London celebrations

Oxford Chapels and London Buses: Research on 19th-Century English Catholic Aesthetics | News | Department of Theology

In the summer of 2021, Mary Biese ’22, major in the Liberal Studies program with minors in Theology and Liturgical Music Ministry, and Maria Keller ’22, major in the Liberal Studies program with minor in Medieval Studies, received research and travel grants Nanovic Institute for European Studies conduct research for their graduate theses on 19th century English Catholic aesthetics. Realizing how much their individual projects overlapped, the friends planned and undertook their research trips together. In this common post for Nanovic Browser, they tell how it all happened and relive a memorable month in England.

Marie Biese: I think it all started when we realized that our thesis topics were much more related than we thought. We knew we wanted to study British authors, but we had no idea at first of their aesthetic and historical connection. I’m particularly interested in JRR Tolkien and Gerard Manley Hopkins, who both loved writing about finding God in nature and dealing with deep loss.

Maria Keller: Yes, and I am interested in the work of Evelyn Waugh, a 20th century English Catholic satirist and novelist. I am particularly interested in his aesthetic philosophy and its relationship to 19th century aesthetics. So when you and I started talking about our theses together, we very quickly realized the overlap between our interests and those of these authors. We were also both planning to go to London to study abroad and do research for our dissertations. When spring study abroad was canceled due to COVID, we realized we had to look for another option as our two dissertations depended on in-person research in England.

MB: I remember we started working on our grant proposals separately, and then we were like, “Why not just go together?” Since part of Nanovic’s mission is to send students to Europe, we each applied to their scholarship program in March. We collaborated a lot to align our dates and places, and sent our applications. I was so nervous if it was going to work, and lots of travel restriction changes meant it was very tricky. Remember how closely we used to monitor updates to UK travel regulations?

LR: Biese in the Botanic Gardens, one of Tolkien’s favorite places in Oxford, with Magdalen College in the background; Keller standing in the grounds of Madresfield Court, where Evelyn Waugh spent some time in the 1930s.

MK: Yes, it was very stressful. The restrictions actually changed shortly after we arrived in the UK, but eventually we only had to quarantine for a week, which wasn’t too bad, and we were still able to be in England for almost a month! Two weeks in London and one in Oxford was a good amount of time to see what we needed to see.

MB: I’m so glad we had time to spend a whole week in Oxford. Almost every author we study was there at one time or another. We got to see the arch where Tolkien sat when he was a professor at Oxford and many of the buildings that featured in Waugh’s Brideshead revisited. At the V&A [the Victoria and Albert Museum] and in another church about an hour from London we were able to see a stunning collection of Pre-Raphaelite stained glass, which we simply couldn’t have seen properly in a photo. Wasn’t it absolutely phenomenal to be able to see all these buildings and objects in person?

MK: Yes, it really was. I was thinking of this when we saw a number of pre-Raphaelite paintings together, including that of Dante Rossetti Proserpina and Holman Hunt The light of the world. You really can’t replicate the experience of being in the same room as this piece of art. For example, you often can’t see the frames of these paintings when you search for them on, say, Google. Many Pre-Raphaelites made their frames with inscriptions and designs specially made for a particular painting. I didn’t know that until I saw the work in person.

MB: Do you think this immersive experience influenced the way you will write your thesis?

Mary Maria in Hyde Park
Biese and Keller in Hyde Park, London.

MK: Yes! My immersion in this aesthetic atmosphere brought me closer to what I think Waugh would have experienced and ultimately helped inspire my central argument. Many of the Pre-Raphaelite and arts and crafts works we visited, while naturalistic, were also highly artificial, often depicting a pseudo-medieval aesthetic foreign to both 19th century industrialized English and the world modern minimalist. My thesis focuses on how, in Brideshead revisited, Waugh describes artificiality and self-creation as either self-destructive or sanctifying, depending on their direction.

MB: Going on the trip together was also a huge blessing. On the one hand, it meant we could take turns browsing and taking pictures.

MK: We were also able to share the cost of food and accommodation! And, since we have similar interests and our theses are historically and thematically related, we might bounce ideas off of each other – those ideas that come to mind immediately after you step out of a gallery or at random moments over dinner or on the train. I also thought it was really helpful that we were able to practice each other’s identification of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, saying, “I bet this is one!” then research the history of some of the paintings and their creators.

MB: And it was nice to share our enthusiasm about all that we encountered and to share these experiences. Standing outside the Inklings pub [The Eagle and Child] where Tolkien and CS Lewis would have sat, going to mass in the church Tolkien attended for so many years, and visiting his favorite botanical gardens in Oxford were such delightful and memorable experiences.

MK: Of course, things didn’t always work out. Learning to use the buses was a major learning curve for both of us.

Mary Biese, Maison Pusey
Biese at Pusey House, an Anglo-Catholic chapel in Oxford.

MB: Probably because neither of us had ever taken a public bus before since we are both from the suburbs! We assumed it worked like the [London] Subway – that it stopped at every stop no matter what. Do you remember the first time we took the bus? We missed our stop and had to walk in the opposite direction once the bus driver realized what had happened and let us get off. The next time we missed our stop again and although we were tempted to go back in the right direction there was no sidewalk so we waited for the next bus to pick us up. It was a very new and somewhat stressful experience, but we finally figured it out.

MK: Going back to what we were saying about the importance of immersive experience: since my thesis is on English Catholic aesthetics, I felt so lucky to be able to spend so much time inside some of the churches that directly inspired the work I have I’m interested in. My favorite part of the trip was a visit to Madresfield Court, to see the chapel that inspired the Flyte family chapel in Brideshead revisited. It was so inspiring to imagine Waugh sitting in the same space as he developed his masterpiece.

MB: And I think my favorite was visiting the London Oratory, which was right next to one of the main museums. We went to mass there towards the start of the trip and loved it so much we came back for adoration on the last day of our trip when we revisited the museum next door. One of my church photos is currently my phone screensaver. I will never quite forget his greatness. Gerard Manley Hopkins, one of the characters I study for my thesis, says that “the world is loaded with the Greatness of God”. And that was definitely true on our trip.

Originally posted by Mary Biese and Maria Keller at to January 21, 2022. Nanovic Browser is the platform for stories told by students about their experiences of exploring Europe and European studies thanks to the support of the Nanovic Institute.