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Collaborative Doctoral Award - 'Theatre and the Aristocracy: Passion, Patronage, Power and Politics, 1771-1893'

Drury Lane theatre with audience 19th CWe’d like to draw your attention to a Collaborative Doctoral Award PhD position, fully-funded by the Midlands4Cities Doctoral Training Partnership, starting in October 2024. The doctoral position has grown out of a collaboration between the Bedford Estates (including Woburn Abbey) and the School of Creative Arts, Performance and Visual Cultures at the University of Warwick. The project overview is purposefully broad, so that potential candidates can define their own interests within it.

The lead supervisor, Dr David Coates, would be delighted to hear from potential candidates thinking about applying and will be able to provide more details about the post to anyone who reaches out. His contact details and an overview of the project can be found below:

Theatre and the Aristocracy: Passion, Patronage, Power and Politics, 1771-1893

Woburn Abbey is one of England’s ‘treasure houses’ and has been home to the Russells and the Earls and Dukes of Bedford since the 1620s. This project will interrogate the manifold, complex relationships between the aristocracy and the theatre across six generations of the Russell family between 1771 and 1893.

Woburn Abbey has been closed to the public since 2019 as part of a major capital project that is due to be completed in 2025. This period of closure is providing a timely opportunity for rethinking how the house, family and collections can be narrated to future audiences. Since opening to the public in 1955, the house’s narrative has remained largely unchanged, focussing chiefly on the political successes of a select number of Earls and Dukes and how they used their increased power and wealth to develop their properties and land. In doing so, other thematic approaches to the collections have been fundamentally overlooked, as have the fascinating lives of their wives and lovers (male and female), their wider families and the thousands of people who lived and worked with them. When the house reopens, and in subsequent decades, there is a strong desire to ensure that the Bedford Estates’ narratives are dynamic, responsive and reflective of the diversity of its twenty-first century audiences.

As the doctoral candidate working on this project, you will help to address the urgent need to rewrite the histories of Woburn Abbey and the Bedford Estates by approaching the collections from a social and cultural perspective. You will achieve this by centring your research on the Russell family’s associations with theatre across four key areas:

  • Passion. Several Russells demonstrate a passion for theatre which is documented in the collections. For example, the sixth Duchess converted a room at Woburn Abbey into a private theatre hosting performances for fifty years, providing theatrical experiences for guests and staff. Her daughter, Louisa (later Duchess of Abercorn), also a theatre enthusiast, was painted as Viola in Twelfth Night, though more could be discovered about the painting’s context. Additionally, a major volunteer-led project cataloguing over 100,000 of the sixth Duke’s invoices (ending in 2026) is revealing regular payments for theatre tickets. Using these examples as a starting point, this CDA project will investigate the significance of the Russell family’s passion for theatre and how it is manifested in the collections.
  • Patronage. The death of Queen Elizabeth II and the reshuffling of royal patronages that followed was a reminder that this centuries-old system continues to have value in 2023. Between 1771 and 1893 numerous Russells acted as patrons to artistic and cultural professionals, organisations and events on a national, regional and local level. This project will examine how the role of patron operated on these different levels and what the benefits were to the family and the patronised.
  • Power. This project also scrutinises how the shifting relationships between theatre and the Russells evidence changing power dynamics in British society in this period. While aristocratic powers were in decline, the developing theatre profession could offer social mobility and a level of wealth and celebrity to contest traditional power structures. In the long nineteenth century actresses became Duchesses and theatre professionals entered elite social circles, with large interconnected theatrical and aristocratic communities living and working around fashionable areas of London, such as on the Bedford Estate.
  • Politics. Finally, this study will consider where these emerging theatre histories intersect and provide new insights on existing political narratives at Woburn Abbey. For example, it may consider what role the sixth Duke and his estate steward had in one of the most significant political uprisings in British theatre history in 1809, when he increased the rent on Covent Garden Theatre. This rent raise was passed on to the theatre’s audiences through higher ticket prices sparking three months of riots, in which twenty people lost their lives, and the theatre’s manager was forced to return entry fees to their former rates.

Process: This project will require rigorous primary research, interrogating archival material and analysing objects and artworks in the Bedford Estates’ collections. You will have access to the Bedford Estates archives, which have significant amounts of uncatalogued materials and are an exciting untapped resource. In addition, the project will require research in other private and public archives.

Using this primary research, alongside secondary reading, you will deliver a PhD thesis in Theatre and Performance Studies. You will also work closely with your supervisors to co-curate an exhibition or display based on your research findings for Woburn Abbey and will co-produce a programme of public engagement activities to run alongside it. Throughout your doctoral studies you will be encouraged to share your research at academic conferences, with heritage professionals and on social media.

Place: At Warwick you will be supervised by two academics, led by theatre historian Dr David Coates. In your home department you will find a stimulating research culture where you will be supported by a wider team of research-active staff and doctoral candidates. At the Bedford Estates, you will be supervised by Nicola Allen (Archivist) and will have the opportunity to spend considerable periods of time there, particularly during the primary research and dissemination phases of your project.

This collaborative doctoral award has developed out of long-standing professional relationships between members of the supervisory team. They are committed to meeting with you regularly and to working together to develop you into a dynamic graduate who will have the relevant skills and expertise to pursue a career in either the heritage or higher education sectors, depending on your future career goals.

Person: To take on this project you should be a meticulous researcher who is passionate about this topic and the development of its outputs. The supervisory team are looking for a candidate who is dedicated, enthusiastic, openminded and inquisitive and who is willing to embed themselves in the cultures and practices of both organisations. They welcome applicants with a wide range of previous experiences and expertise, as the selected candidate will be provided with the relevant training depending on their interests, experiences and priorities. This might include collections handling, cataloguing, curatorial practice, social media training and training for teaching.


The deadline for applications is noon (UK time) on 10 January. However, ahead of this you will need to apply for a place to study at the University of Warwick. To check you eligibility, use the link below:

You should then follow M4C’s guidance on applying for a PhD, which can be found here:

This Collaborative Doctoral Award project can be found in the M4C website here: 

If you’re thinking about applying for this post, have any questions, or would like to have a discussion (online or in-person), please don’t hesitate to contact David on If you do get in touch, he'll be able to provide much more detail about the project and the opportunities available to you as part of this funded CDA.