At the Institute of English Studies, we are passionate about archives – and we don’t have to go far to find great Special Collections. Senate House Library holds a wide range of archival materials, including many little-known documents on modernism and twentieth-century literature. Leila Kassir, Research Librarian at Senate House Library, has teamed up with Lise Jaillant, Lecturer at Loughborough University, to curate a wonderful exhibition, “Publishing Modernist Fiction and Poetry.” We asked Lise to tell us about this collaboration:

1. What is the topic of the exhibition?

The exhibition is about publishers who made the bold choice to publish difficult modernist texts. It is well-known that many modernist writers had trouble finding a publisher: no one was particularly excited about Gertrude Stein’s work until The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was published in 1933, for example. To gain greater control over the publication process, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Nancy Cunard and others created their own presses. They paid close attention to the physical materiality of books – as you will see in the first case of the exhibition, on Women and Publishing.

For the second case on Race and Modernism, we worked closely with Mercedes Aguirre, Lead Curator at the British Library. Mercedes has a chapter on Nancy Cunard’s Hours Press in my edited collection Publishing Modernist Fiction and Poetry (Edinburgh University Press, 2019). And the third case draws on my own research on Middlebrow and Celebrity.

For visitors, it is a great opportunity to see materials from Senate House Library collections that are not often shown to the public: letters by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, rare editions, neglected periodicals and publicity materials. One of my favourite items is Nancy Cunard’s Negro: Anthology – a huge work with many illustrations and photographs such as those of musical and theatrical stars that are displayed in the exhibition.

Nancy Cunard with John Banting, artist (left) and Taylor Gordon, writer (right) in front of the Grampian Hotel in Harlem, then her home, on  3 May, 1943. Photo: NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

2. What was your experience as co-curator of the exhibition?

As researchers, we are encouraged to show the impact of our work, and it was great to collaborate with Leila and colleagues from Senate House Library. I am very grateful to Maria Castrillo, the Head of Special Collections and Engagement, for making this exhibition possible. Working with librarians and archivists was great fun. I particularly enjoyed our filming session. These short videos by experts of modernism will contextualise the exhibition, and I hope visitors will find them useful.

3. The exhibition opens later in June – what are you most looking forward to?

I look forward to the curator-led tour of the exhibition. On Tuesday 18 June at 4pm, Leila Kassir and myself will welcome visitors and talk about our selection of materials. No booking required – we will meet in Room 101, on the first floor of Senate House.

The exhibition will be on display from 17th to 28th June 2019 at Senate House University of London, Malet St, London WC1E 7HU (Room 101, 1st Floor).