The University of Leeds’ Brotherton Library Special Collections holds one of the largest Romany collections in the country. Many of the pieces were donated in 1950 by the niece-in-law of Lord Brotherton, Dorothy Una Ratcliffe. Ratcliffe was fascinated by Romany culture; she spent much of her life writing about them, collecting photographs and publications about their culture both at home and abroad.
Part of the collection consists of 10 wonderfully vivid etchings of Romany dances from festivals all over Hungary called ‘Hungarian Dances’, drawn by Hungarian Artist Ernö Barta. The colours are intensely vibrant: vivid pinks, blues, oranges and greens successfully convey the festivities of the Roma depicted in the pictures. The etchings are all drawn mid-dance, and, in such a way, they display a culture its people at their most festive and joyous. These dances are not limited to the older generation either: there are also etchings of younger people partaking in these activities, showing a community united by the thrill of dance.
Around the same time as doing the ‘Hungarian Dances’, Barta also made other collections of etchings, entitled ‘Hungarian Genres’ and ‘Budapest’. The collections’ focus on the peoples of Barta’s native Hungary indicates an interest in national identity. This is further reflected by his involvement in the irredentist campaigns of the 1920s, set up in retaliation to the Treaty of Trainon, which reduced Hungarian borders by around two thirds.
The influence of the music and dance of the Roma can be seen in Hungarian culture on a wider scale. In the 17th Century, following the expulsion of the Ottoman Empire from Buda, “musical life flourished” in Hungary. Now the Romany dances, as depicted in Barta’s work, also became highly popular all over the country, in “manor houses and gatherings of a lower social rank alike”. Here “dancing enjoyed enormous popularity, and groups traditionally composed of Gypsy musicians provided the accompaniment.” (Piotrowska, 2013, p. 25) Romany dances remain popular in the country to this day, with music and dance collectives still performing throughout the country.
More broadly, these collections embody a key conflict faced in the study of a separate culture, and this issue felt particularly pertinent for us writing at Eastern Spaces. Although Barta was a Hungarian, he was not a Gypsy. While the etchings, and the collections do share the cultures of the Roma with a wider audience, they are a product of the observer’s gaze rather than of the Roma themselves. The image of the Romany culture is therefore often reductively romanticised and glorified. One book in the collection brazenly states that the Gypsy “does not like to work. His body is hardy, but passively so, in that he bears hardships well but is absolutely useless for any work that demands strength and perseverance.” (Fleischmann, 1912) Other books, written by British writers, spoke about their “adventures” travelling with the Roma people in the 19th Century. The infatuation with their culture is clear.
This is an important issue, and one that is not being disregarded by the Brotherton Collections. While undertaking the mighty task of rearchiving the material, they have been in contact with Gypsy and Traveller families from the Leeds area. The aim is to incorporate their voice into the collections in the hope that their comments will enable greater understanding of the culture and reduce the fetishism that typifies certain elements of the collections.
The community has expressed their pleasure in seeing past materials of their culture, given the fact that their travelling life means that the ability to archive their own materials is generally limited. What is key, however, is that these communities are aiding in shifting the collection from being a pure romanticised othering of their culture, to one which incorporates their own voice into their own past. This is crucial in the context of these collections, but equally reflects the crucial ethical concern of interaction with another culture in both an academic context, as well as in society.
Special thanks to Caroline Bolton for sharing the collections.
Piotrowska, A.G. 2013. Gypsy Music in European Culture. [Online]. New England: Northeastern University Press. [Accessed: 22 March 2017]. Available from: https://www.dawsonera.com/
Fleischmann, G. 1912. The gypsy in Hungarian literature.
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