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Written by:
Paul Holland
28 Apr 2023

Ahead of a stunning new exhibition of her artwork in the Elizabethan Old Library of Trinity Hall we speak to artist, poet and Fellow of the College, Dr Jane Partner. “Reformations” will feature her (mostly) silver “wearable artworks” and words that go on the body, which give a glimpse into her research and into the Old Library and Trinity Hall as a whole.

Sitting in a book-lined office that is the epitome of the popular conception of Cambridge academic life, Dr Jane Partner exudes enthusiasm and passion for her work: she is an academic who aims to introduce her students to the “intoxication” of her subject.

Among the books the odd 500-year-old print can be spotted and silver objects glint between the piles of papers, hinting at an approach to research and teaching that involves more than picking up a book and reading the words printed inside. Her field of interest covers renaissance literature and material culture, especially the relations between poetry and visual art and between bodies and words.

For Jane, the printed word cannot be separated from the material world it was created in and studying literature should involve more than staring pensively at a Shakespearean sonnet or collection of his plays. This approach feeds into her research, her teaching and the artworks she creates.

“The English course in Cambridge gives academics the freedom to teach in a very liberated and creative way: for instance, I teach the paper that covers English literature from 1500-1700,  but the Faculty does not prescribe any set syllabus: that is for me to design and to keep under constant review and development. It is a really extraordinary freedom. This allows my teaching to give the students the learning structure and the support they need, but also to help them to develop their own interests, feel ownership of the course, and discover the intoxication of the subject for themselves .”

I’d like people to be really surprised by it and blown away.

In order to mine the excitement from her students she goes beyond the text: “The materiality of  words are really important to me. That means experiencing books as material artworks.”

Jane points to a first year course she teaches which includes visiting the nearby Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and holding 500-year-old printed works in their hands. “I get students’ hands on these things as quickly as possible.”

It’s not surprising given her origins that Jane takes this approach. Her education includes literary studies at undergraduate level and then art history before combining the two for her PhD.

“I think my interests show the particular opportunities for innovation that we have in the humanities. What I am doing in this exhibition is showing how academic research and creative practice intersect and inform each other,” said Jane.

But it was long before academia that she was immersed in a world where objects were full of meaning and history.

Brought up in Colchester, the ancient Roman capital of Britain, she was surrounded by antiquity and its objects already. Couple that with the fact her parents, Minette and Sidney Partner, were antique dealers and they all lived above their antique shop, and it’s hardly any wonder the flame of her passion for research was kindled early in life.

“I felt that love of ancient things through my family. I was allowed to go on buying trips to Cambridge with my parents and there I would go to the Fitzwilliam Museum and I think I felt the same buzz my students get when I take them now.”

Though Sidney passed away in his 80s, Minette still lives in one of the Roman streets of Jane’s childhood home city and Jane wants her to be “guest of honour at the exhibition”.

This brings us to the exhibition, Reformations. The theme of ‘Reformations’ encompasses both the transformation of ideas and the recycling and re-forming of materials. It also makes reference to the originating period of Trinity Hall’s Old Library, which was built in the wake of the Reformation, and considers it as a historic site of communal learning, shared memory, and embodied encounters with material texts.

As Jane explains: “I made the works on show here to be in dialogue with the Old Library and its collection of early books and manuscripts, reflecting on the relationships between words, matter, memory and the body. It offers an intimacy between the visitor and the place.”

Alongside Jane’s academic studies, she has also trained inpainting, printmaking and sculpture at the Slade School of Art. “I learned to work steel before I learned to work silver. Metalwork is a process that offers a different experience of living in your body.

“Research and creative practice have always been deeply interconnected for me: they feed and support each other. I study visual and verbal arts academically to inform my creative work, and at the same time, engaging in the creative process first-hand illuminates my research. Practical insights that come from making can’t be arrived at any other way. I am happy that now creative practice can be more formally recognised as research, rather than being seen as separate form it. Now I can go to conferences where practitioners and academics mix and share ideas together: that is bliss for me.”

The exhibition highlights several areas of interest for Jane. One is the embodied nature of learning: “My current book in progress explores the relations between bodies and texts during the renaissance – and that includes thinking about ways that people wore words on their bodies, including in the form of inscribed or word-shaped jewellery. Renaissance memory practices also involved using bodies as maps of ideas that people wanted to learn by heart. In the modern era we’ve grown used to outsourcing our memory to technology, and I’m really interested in getting a new perspective on that by making comparisons with the extraordinary ways people interacted with material texts in the past.

“The display in the astonishing Elizabethan Library reflects this. It is a time capsule of what it was like to be a scholar in that period. The pieces I have made are a love song to the Old Library. The works in the exhibition are in dialogue with their surroundings and make specific reference to the Library and College. Trinity Hall has such a long history but it is important to look at how that history can shape the future and so help those of us in the community to feel empowered by it rather than overwhelmed!”

“This project has helped me to feel that I have a voice to say something as part of our collective history. That is always something I want for my students too.”

Each piece in the collection is a one off, lovingly hand-made and full of emotions that Jane hopes will be passed on to the viewer and wearers of her artwork: “They come out of a really profound physical, spiritual and emotional experience of working with the material, in this case silver. To me it is one of the most extraordinary emotional experiences; to have that kind of connection with a particular part of the material world.

“I have just spent six months feeling and directing heat through metal and that is an intensely emotional experience. I’d like people to be really surprised by it and blown away.”

More information

About the exhibition: The theme of ‘Reformations’ encompasses both the transformation of ideas through time and the repeated recycling and re-reforming of materials. It also makes reference to the originating period of the Elizabethan library itself, which was built in the wake of the Reformation, considering it as a historic site of communal learning, shared memory, and embodied encounters with material texts. The artworks on display are made from silver, glass and paper. They are richly symbolic objects that are designed to be worn on the body, and each one derives part of its meaning from that intimate relationship with the wearer.

All artists working today must find new ways to think about their materials in the face of the environmental crisis, and this work does so by reflecting on the long histories of the actual matter from which it has been made. For example, the neckpiece ‘M E T A M O R P H O S I S’ incorporates decorated capital letters that have been cut (as part of a nineteenth-century archive) from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century books of the kind held in the Old Library. It reflects on the extraordinary life cycle of early modern linen rag paper, which has already been grown as flax and worn as clothing before being pulped and made into paper, and into books. This piece, along with others in the exhibition, is also part of an experimental practice concerned with creating texts to wear, and investigating how words are experienced differently when they are placed on the body.

About Trinity Hall: Trinity Hall is the fifth oldest College in the University of Cambridge. It was founded in 1350 by Bishop Bateman, originally for the study of canon and civil law. The College consists of around 650 students, both undergraduates and postgraduates across a range of subjects, 60 Fellows, 130 staff and 8,000 alumni worldwide. The College is located in central Cambridge by the river, with a further site at Wychfield off Storey’s Way and accommodation on Thompson’s Lane.

About Trinity Hall Arts Festival: Trinity Hall’s first Arts Festival celebrates creativity and the arts through a series of events, exhibitions, performances, screenings, and opportunities for artistic practice and production. The Festival is an opportunity for the arts to thrive in College and to showcase our diverse artistic talent. The festival runs throughout the 2022/23 academic year.