Dr Emma West BA, MA, PhD, AFHEA

Dr Emma West

Department of English Literature
British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow

Contact details

Room 114
31 Pritchatts Road
University of Birmingham
B15 2TT

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


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


I studied for my BA, MA and PhD in the School of English, Communication and Philosophy at Cardiff University. While writing my PhD, I taught on several English Literature modules, teaching everything from Romantic poetry to the contemporary novel. I am an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. In 2012, I spent three months at the Library of Congress as part of the AHRC’s International Placement Scheme; in Autumn 2016, I was a Visiting Scholar at KU Leuven, Belgium.


In 2018/19 I will be teaching on the core Modernism module on the MA Literature and Culture and the second-year course Aspects of Modernism.


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 the links between taste and class, especially in terms of 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 several independent or state-funded projects, including murals, book exchanges, exhibitions and performing arts tours. Case studies include the Arts League of Service, the Empire Marketing Board, the General Post Office, the Welsh National Temple of Peace and Health, the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, the Entertainments National Service Association, Recording Britain, Books Across the Sea, the British Institute of Adult Education, Sadler’s Wells Ballet and Peterlee New Town.

Using minutes, memos and private correspondence, I seek not only to uncover the fascinating histories behind these efforts to bring art to the people, but also to interrogate how these histories are recorded. Despite their formal, supposedly objective language, minutes and reports are often overly brief or euphemistic: one has to read between the lines to uncover the conflicts obscured by bureaucratic conventions.

Research interests

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 interwar British culture: aside from the areas above, I am also interested in ballet costume and set design, the visual and print culture of British fascism, and Welsh modernist architecture. I am currently developing two editorial projects which explore the relationship between word and image in literary and artistic modernism.

In partnership with Wales for Peace and Mari Lowe, I have 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 has inspired a Being Human Festival event, ‘A New Mecca’, which will take place in November 2018.

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 organised a Centre for Modernist Cultures workshop, ‘Ways of Reading: An Interactive Magazines Workshop for PGs and ECRs’ in June 2018, and I am developing a similar workshop on reading bureaucratic documents for the Centre for Literary Editing and Materiality of the Text in 2019.

A full list of talks and activities can be found on my page at the University of Birmingham’s Research Portal.

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) and Word and Image (National Library of Wales, 2017). I am currently on the committee for Modernism and Art Writing at the University of Nottingham (Spring 2019).

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.