Dr Emma West BA, MA, PhD, AFHEA

Dr Emma West

Department of English Literature
British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow

Contact details

Address
Room 114
31 Pritchatts Road
University of Birmingham
Edgbaston
Birmingham
B15 2TT
UK

My research examines the relationship between modernism and popular culture in early- and mid-twentieth century Britain. My current project, Revolutionary Red Tape, examines how public servants and official committees helped to commission, disseminate and popularise modern British art, design, literature and culture.

Qualifications

  • BA, Cardiff University (2009)
  • MA, Cardiff University (2011)
  • PhD, Cardiff University (2017)

Biography

I spent my formative years in the seaside town of Clevedon, the 'Gem of Sunny Somerset'. Growing up in a house decorated with Art Deco travel posters, I developed a love for all things 1920/30s which still motivates much of my work (and my own decor) today. I was educated at Cardiff University, where I studied English Literature and Cultural Criticism, before doing an MA and a PhD in Critical and Cultural Theory. During my AHRC-funded PhD I worked across lots of different disciplines, including art and design history, critical theory and cultural studies, literary and periodical studies, fashion, and cultural history. As someone whose work doesn't fit into just one discipline, I love to collaborate with colleagues from across the arts and humanities. I've worked with colleagues in art history, design history, creative writing, literary studies, cultural history, critical theory, modern languages, drama and performance, both across the UK and during a fellowship at KU Leuven, Belgium. I've also collaborated with colleagues in the third sector as well as heritage and arts organisations. I'm always keen to hear from people who would like to work together on interesting projects. 

I have a particular passion for archival research. I fell in love with the feeling of being a detective rooting around in boxes during a AHRC Fellowship at the Library of Congress, Washington DC, where I spent three glorious months working with their British travel posters collection. Since then, I've spent hundreds of hours digging around in archives for Revolutionary Red Tape, uncovering forgotten schemes which aimed to emancipate the arts from behind gallery walls and into everyday life. I'm passionate about sharing my work (especially my archival finds) with as wide an audience as possible: I welcome opportunities to speak at public events. I have been invited to give several public talks on the Golden Age of Poster Design and Art for the People at Winterbourne House and the Birmingham & Midland Institute. In 2018, I appeared on BBC1 Wales/BBC4 to discuss my research into Cardiff’s Art Deco Temple of Peace, where I was recently appointed a Trustee. In 2022, I was announced as a finalist in the AHRC/BBC New Generation Thinkers scheme. Since, then I have appeared on BBC Radio 3's Free Thinking to discuss my research into John Maynard Keynes's work for the Arts Council and the Arts League of Service Travelling Theatre

Teaching

 

In 2021/22 I will be teaching on the core Modernism module on the MA Literature and Culture.

Research

Research areas

  • Art, design, literature and culture in modern Britain (1910s-1950s)
  • Modernism, popular culture and the middlebrow 
  • Arts funding and cultural policy 
  • Modern periodical studies
  • Interactions between literature and the visual arts 

Research projects

To date, my research has been guided by a single question: How did modernism reach the British public? For my AHRC-funded PhD thesis, I examined how magazines, fashion and travel posters translated modernist ideas and aesthetics for a popular audience. This project explored debates around ‘what the public wants’, the new field of commercial art, and links between taste and class in the interwar Battle of the Brows.

My British Academy-funded postdoctoral project, Revolutionary Red Tape, continues my interest in encounters between art and the public, exploring independent and state-funded schemes to introduce modern British art, design, literature and performance to a broad audience. Case studies from this project will appear in my first monograph: Art for the People: Everyday encounters with the arts in modern Britain, which examines efforts to bring the arts into everyday life in schools, hospitals, factories, high streets, village halls, restaurants and even pubs. It draws on examples from across the arts, including murals, exhibitions, print schemes, public sculptures, posters, theatre and ballet, concerts, books, magazines and wireless programmes. Across a series of case studies, the book interrogates the cultural politics at stake in these schemes, considering ideas around class and cultural paternalism, the use of modern art and culture to ‘civilise’ the public, and the social impact of the arts. 

The book has two aims. Firstly, to provide a passionate defence of the arts, and of the need for sufficient state support. This aim has taken on new urgency in the wake of COVID-19, as the arts are facing an unprecedented crisis. Secondly, to spark debate about the place of the arts in contemporary life. Are the arts accessible to all in twenty-first-century Britain? What lessons can we learn from these attempts to democratise the arts?

I am a truly interdisciplinary researcher: my research ranges across literary studies, cultural history, art history, design history, performance studies and critical theory. I am fascinated by almost all aspects of British culture from the 1910s through to the 1950s: aside from the case studies explored in Art for the People, I am also interested in ballet costume and set design, the visual and print culture of British fascism, and popular periodicals. With Brittany Moster Bergonzi, I have recently co-edited a special issue of the Journal of Modern Periodical Studies, 'Word and Image on the Printed Page', due for publication in summer 2022. 

