https://robsherman Project knole
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For all YOUNG MISSES Cond escending
A Very Moderne
Being An A C C O M P T diverting and Wonder-full, of a House Well-Kept by a Curiu{ Guest come two Year{ before Now: an Un-Naturral 'S P Y R I T' of Dimension Unplumbed and Providense Convenient: Who Apparated From No-wherabout{ & Installed him-{elf within a {mall FISURE of the Kitchen Wall thu{ - A{ here Re-told by the Propryetor and thu{ that S P Y RI TS mistre{{, one Anne Latch: a Seere{{ now much-trafficked and Feared in thi{ Country a{ - 'THE WYFE OF NIGHTHEAD'

As a practice-based PhD, Project knole seeks to embody my research topics, and generate new knowledge, through a work of art and a narrative told: a narrative that begins with the rather startling claims printed above.

Above is a facsimile of the opening page of a pamphlet printed by William Cryer in the city of Sheffield, England, in the closing months of the year 1760. Commonly known as 'chapbooks' or 'chaps', these documents were part of a rich literary culture that spread news, ephemeral rumour and popular myth across many classes and demographics. Anne Latch, the author of this particular pamphlet, never wanted the notoriety or scrutiny that such wide and rapid distribution would bring her.

She sent her work to Cryer, written on scraps of accounts paper in a barely-legible scrawl, on the strength of his reputation as a "lofer of Troth", and in apparent trust of his discretion. The pair had never met, and never would: Anne was leaving the county, and did not plan to wait to see the fruits of any publicity. Enclosing a hefty fee, Anne gave strict instructions that only one copy of her words, unexpurgated and untampered, was to be printed: and that Cryer was then to deliver the resulting, unique work to its one rightful recipient, a young woman who lived in the city as a member of a well-to-do family, and was already a "subscryber" to Cryer's other monthly periodicals and chapbooks.

Anne gave no address for this woman, and no name, and only the barest of physical descriptions. She did not know her: only that this woman had appeared to her in a dream, repeatedly; and as a woman who rarely dreamed anything at all, Anne knew that this was the sign that she had been waiting for.

The pamphlet was to serve many purposes when it reached this mysterious recipient. It was a legal deed, gifting to her all of Anne's worldly goods. It was a defense of Anne's character, a defiant prescription of her innocence in the face of all that of which she was accused. Perhaps most plainly, it was a set of simple instructions detailing how, in assuming Anne's mantle, that young woman was to carry on her work.

William Cryer despaired of ever finding this woman in a city of thousands of young, bored dilletantes looking more for "novele" adventure than this over-long doggerel by an ill-educated moorswoman. Understandably thinking of his bottom line, he printed hundreds of copies of Anne's words, sensationalising them, tampering with them to an unknowable degree; latterly, he sold them wherever he could. They made him, briefly, a very rich man, reversing his declining fortunes. As far as is known, Anne never confronted him about his betrayal. She left the county the week after, by the new toll road, and was never seen again.

the front page of the housekeeping The front page of Anne's chapbook.
the front page of another chapbook A chapbook contemporary to Anne's.

On the face of it, Anne's bequeathment was no great prize, for its 'rightful' owner or for any of Mr. Cryer's other customers who came to claim it. She was not a rich woman, owning only her father's dilapidated cottage in the hamlet of Nighthead, high up on the dun, misty gritstone moors above Sheffield's western edge. Nighthead was a lonely place, without much character; consisting of a few waterlogged fields, a sneeze of ever-wet houses and the dwarfish, gnarled church which served them. Its only real landmark was the River Night, which rose in a wood just north of the hamlet and spread through the sod beneath the houses in a thousand invisible rills. Some ten years earlier, an enormous cotton mill had been built downstream, harnessing the river's energy as it dropped from scarp to scarp to power some of the earliest and most primitive machinery of the burgeoning Industrial Revolution. The mill was owned by the powerful Knole family, and employed almost the entire population of Nighthead; until two years earlier, Anne counted amongst them.

a picture of the moor The Wyming Edge, on the Sheffield Moors close to the former site of Nighthead.

