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In 1780, prisoners captured during the American Revolutionary War were brought to Edinburgh Castle. Once interred in the castle’s damp cells, several took up nails and knives to cut into the fabric of their prison. The surviving results depict a hangman’s gallows bearing the name of the then-British Prime Minister Lord North and a two-masted ship flying the stars and stripes – the earliest depiction of the flag this side of the Atlantic. Whilst electrifying, these marks were not alone in eighteenth-century Britain and its empire. Instead, they were part of a mass of words and symbols that lined the surfaces of towns and cities, produced by a diverse range of practitioners, from prisoners and politicians to rioters and radicals.

Addressing a disconnect between the carvings of the Middle Ages and the so-called vandalism of the present day, this paper investigates how graffiti underwent a revolution in eighteenth-century Britain, to become a powerful and subversive practice that shaped public life. It asks new questions about the languages developed by graffiti makers, the literacies of their audiences and the implications, ephemerality and endurance of their productions. No longer the tolerated preserve of ritual and superstition, as in previous centuries, eighteenth-century mark making exploded across rapidly expanding urban environments and a burgeoning material world, where it became part of an arsenal of activist tools and was eventually criminalised. Marks scratched, carved, daubed and scribbled across surfaces as diverse as glass, stone, wood, plaster, paper and more – ranging from the everyday and discrete to the coded, illicit and even treasonous – contributed to an emerging public sphere and complex notions of selfhood and, in doing so, influenced social and political change. 

All welcome. This event is free to attend, but advance registration is required.

This will be a ‘hybrid’ seminar with a limited number of places available in person and a larger number of bookings for online attendance via Zoom. Those attending in person are asked to bring a Wi-Fi enabled laptop, tablet or phone.

The session will start at the slightly later time of 17:30.