Ewan Fernie has recently returned from a stint as the Lloyd Davis Visiting Professor in Shakespeare Studies at the University of Queensland, Brisbane.
Hosted by Professor Peter Holbrook of UQ, who has just completed a term of office as Chair of the International Shakespeare Association, his duties included meeting staff and students, participating in teaching, and speaking in a public forum at the UQ Art Museum, to mark its splendid new exhibition: 'Ecstasy: Baroque and Beyond'. Fernie also read, in downtown Brisbane, with co-author Simon Palfrey of Brasenose College, Oxford, from their experimental fiction, Macbeth, Macbeth, which invents a sequel to Shakespeare's play that, terrifyingly, turns into the play again.
Fernie's most high-profile responsibility at UQ was to deliver the Lloyd Davis Memorial Public Lecture for 2017, in which he presented a genuinely alternative vision of Shakespeare, Englishness and modernity from the annals of England’s second city: Birmingham.
George Dawson (1821-76) is now almost entirely forgotten, but his statue stood at the civic heart of Birmingham till 1951. Addressing passers-by in a lively attitude, and under a canopy that was decorated with medallions of, among others, Shakespeare and Oliver Cromwell, it stood in front of the world’s first ever Shakespeare Library, one whose doors were open to all the people of Birmingham, who owned it—and indeed, *still* own it. Holding in excess of 40,000 volumes, including a First Folio, in 93 languages, 15,000 playbills, 2000 musical scores, and so on: this is surely one of the most remarkably democratic great cultural collections in the world. It testified to Dawson's ‘intention to give everything to everybody’, his progressive construal of culture as much as material wealth as truly a ‘commonwealth’ to be shared.
Fernie uncovered some intriguing links between Dawson and Australia. For example, when Dawson's statue was first unveiled, it was solemnly acknowledged that ‘the name of George Dawson was famous, and his friends abounded far down in the South, beneath the bright beams of the Southern Cross, and far away amid the golden homes of the setting sun on the Pacific coast’. The Queensland audience responded warmly and, after the lecture, Fernie was delighted to discover the following passionate avowal in the Brisbane Telegraph of Sat the 25th Jan, 1896:
'Brisbane needs a Dawson! some fearless man who would preach persistently the gospel of civic elevation: deliverance from ignorant peddling and from shameless littleness. Oh! for just one Dawson!'
In collaboration with Birmingham City Council, Fernie is working on a major grant application to revive the name of George Dawson and reinvent his progressive vision of Birmingham for changed times. As a result of this successful trip to Australia, he is now hoping to collaborate with Professor Holbrook on a parallel project in Brisbane, looking towards the potential establishment of a pioneering Institute for a Cultural Commonwealth.
Professor Holbrook commented on his visit, "It was a treat to have Ewan Fernie visit Brisbane. He delivered one of the most intellectually lively and communicative Lloyd Davis lectures we've ever had, an inspiring account of the ways in which a fierce cultural allegiance to Shakespeare in nineteenth-century Birmingham connected to a larger democratic and participatory vision for that city and England generally. I and many others who heard Ewan talk and teach are very much hoping that we'll see him back here again soon."