The house itself was, arguably, the least appealing in a settlement of unappealing homes. It came with a half-acre of land, but was built on a pavement of well-drained limestone, and not even weeds would grow against it. Its thick walls held in the damp and the darkness, and in the kitchen a huge crack in the yellowing daub had grown as high as man's thigh, and wide enough to peer inside.

a picture of the mill A woodcut of the Knole mill, produced the year before its destruction by fire in 1760.

It was this crack, however, and what Anne had found inside it, which came to form the centre of her smallish, bracken-bound world: which led to her rise, and eventual fall. Almost everybody who came across her pamphlet would have heard of 'The Wyfe of Nighthead', even if they had never been to the village to visit with her. In part, the pamphlet was an account of the events that led to her infamy, a way for Anne to break from her own reputation and speak directly to somebody - in particular, another woman - who she thought would understand, and "subscrybe" to her version of events.

It was in this crack two years previously, when it was barely larger than a mousehole, that Anne had first seen what she could only ever describe as "the Beest": a creature that had arrived, silently and without a whiff of brimstone, and made its lair in the walls of her house. It didn't look like any of the species of creature that survived on the overworked, overhunted moorland. It had horns like a cow, or the Devil, but they were as blunt and as rounded as a child's milk teeth. Its body, receding into the darkness of the cavity, was as cylindrical as a serpent's, but furred with thick bands of greasy hair. Its eyes glowed pupil-less, but there was something in them that she seemed to recognise; something not quite human, but certainly not quite animal either. It did not come into her home uninvited, or steal her soul or speak to her in Latin. Instead it waited, and watched, on the threshold, as expectant and compliant as the new mechanical "stations" that clattered day and night, almost unsupervised, in Mr. Knole's mill.

Demons and fairies had been fairly regular features of country life, even in Anne's father's time; and there had always been men and women who had made "compacks" with them and received their aid in tending to the needs, concerns and desires of a populace eager for convenient solutions to the problems which the world impressed upon them every day: potions to heal the sick, fortunes for the unlucky and curses for the criminal. Some were witches, though nobody alive in Nighthead could remember seeing one of these pitiful creatures in their lifetimes. Others were healers, soothsayers or cunning-folk: soilwarps in the local dialect. Despite her natural scepticism - and her self-image as a "moderne" woman - the easy, almost mechanistic manners of the creature in its crack, its auspicious appearance and its willingness to be manipulated and exhorted, led Anne naturally to establish herself as one of these community psychopomps, with the "Beest" as her familiar. Using its body as a garden of ingredients, and its mysterious behaviours as signs pregnant with confirmations of her powers, she developed a series of rituals, spells and "receipts" designed to assuage the fears, heal the wounds and bless the enterprises of her neighbours. Her fame spread, and soon she could count gentleman farmers, judges and even the new "Doctors" of the Enlightenment amongst her clientele.

a picture of the creature A stylised woodcut of Anne's 'spyrit', commissioned by her publisher William Cryer.

To the delight of Cryer's reading public, always hungry for a narrative of scandal, Anne's ascent was sharply curtailed by rumours of attempted murder, witchcraft and the question of the nature of her relationship with this serpentine, captivating being. In choosing to flee her plummeting reputation, however, Anne was not ready to let her work, and her new social relevance, disappear. Above all else, her pamphlet formed a set of instructions to the young woman who Anne wished to replace her. It was a series of recipes that would teach the girl exactly how to manipulate and operate this obedient creature; to turn out miracles as easily as the nearby mill turned out bolts of cloth. It was a new, and very different, sort of Housekeeping, and a modern "wifry"; a female breed of magic that did not require social standing, masculine authority or a departure from the indoor realm at all.

Anne's Housekeeping, as it came to be called, makes up one half of Project knole. It serves as the guide and context to the other half: an installation piece which sparsely recreates Anne's kitchen, its growing crack and the creature that lived inside it, built as a computer simulation using mixed reality technologies and well-established artificial intelligence techniques. You can download the Housekeeping below; and as a "subscryber" to its narrative, you have as much right as any other to claim Anne's bequeathment; to visit this version of her home, and of her psychological universe; to sit cross-legged before the crack and use her instructions to "come to know" the creature as an individual, as a tool, and as a symbol for the competing and conflicting sensibilities of Anne's era and our own.

a picture of the installation
an image of the installation

This is the companion website for Project knole, my interdisciplinary PhD project investigating the qualities of fictional characters - non-actual persons - in computational media. The project explored this both through academic research and artistic practice; practice which frames these theoretical debates within the historical context of the 'long eighteenth century' in England, another period of history that experienced its own fundamental shifts in philosophies of personhood, computationality and the human imagination.

