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In So Many Words: Roget's Thesaurus and the Power of Language

The Portico Library’s first Secretary, Peter Mark Roget, was a medical doctor, inventor, linguist and mathematician. His contribution to the English language is hard to overstate, with over 30 million copies of his eponymous Thesaurus empowering generations since its first publication in 1852. The Thesaurus was designed, in his words, “to facilitate the expression of ideas” and as such has played a significant part in our ability to communicate, and to negotiate the perils and possibilities of language. As part of the library’s 2018 Information is Power project, funded by The Zochonis Charitable Trust, three contemporary artists have created new works based on research into Roget’s legacy – the role of vocabulary in the 21st century; the power of words; the uses and abuses of text and speech.

The artists

Jez Dolan explores queerness and identity through the codification of language, with a specific focus on secrecy and hiddenness – the things we don’t say, and that remain unsaid. Text and language act as both form and content in his work, which is often interdisciplinary, project-based and research-driven. He uses different media according to the needs and context of each project: from printmaking and drawing to performance, installation and curating; exploring archival source materials to create new artworks. His study of The Portico Library’s collection has unearthed eclectic volumes on subjects from handwriting and lithography to a survey of British seaweeds, which have inspired new, site-specific works.

Dolan researches queer identity, histories, heritage and personal archives, and is interested in how we place these, and ourselves, in the wider world. He has an MA in Queer Studies in Visual Art & Culture (with distinction) at Birmingham School of Art/Birmingham Institute of Art and Design and has recently exhibited at Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, NYC; Walker Art Gallery; People's History Museum; the UK Parliament Art Collection & Archives, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (UK) and the Victoria and Albert Museum.


Rowland Hill works in performance, sound, moving image and text. She seeks to explore the forms and limits of language by disrupting established modes of expression and knowledge-production. She is interested in gesture, the voice, archives and queer/feminist practices, and the use and misuse of words. In 2017 she won the Clare Winsten Memorial Prize at the Slade School of Fine Art, where she is currently studying for an MA.

Hill’s new work at The Portico Library gathers found fragments of text, including from Nathanial Drake’s The Gleaner, Dibdin’s Bibliomania and The Life of Colley Cibber, arranging them to create a discourse around language and power; re-working the collection and presenting it back in the form of a series of self-published books and performances. The works incorporate examples of literary convention, self-expression, vulnerability and fatigue, from a variety of literature written ‘by and for the English gentleman’.


Jonathan Hitchen is a graphic artist, book designer and Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design at Manchester School of Art. For 'In So Many Words' he presents a visual survey of the structure and design of Roget's Thesaurus, examining the Tabular Synopsis of Categories from the first edition of the book published in 1852. Through drawing, bookwork and algorithmic analysis he reveals the semantic landscape as imagined by Roget, starting with the author’s six classes of words: ‘Abstract Relations’; ‘Space’; ‘Matter’; ‘Intellect’; ‘Volition’, and ‘Affections’. The work sits somewhere between the worlds of concrete poetry, information design and research, and as such the outcome is intended to be read as both image and text.

When Hitchen is not teaching, or trying to persuade computers to make drawings, he works with The Modernist Society on their quarterly magazine the modernist. He recently made work that examines the relationship between an audience and their 3D glasses in Strelnikov’s Glasses and Other Stories (Society of the Spectacles, HOMEmcr, 2017).

Peter Mark Roget

Manchester rarely celebrates its connection to Peter Mark Roget, one of the most influential linguists of the 19th century. Born in London into a family of Huguenot refugeees, he studied physiology in Edinburgh before moving to Manchester, where he served as The Portico Library’s first Secretary from 1806. His achievements are remarkable and diverse – from groundbreaking work in medicine and metrology (the study of measurement) to serving at the Royal Society, his influence can be found in the development of film, computing, health, and of course, lexicography. On the title page of the first edition of his Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, Roget quotes from John Horne Tooke’s Diversions of Purley: “It is impossible we should fully understand the nature of the signs, unless we first properly consider and arrange the things signified”.

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Earlier Event: March 20
Artist Talk: Sophie Tyrrell
Later Event: April 11
Concert: Eric Chenaux