Laurence Sterne was never short of words. He is best known for his nine-volume novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which, amongst many other things, contains meditations about the process of writing itself. Using doodles and diagrams, Sterne encouraged his readers to think about how marks make meaning, and the way that different surfaces can change the effect of various inscriptions and indentations.
He would probably have been delighted, then, to discover that while he was preaching at St Michael’s Church in the 1760s, his congregation were busy making marks of their own. This Yorkshire church houses traces of Sterne’s eighteenth-century listeners, in the form of graffiti on the church pews.
In collaboration with Shandy Hall and the Laurence Sterne Trust, Adam Smyth began investigating the writings carved into the pews. They are ‘a document of the now forgotten individuals who sat and listened to Sterne preach’, Adam says. His project also viewed the inscriptions as ‘a material text to place alongside Sterne’s writing about inscriptional surfaces.’ Adam’s project resulted in a public exhibition at St Michael’s Church, which combined images of the graffiti with excerpts from Sterne’s novels about writing surfaces, and Adam’s commentary on the exhibition materials.
The exhibition was accompanied by a public lecture and tour of the church’s pews. Adam also wrote about his project in a blog post for the London Review of Books. This Fellowship has created the potential for a long-lasting collaboration with Shandy Hall, with whom Adam is currently planning a conference for 2020.
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