I'm Rob Sherman, an interdisciplinary writer, musician and computational artist. Before this PhD, I had served as Writer-In-Residence at the British Library, worked with charities on interactive fictions and children's stories, and published a very large multimedia narrative about the nature of remembrance with Penguin Random House and Failbetter Games.

The project consisted of a contextual thesis and a multimedia installation at Bath Spa University and other institutions available for public visits by appointment. It was completed in collaboration with the Creative (Digital) Writing department at Bath Spa University, and the Computer Science department at Bath University. My supervisors were the incomparable Professor Kate Pullinger and Dr. Leon Watts.

The project was kindly funded by the AHRC's SWWDTP scholarship program, was sponsored by Iiyama Monitors, and was developed in collaboration with the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, Cornwall.

The Project Elsewhere Online


I used Twitter (@rob_sherman) to post weekly (and sometimes daily) micro-blogs on the project's progress, to discurse with other academics and artists and to draw attention to interesting work being done in the field(s) in which I was working.


Longer es{ay{ about my work can be found on my personal blog. Most of these date from the salad days of my PhD, when I had more time for writing 6000 words about gutting a pheasant.


All of the files relating to my project, including thesis drafts, Housekeeping drafts, prototypes, screenshots and the working repository of the simulation are hosted publicly on my Github account. Feel free to explore the repository, but in the interests of academic diligence please do look at the License document before downloading anything you find there.


I kept a partial online bibliography for my research using the Zotero software: you can view it online here.


Updated lists of my re{earch output{ can be found at Researchfish, as well as at the foot of this page.


Throughout the PhD I often asked for technical help, or (far less frequently) posted interesting solutions to technical problems on Reddit and Stack Overflow.


Any questions about the project or my work can be directed to my personal email here:

As{orted Pre{{ & Research Impact
Other Research Output{
(Note: all of my research outputs are collected on my Researchfish award page.)

Sherman, Rob. 'Yoki'. The Bonfog. (2016). [Online] Available from: [Accessed 29th May 2017]. [Link]

Sherman, Rob. 'Inschriach Bothy, October 2016'. The Bothy Project. (2016). [Online] Available from: [Accessed 29th May 2017]. [Link]

Sherman, Rob. Empathy Machines: Love, Guilt & Paracosmics In Interactive Characters. Early Stage Researcher Conference. Bath Spa University, 2016. [Link]

Sherman, Rob. 'Character, Empathy, Paracosmics & Videogames'. Monthly Empathy Research Group Meeting. Bath Spa University, 2016. [Link]

Sherman, Rob. 'The Pheasant'. The Bonfog. (2016). [Online] Available from: [Accessed 29th May 2017]. [Link]

Sherman, Rob. Exploring Creative Residencies (Panel). Continue Conference, Nottingham, May 2017. [Link]

Sherman, Rob. Creating Non-Linear Creative & Critical Work Using Digital Technologies. Early Stage Researcher Conference. Bath Spa University, 2017. [Link]

Sherman, Rob. 'The Hide'. The Writing Platform, (2017). [Online] Available from: [Accessed 7th June 2017]. [Link]

Sherman, Rob. Black Books: Instruction Literature & Its Role In Guiding Interactive Systemic Experiences. MIX Digital. Bath Spa University, 2017. [Link]

Sherman, Rob. Walking The Flesh Transparent: Landscape As Character In Digital Heritage Interpretation. AHI Conference. Inverness, October 2017. [Link]

Sherman, Rob. MUSEUM LIBRARY IS HOME TO A ‘WITCH’S FAMILIAR’ THIS WEEK. MWM Blog. (2018) [Online] Available from: [Accessed 9th July 2018]. [Link]

Clark, Linda and Wisdom, Stella. Archiving Interactive Narratives at the British Library. In: Bosser, Anne-Gwenn et al. (eds.) Proceedings of ICIDS 2020 Bournemouth, pp. 300 - 313, 2020 [Online] Available from: [Accessed 20th January 2021]. [Link]

* All artwork on this page has been adapted from woodcuts found in John Ashton's Chap-Books of The Eighteenth Century, featured in the Public Domain Review.