Given my background in Critical and Cultural Theory, I am interested in developing new ways of reading a range of literary and non-literary texts. To this end, I co-organised of a series of Centre for Modernist Cultures workshops, ‘Ways of Reading: An Interactive Magazines Workshop for PGs and ECRs’, and a workshop on reading bureaucratic documents for the Centre for Literary Editing and Materiality of the Text in March 2019.

Other activities

I am the Founder of Modernist Network Cymru (MONC); from 2012-2018 I served as MONC’s inaugural Chair.

I have organised or co-organised many conferences, including Alternative Modernisms (Cardiff University, 2013), A Century On: Modernist Studies in Wales (Swansea University, 2015), Twentieth-Century British Periodicals (University of Reading, 2017) Word and Image (National Library of Wales, 2017), and Modernist Art Writing/Writing Modernist Art (University of Nottingham, 2019).

In partnership with Wales for Peace and Mari Lowe, I devised a new tour of the Welsh National Temple of Peace and Health based on my research into the building and its 1938 opening. This research inspired a Being Human Festival event, ‘A New Mecca’, co-organised with Wales for Peace and the arts organisation Gentle/Radical, which took place in November 2018. To find out more about my research into the Temple of Peace, see my interview with Huw Edwards on the BBC4/BBC1 Wales documentary, We Will Remember Them, or read my research blogs here and here. In 2018, I was nominated as a Trustee for the Welsh Centre for International Affairs (WCIA). As part of my role, I work to protect the Temple of Peace’s heritage and make its history and archives more accessible.

I was a postgraduate representative for the British Association for Modernist Studies (BAMS) in 2013; I am currently a member of the Centre for Printing History and Culture’s Steering Group.

Publications

Recent publications

Article

West, E 2022, 'Strange objects: surface reading popular art periodicals', Journal of Modern Periodical Studies, vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 142-180. https://doi.org/10.5325/jmodeperistud.13.1.0142

West, E 2020, 'Modern Institutions and the Civilizing Mission', Modernism/Modernity, vol. 5, no. 2. <https://modernismmodernity.org/forums/posts/west-civilizing-mission>

West, E 2020, '‘within the reach of all’: bringing art to the people in interwar Britain', Modernist Cultures, vol. 15, no. 2, pp. 225-252. https://doi.org/10.3366/mod.2020.0290

West, E 2013, ''Betwixt and Between': Towards a (N)ontology of the Mediocre', Word and Text, pp. 12-24.

West, E 2011, 'A Modern(ist) Mode: Fashion, 1910 and the Limits of Modernism', Word and Text, vol. 2011, no. 2, pp. 65-78.

Chapter (peer-reviewed)

West, E 2021, For love or money: popular 1920s artists stories in The Royal and The Strand. in E D'hoker & C Mourant (eds), The Modern Short Story and Magazine Culture, 1880-1950. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, pp. 130-149. https://doi.org/10.3366/j.ctv1hm8j01.10

West, E 2018, Cover Stars and Covert Addresses: Strategies for Reading Magazines Across the 'Great Divide'. in B Lambrecht & M Somers (eds), Writing Literary History. Peeters, pp. 85-102.

West, E 2016, Surrealist? Modernist? Artist? - The Vicissitudes of Elsa Schiaparelli. in P Allmer (ed.), Intersections - Women Artists/Surrealism/Modernism. Rethinking art's histories, Manchester University Press, Manchester, pp. 275-295.

West, E 2013, 'hap-hap-hap-hap-happy clothes': Avant-Garde Experiments in/with Material(s). in S Posman, A Reverseau, D Ayers, S Bru & B Hjartarson (eds), The Aesthetics of Matter: Modernism, the Avant-garde and Material Exchang. European Avant-Garde and Modernism Studies, vol. 3, De Gruyter, Berlin, pp. 67-81. <https://www.degruyter.com/view/books/9783110317534/9783110317534.67/9783110317534.67.xml>

Book/Film/Article review

West, E 2019, 'Review: fifty works by fifty British women artists 1900-1950', Decorating Dissidence, vol. 1, no. 4. <https://decoratingdissidence.com/2019/09/29/review-fifty-works-by-fifty-british-women-artists-1900-1950/>

West, E 2018, 'Twentieth-Century British Periodicals: Words and Art on the Printed Page, 1900-1999: 4 July 2017, University of Reading, UK', Journal of Modern Periodical Studies.

West, E 2015, 'Modernism, Middlebrow and the Literary Canon: The Modern Library Series, 1917-1955 by Lise Jaillant (review)', Modernism/Modernity, vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 415-416. https://doi.org/10.1353/mod.2015.0045

Comment/debate

West, E 2019, 'Me, Modernism and I', The Modernist Review. <https://modernistreviewcouk.wordpress.com/2019/07/25/responses/>

Editorial

Moster Bergonzi , B & West, E 2022, 'Introduction: Word and Image on the Printed Page', Journal of Modern Periodical Studies, vol. 13, no. 1, pp. iii-xvi. https://doi.org/10.5325/jmodeperistud.13.1.iii

View all publications in research portal