History of Art


Elsa Perryman Owens

PhD supervisor: Dr Allison Stielau (History of Art) and Professor Jason Peacey (History)
Working title for PhD: Melted, Singed, Incinerated, Saved: Catastrophe and the Non-Human in The Great Fire of London

My project explores the human experience of physical catastrophe by examining the material culture of the 1666 Great Fire of London. Despite the Fire’s prominence within city and national narratives, the event, and particularly the debris that survived it, remains understudied in secondary historical literature and overlooked in traditional art historical practice. Burnt, shattered, and warped beyond recognition, fire-affected objects pose a significant challenge to assumptions of value, aesthetic importance, temporality, and the agency of non-human actors within the humanities. 

In times of physical catastrophe, when the appearance, functionality and even existence of objects shifts, our methods of analysis must also change. Using an interdisciplinary approach that carefully blends together recent work in the Anthropocene and Disaster Studies with art historical visual analysis and aesthetics, this research asks what happens when we shift the lens of focus onto the Fire as not only a destructive force, but a generative one. How do disciplines that usually centre the human reckon with a non-human actor, construct its ‘intentions’ and dissect the ‘art’ it creates? Problematising the boundaries between art and nature, absence and presence, material transformation and ruin, this project proposes a redefinition of the relationship between historical catastrophes and the communities that experience them.


This PhD is funded by the London Arts and Humanities Partnership (LAHP) Open Studentship Award.