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Imagining England's Past

Inspiration, Enchantment, Obsession

Susan Owens


Imagining England’s Past takes a long look at the country’s invented histories, from the glamorous to the disturbing, from the eighth century to the present day

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England has long built its sense of self on visions of its past. What does it mean for medieval writers to summon King Arthur from the post-Roman fog; for William Morris to resurrect the skills of the medieval workshop and Julia Margaret Cameron to portray the Arthurian court with her Victorian camera; or for Yinka Shonibare in the final years of the twentieth century to visualize a Black Victorian dandy?

By exploring the imaginations of successive generations, this book reveals how diverse notions of the past have inspired literature, art, music, architecture and fashion. It shines a light on subjects from myths to mock-Tudor houses, Stonehenge to steampunk, and asks how – and why – the past continues so powerfully to shape the present. Not a history of England, but a history of those who have written, painted and dreamed it into being, Imagining England's Past offers a lively, erudite account of the making and manipulation of the days of old.

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'Susan Owens conjures our imagined past with such vivacity and lyricism that I can see the dawn mist rising over fabled fields and hear the tread of fictional histories on the worn stairs of yesteryear. Packed full of myths, stories, poems and paintings I found this book impossible to put down!'
Charlotte Mullins

'England has dreamed itself a past – with tenderness and wit, Susan Owens shows how that dream sustains and deludes us'
Matthew Sweet, author and broadcaster

'The nationalist nostalgia so evident in today’s discourse has deep roots … The ideal past never existed, so it had to be constructed from clues, whether they be Arthurian tales, or the objects studied by the Society of Antiquaries (founded in 1586), Owens ties it together through a strikingly broad frame of reference and an eye for the telling object or episode'
New Statesman


'English identity has been steeped in an invented past, which keeps on being reinvented. This lively study traces its journey from Stonehenge to steampunk'

'Via blitz spirit, Brexit and more than one coronation, Owens charts the nostalgic myth-making mania to today'
World of Interiors

'A fascinating study of the ways various generations of the English have conceived of their nation’s history … The book ranges widely to show an England that has always had more than a bit of the mystical about it'
New Criterion

'Owens’s exploration of how the English have, for more than 1,000 years, conjured “Englishness” into being, then pondered the matter of identity, is a useful antidote to the idea that the English are too relaxed and confident in their nationhood to bother with self-examination'

'An entertaining study of the seductive legends of England’s past … bewitching'
The Art Newspaper

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Product Information

Book Details

Format: Hardback

Size: 23.4 x 15.3 cm

Extent: 320 pp

Publication date: 13 April 2023

ISBN: 9780500024331

Contents List

1. Once Upon a Time
2. The Treasures of Time
3. Living in the Past
4. In the Olden Days
5. Cruasades Against the Age
6. Nostalgia
7. Backing into the Future

About the Author

Susan Owens is an art historian and curator who has worked at the Royal Collection and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Her previous books include Spirit of Place: Artists, Writers & the British Landscape (2020), Christina Rossetti: Poetry in Art (2018) and The Ghost: A Cultural History (2017).