’.  The exhibition shows Rembrandt’s characteristic illumination and attention to detail begin to feature, with some early works showing that he was ‘half way there’, according to Ms Van Camp.

 Several of the paintings have never before been on public display in the UK. Many come from overseas, especially from Leiden’s Museum de Lakenal. Together they weave a fascinating insight into the progress of the painter, showing how a Old Master can develop and emerge from unpromising beginnings.

The Young Rembrandt exhibition is at the Ashmolean Museum from 27 February to 7 June. Full price tickets, including gift, are from £15. Under 12s, Oxford University students and members are free. Concessionary rates are available.