Welcome to ‘Voices of Early Career Researchers’, a monthly feature on the French History Network blog. Each month we’ll post a short interview with an Early Career Researcher of French History, giving you an insight of the different paths that ECRs are following after their PhDs in and outside of academia: what do the lives of recently appointed lecturers, teaching assistants, post-doctoral researchers or teaching fellows etc. look like? How does one transition from PhD to the post-doctoral years? We invite our interviewees to share their experiences and we hope that the conversation carries on in universities, conferences and social medias.
Hannah Williams is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Queen Mary University of London’s School of History since October 2015. She finished her thesis in 2010 at the Courtauld Institute of Art and then worked as a Junior Research Fellow in Art History at St John’s College, Oxford.
Can you tell us a little about your PhD thesis and your current research? How did you come to this field (did you do something else before considering PhD/teaching)?
I’m an art historian of 17th- and 18th-century France. My research focuses on artistic communities in Paris, portraiture, religious art, art institutions, and the social lives of objects. My PhD, which I did at the Courtauld Institute of Art, was an anthropologically-inflected study of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (1648-1793), using artists’ portraits and self-portraits to investigate professional and personal relationships between its members. In 2015, I published this research in my first book, Académie Royale: A History in Portraits.
I’m now working on three different projects, all of which have developed since I finished the PhD. First, I’m writing a book called Art and Religion in 18th-Century Paris, which examines the crucial but surprisingly neglected terrain of religious visual and material culture from this period. Second, I’m working on a digital history project about Artists in Paris: Mapping Neighbourhoods in the 18th-Century City, which explores a cultural geography of the Paris art world by locating artists’ homes and studios across the century. And finally, I’m completing a book with Katie Scott (Courtauld) called Artists’ Things: Retrieving Lost Property from 18th-Century France, which investigates material possessions that once belonged to French artists.
I came to the field of 18th-century French art history as an undergraduate at the University of Sydney. Since then I’ve never wanted to do anything else!
When did you submit your thesis; what did you do in the months following submission/the viva?
I finished my PhD in 2010, so it feels like quite a while ago now. I submitted the thesis in July and had my viva in September. In between I went back to Australia for a short holiday and then returned to London to prepare for the viva and get to work on my new research project. After the viva I almost immediately moved to Oxford so there wasn’t much time for anything else.
Your first ECR position: Junior Research Fellow in Art History (St John’s College, Oxford)
Did you apply to jobs/ work outside of academia after the end of your PHD?
My first ECR position was as a Junior Research Fellow in Art History at St John’s College, Oxford. I applied for the post during the final year of my PhD, so I was very lucky to go straight on to that after finishing. Over the years before that I’d done a lot of work as a teaching assistant and research assistant at the University of Sydney and the Courtauld, and in my final PhD year I was a Teaching Fellow at UCL and a Visiting Lecturer at the Courtauld.
What pieces of advice would you give to those applying to a JRF?
Applying for a JRF is really no different from applying for any other postdoc: you need to develop a really strong research project, show that you’ve got a good research record through publications and other activities, and have supportive referees. Unlike most postdocs, JRFs usually have interviews for the shortlisted candidates, with panels composed of academics from a range of disciplines. So practice speaking engagingly about your research to anyone who’ll listen!
It’s also important not to assume that Oxbridge postdocs are only for Oxbridge students. You certainly don’t need to have done a degree at Oxford or Cambridge to get appointed as a JRF there.
Your current position: Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow (QMUL)
How important was your first position in gaining your current fellowship? What are your main responsibilities?
My current position is Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow in the School of History at QMUL, where I started in October 2015. The work I did during my JRF in Oxford undoubtedly had a huge role in gaining this fellowship. During those five years in Oxford I was fortunate to have the time and funding to explore new research avenues, to publish my research in books and articles, to gain teaching experience, and to deliver lots of conference papers in the UK, France and USA, meeting great people along the way and having enlightening interactions at every stop. Crucially it also gave me the opportunity to spend time in Paris, working in the archives and studying artworks in churches and museums, which has been invaluable to the development of my current project.
My main responsibility as a Leverhulme Fellow is research, in particular, writing my book on Art and Religion in 18th-Century Paris and creating my website about Artists in Paris. So far I’ve been busy planning and writing, giving papers, organising conferences, and building the database for the website. I’m looking forward this year to several research trips to Paris, where I’ll be working in the archives and analysing artworks for the book. Fortunately with a Leverhulme ECR Fellowship there is also scope for teaching. I had a great time in first semester teaching a first-year course on the history of London’s East End. For next year I’ve designed a new course on the “Art of France from Louis XIV to the Revolution”, which I’m really looking forward to teaching.
Do you have any advice for the ECRs putting together their Leverhulme application?
When applying for a Leverhulme, the key thing is to start thinking about it as early as possible. You need to get institutional support from your chosen university, so it’s not just a matter of submitting an application form – it helps to get to know the department you want to work in. And of course, developing a really strong research project is crucial, as is finding a way of explaining that project clearly and without jargon. Try describing your project to your friends and see if you can keep them interested (it’s useful to see when their eyes start to glaze over!). And as with all these things, it’s important to remember that there’s also a big chunk of luck involved.
Has the post-PhD life enabled you to devote more time to academic related activities (societies, public engagement, and social media etc.)?
Absolutely. Life as an ECR offers scope for creativity and experimentation that often isn’t there during the PhD. The most exciting thing I’ve done recently is to launch a new online journal for 18th-century art and culture – Journal18 – which I co-edit with my colleagues Meredith Martin (NYU) and Noémie Etienne (Getty).
After the PhD I also started using Twitter – @DrHanWill – and I blog (very sporadically) and have written articles for The Conversation. I really enjoy the academic and not-quite-but-nearly academic conversations that get started in these alternative spaces.
A highlight among my post-PhD academic related activities was the Association of Art Historians’ “Art History in the Pub” series, which saw me one evening in The Monarch in Camden talking about the gruesome suicide of the 18th-century painter François Lemoyne (he stabbed himself nine times with a sword!). It just goes to show research can happen anywhere. As fun as it was to entertain North Londoners with a crime drama, it was also a serious academic inquiry, and after a few years of work this research has recently been published as an article in Oxford Art Journal.
To finish the interview, we thought we would end on three light-hearted questions:
Red or white wine?
Always, *always* white. And preferably a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (when it comes to art, I give it to the French, but for Sauvignon Blanc, it’s New Zealand all the way).
Favourite French TV show?
Any crime drama really. Engrenages was great but a bit violent. I recently discovered Cherif, which I enjoyed.
Love or hate Bienvenue chez les ch’tis?
Never seen it… so I guess that’s the answer.