From the February 2018 Desktop News | Dr. Lucy Curzon, an associate professor in the Department of Art and Art History, has received a national award for her book, Mass-Observation and Visual Culture: Depicting Everyday Lives in Britain.
Curzon’s book won the Historians of British Art Book Prize for best book published in 2016, receiving the top prize in the category for single-authored books with a subject after 1800. The winning publication was chosen from a selection of over 100 books submitted to the Historians of British Art, a College Art Association affiliate, that promotes the study of British art on a worldwide scale.
Mass-Observation was a social research group established to document the everyday lives of the British in the late 1930s. Curzon’s book is the first full-length study of Mass-Observation’s efforts to produce and analyze visual culture. Specifically, Curzon explores the paintings of Graham Bell and William Coldstream, the photographs of Humphrey Spender, and the paintings, collages and photographs of Julian Trevelyan, among others.
According to the prize committee, the book was particularly ground breaking because, until now, Mass-Observation had been largely under-studied from an art history perspective.
“Lucy Curzon corrects this oversight,” the committee wrote. “She brings an art historian’s interpretive skill to the sociological and visual culture project of Mass-Observation, examining the use of painting, collage, photography, and visual media within their world, providing an account of the important role of these visual elements in Mass-Observation’s project to understand national identity in the 1930s.”
According to Curzon, the 1930s were a time of national crisis in Britain. The country was still reeling from the Great Depression, the king had just abdicated the throne, and threats from Germany and Italy were looming prior to the Second World War.
“The Mass-Observers tried to take a barometer of national identity in order that the British might use the information to right themselves; so that they would know who they were, their goals and objectives,” Curzon said.
Mass-Observation procured diaries and sent out questionnaires. It also used observers to document typical or day-to-day events throughout the country, sometimes taking photographs inconspicuously.
“A lot of the photographs that I found are the product of a concealed observer,” Curzon said. “One photographer, Humphrey Spender, would keep his camera underneath his coat, opening it only very quickly to take a photograph. Aesthetically, they’re really interesting, but culturally very interesting as well.”
While the data gathered did not produce a standard set of values that all Britons held, it did reveal differences in how people perceived their nation’s identity.
In general, Curzon’s research focuses on issues of identity politics as they concern the production of visual culture in 20th-century Britain. She has previously published work on LGBTQ+ portraiture, as well as articles or chapters on the Ashington Group and Humphrey Spender’s photographs of Blackpool in the 1930s. She regularly presents her work at national and international conferences.