The life of Robert Edward Hart, one of the UK’s most prolific collectors of rare books and coins, was truly, and perhaps deliberately, lost for the 70 years since his death. As part of the 2017 Being Human festival of the humanities, researchers from the School of Advanced Study at the University of London, Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery and Re:Source Blackburn, will interrogate the course of his life through a specially written play based on archival research material.
Described as ‘a man who was happiest to be in the background’, Edward Hart’s reputation as a recluse has been confirmed only by the absence of an alternative narrative about his life. Represented by a single photograph in the Blackburn Museum and Gallery which holds his collections, Hart’s motivations as a collector and as a philanthropist have remained hidden; his life unexamined.
Based on archival research led by Dr Cynthia Johnston of the Institute of English Studies, Christopher Adams has created a performance which interrogates the course of Edward Hart’s life. We’re in pursuit of an answer to John Ruskin’s question ‘For what purpose does he spend?’
The play will open up Edward Hart’s desires and bring his lost life back to audiences in London and Blackburn itself where the performance will be held in the Cotton Exchange. This cathedral-like building built in neo-gothic style in the 1860s has been closed to the public for more than 20 years. For the night of the performance, the building will be open providing a link between a contemporary Blackburn audience and one of Blackburn’s most passionate citizens, Edward Hart.
The Hart family fortune was made through the manufacture of ropes which powered the cotton spinning machines of the Industrial Revolution. The 19th century saw Blackburn transform from a sleepy market town to the foremost manufacturing centre of cotton cloth in the world. Vast fortunes were made during this period, and the Hart family’s auxiliary trade enabled them to join the ranks of the industrialist super rich. Neither philanthropy, nor collecting, a 19th-century passion shared by many, were unusual among Edward Hart’s contemporaries, but the sheer extent of both his ambition as a connoisseur and his generosity as a patron singles him out as an exceptionally determined individual.
How did Edward Hart reconcile his private obsession and the vast amounts he spent on his collections with the lives of those who worked for him in the rope factory, and those mill workers he encountered on his daily walk to work? What individuals influenced his character? How do his actions affect the lives of those who live in the town today? What was his intention through his collections and his philanthropic gifts to the town? Are those intentions still valid today?
Our purpose in ‘Finding Mr Hart’ is to place him in our midst and to interrogate his purpose by understanding his life with all its passions.
Our first performance will take place on 17 November in the grand Senate Room of Senate House at the University of London. The performance will be enhanced by archival images provided by the Institute of Historical Research and Senate House Library. After the performance there will be an opportunity for questions followed by a reception.
The following Friday, 24 November, the play will be performed in the Cotton Exchange, Blackburn, followed by a reception in the Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery.
- Senate House performance tickets (17 November, 6.30 pm) are available at: http://sas.sym-online.com/registrationforms/iesbooking20796/
- Blackburn Cotton Exchange (24 November, 5.30 pm) performance tickets at: http://sas.sym-online.com/registrationforms/iesbooking20798/
- Being Human runs from 17 to 25 November (see the full UK programme of events online