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Chris Ruston

Inspired by the history of libraries, print and women authors, in particular Amelia Opie.

Museum Source Objects: The Albion Printing Press

Title: The Poems of Mrs Opie - A Return to Possibilities

A return to possibilities...


Chris Ruston was inspired by the history of libraries, print and women authors, in particular Amelia Opie. Opie was just one of a number of strong independently minded women who benefited from the enlightened attitudes prevalent in Norwich during the 18th and 19th centuries. She went on to challenge attitudes and champion the plight of the less fortunate. Hers was among the first signatures on the anti slavery petition which was presented to Parliament. In her early years she wrote a number of books which sought to highlight these injustices and then focussed her energies in to actively helping the poor. Chris was able to find an original copy of Amelia Opie poems to produce this work.

Chris states

“Just 26 letters in the English alphabet, and yet the innumerable combinations they create give us words. Words in turn give us information and one of the traditional ways information is disseminated is through the printed page. Norwich has a long association with printing and books, Jarrolds being the most well known printing firm. Libraries offered access to information long before the majority of people could afford books of their own and Norwich was one of the first cities in Britain to establish a truly public library.

Knowledge leads to thinking, and thinking to questioning. During the 18th and 19th centuries this gave rise to the city having a large dissenting population. One such resident was Amelia Opie (1769 -1834) - novelist, poet, radical, and philanthropist. Opie's philanthropic work included visiting workhouses, hospitals, prisons, and the poor.

Her writing challenged attitudes and highlighted many of the inequalities of her time.

The initial idea for this work came after talking to Bridewell curator, Bethan Holdridge, who explained how she had recently discovered a box of partially- burnt documents while sorting through the museum's cupboards. Through this redaction by burning, I was made aware how attitudes and perspectives shift and slide through time.The pages become a visual poem as new sentences emerge, formed from Opie's words, thus creating a conversation in the here and now.

While working on these pages I found myself wondering: Who, now, is the author? Whose voice is now speaking? Is it Amelia's? Is it mine? I wonder, is history not a continual process of redaction? Of loss and gain? Of recording and rewriting experiences.”

Museum Source Objects: Fire Engine

Title: Out of the Ashes: The Observer Books and Reverberations.

“Poetry is an echo asking a shadow to dance”

  Carl Sandberg


In the foyer of the museum stands a beautiful old fire engine. This was from the Carrow works and set Chris on a path to research the history of fire in the city. Realising the subject was vast, she narrowed the focus to books and the various libraries that have been destroyed by fire.

She states

“Sadly the thread of destruction by fire weaves through the history of Norwich, as does its resilience to salvage, rebuild and begin again. It was not until 1668, just two years after the Great Fire of London, that Norwich had its first fire engine. Over two hundred years later, in 1840, Norwich City Council established their own fire brigade. Fire was an ever present danger in a city whose buildings were predominately built of wood and thatch. The frequency of fires continued to increase as industrial business set up throughout the nineteenth century. Even the Bridewell did not escape the flames- experiencing a severe fire 1752 which destroyed much of the medieval building.

Looking into this vast subject, my focus needed to be more defined. I was subsequently intrigued to discover how many libraries in Norwich have come to a fiery end. This was to be my starting point. The ensuing research has generated a series of bookworks which explore loss and how fragments become the generative symbol of hope, pushing us to restore, and treasure historic objects.”


This book of drawings was created following research into the lost libraries of Norwich: sadly many having met their end through fire. One report which  described the destruction of the City Library ( 1994) stated 


"Make no mistake this was a tragedy"

  James Anthony


Over 150 thousand books were burnt and many irreplaceable historical documents were lost. The smell of burning filled the city once more as hot ash fell to the ground. This quote is written over and over throughout the book. In doing so the words become lost as letterforms become illegible, dissolving into the dark shadows, broken and disintegrating in a chaotic dance across the page. Legibility gives way in favour of  abstract marks. Clusters of small letters dissolve and float randomly, waiting to settle once more. Fleeting moments captured across the pages: suspended remnants of what was and perhaps what can still be. After all fragments that survive these tragic fires often become the nucleus around which new libraries are restored.


I have chosen a double gate fold structure to bind the pages. It sympathetically mirrors this sense of chaos by allowing the pages to open in numerous combinations. It disrupts the usual sequence of linear narratives and offers instead an interactive circular reading experience. The reader is presented with choice - they are the ones who piece this story back together - they decide how this 'story' will unfold. 

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