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An interview with Dr Elizabeth Savage

Dr Elizabeth Savage is British Academy postdoctoral fellow and lecturer in book history and communications at the Institute of English Studies (IES), a member of the University of London’s School of Advanced Study. In 2016, she won the Wolfgang Ratjen Award for distinguished research in the field of graphic art, and Printing Colour 1400-1700: Histories, Techniques, Functions and Receptions, which she edited, was recognised at the International Fine Print Dealers Association (IFPDA) Book Awards.

How did you become interested in the history of the book/printing?
In an introductory survey course in art history, I was captivated by the early woodcuts. I decided to learn more about the context in which they were made. So, my first job in university was assisting the curator of a rare books collection. I always joked that I was studying art history and literature to advance my career and working with historical printed material to advance my studies.

Could you briefly explain your current research project(s)?
I always have a few on the go! I’ve just submitted the last of a batch of articles, and now I’m focusing on completing a monograph that surveys early colour printmaking in the German lands, which is under contract with Oxford University Press. It cuts across several disciplines, as I have to consider books, art, the decorative arts, music, all kinds of functions, to paint a full picture.

What has been your most memorable moment in academia?
On my first day as Munby Fellow in Bibliography, I was handed the keys to the University of Cambridge Library’s rare book vaults. It’s still a thrill to remember the shock of their weight when they were put in my hand. I couldn’t believe that I’d be able to undertake original research with such freedom, and each time I entered the stacks I felt like I was living the best day of my research life. Access to primary material on that scale was transformative.

dr-elizabeth-savageCould you describe a typical day in your routine as a researcher?
I’m in a research fellowship now, so my focus is on object-based research and writing up. I love that I can spend so much time with 15th- and 16th-century printed material. Some weeks, I spend days closely examining objects in collections and writing up my observations. It may seem solitary, but I agree with my PhD supervisor, Jean Michel Massing, that original research is one of the greatest pleasures in life.

On the other hand, scholarship is international, and my ‘go bag’ is always half-packed. This month, for instance, I’ll be in London, Philadelphia, London, New York, Cambridge, Munich, London again, and Oxford. In addition to attending a conference, giving three short talks and a few lectures, attending receptions to receive two awards, getting my fingers inky while trying to reconstruct a puzzling early technique at a historical press, examining unique early music books with a prominent musicologist to reassess how they were printed, meeting with visiting scholars from around the world, and developing future collaborations with scholars, curators, librarians and conservators, I’ll also be moving into my new office at the IES.

What do you hope to achieve in the Institute of English Studies?
I hope to contribute to the expansion of the IES’s remit especially through the ‘and communication’ part of my role. The history of the book includes far more than text. Non-textual material – images, diagrams, medical imagery, music, ornaments, and the like – can’t be overlooked. I also hope to engage the IES with the practice of historical printing techniques because the history of the book is also the history of technology, of material science, of economics, even of international relations.

 What is your favourite museum in London?
The British Museum tells the story of our shared global cultural heritage through the objects that shaped history. When I arrive for research in Prints and Drawings – one of the world’s greatest collections, and which also includes manuscripts and early books – I always take the scenic route. My favourite path starts in the Enlightenment Galleries, where books are displayed alongside artefacts and act as the foundations of the knowledge on the upper shelves. Then I walk between the towering Assyrian lamassu (human-headed, lion-bodied, winged guardians, whose counterparts in situ were recently jackhammered by Islamic State), past the glittering women’s jewellery from Ur, and Michelangelo’s enormous cartoon for an oil painting. It’s a not a bad way to start the day. But Sir John Soane’s Museum and the British Library’s Ritblat Treasures Gallery are also extraordinary.

Tell us something unexpected or relatively unknown about the history of the book
We still don’t know how to spell ‘ghost’. The history of the book, especially in England, is deeply international even from the start. William Caxton, the first printer in England, had to recruit compositors from the Low Countries because the skill wasn’t yet known in England. Following Flemish spelling conventions, they indicated a hard ‘g’ with ‘gh’: ‘ghis’ for ‘geese’, for instance. The ‘h’ was corrected in the next generations, but no one dared correct the Bible—which is why ‘Holy Ghost’ still has Caxton’s compositor’s Flemish ‘h’.

Dr Elizabeth Savage’s research explores how earliest printing techniques in the west shaped visual communication across text and image. She took her PhD at the University of Cambridge, where she was elected Munby Fellow in Bibliography. She has held fellowships at the Centre for Material Texts, Cambridge, the Rylands Research Institute, Manchester, and The Warburg Institute, London. Her recent curation includes exhibitions at the British Museum and at the University of Cambridge Library.

This interview was first published on the Institute of English Studies blog.

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