An Autocosmic Approach To Authoring A Resonant Computational Character

(The Academic Theory Of Project knole)
Primary Research Question: “How might a character in computational art maintain their defining quality of dynamic agency within a system, while achieving the 'resonant' qualities of characters in more static art-forms?”

While this website doesn’t take great pains to demonstrate it, Project knole is a work of narrative fiction. Anne, her “Beest”, William Cryer, and even the village of Nighthead itself are what literary theorists call “non-actual”, what historical scholars would call “counterfactual”, and what everybody else would consider fictional. Despite their vividness in our individual minds and collective culture, these beings are literally without actuality: not real people in the material world, but people in a possible world of the imagination, characters whom we can materially perceive only through the partial viewports that their authors provide to us.

Like any fiction, knole concerns itself with the narratives of its possible world: the sequences of events and non-events created by the decisions and indecisions, the agonies and ecstasies, of the illusory beings who inhabit it. In its own minor way, it continues the mission of all storytelling, whether realised in film, theatre, populist chapbooks or the “novele” works that were becoming popular amongst some of Anne’s wealthier clients: a mission to understand, through other beings, what it is to be a being ourselves, in our own lives.

ingres, princess albert of broglie, 1853 Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert, 1856
cheongsam Cheongsam, Jeroen Stout, 2018

The Project is not, however, only an attempt to tell a good story. As a practice-based PhD, it also must stand as a piece of theory: it is not just a work concerning characters, but also concerning the very nature of character itself. Above all, it presents as a new methodology for artists trying to tell such stories, and create such beings, using one of the most exciting and rapidly-evolving technologies available to them: the computer. While computational technology is well-rooted in many existing artistic traditions dating back centuries (if not, ultimately, millennia), it has several “particular” qualities of its own which set it apart from older narrative forms, and more traditional ways of constructing character. A computer, as a machine with which we can interact, has the potential to create a systemic, procedural functioning simulation of some aspect of fictional worlds. Characters in such works of narrative computational art – whether it be a videogame, a work of virtual heritage, a digital installation or a piece of robotics – are a representation of a being that functions in some of the ways that we expect such beings to function – that have some of the dynamic features of agency, emotional life, mental faculty or social presence, rather than just constituting a static description of those things. Such a character has the potential to represent something meaningful, something resonant, about being a being in a manner particular to the computational.

a hogarth print demonstrating the superstitions of his time Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism, William Hogarth, 1762

As in Anne’s lifetime, when some of the most atavistic, well-worn narratives and characters of everyday English life – from the stories of the Church to the superstitions of popular belief – were being challenged and renegotiated, the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have been confronted with fundamental questions about the nature of being, self-expression and technology. It is a phenomenally exciting time to be working as an artist. However, even if you are not a scholar or an aficionado of digital art, you will probably have some inkling that realising this potential of computer characterisation has proved a far trickier prospect than initially realised.

skyrim npc A character from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)

There are fundamental differences between the manner in which computers and beings function, and these remain difficult to reconcile artistically. Many of the dreams of the artificial intelligence movement to produce “synthetic persons” have proved hubristic at best, and in the videogames industry - perhaps the most prolific producer of computational narrative – characters range from shallow, mechanistic automata, little different from the clattering and compliant machinery at the Nighthead mill, to representations so barely computational that they are indistinguishable from the characters which they emulate in books and film. Very few seem to find the critical balance required to meet this potential of the form. At its heart, as in every artform, this remains a balance between the work and the reception of that work: between the expressive, encoded systems and media that form the initial, and relatively-bare, workings of character authored in the form, and the completed character, the full being in their possible world, as they are perceived in the audience’s imagination.

Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1881-1882

Much of the most prominent discourse today in aesthetic theory, including within the digital arts, is what is called audience-responsive: it privileges the role of the audience’s imagination, their personalities, their circumstances and even their bodies as integral parts of the artwork. Audiences do not merely receive the hermetically-sealed wisdom of the artist as an artefact to worship. By comprehending the relatively-sparse representation of character which the artwork presents, and then understanding and extrapolating those representations in their minds, the audience has a distinct hand in constructing these beings themselves. It is increasingly agreed in the literature that this extrapolative imagination arises from evolved structures in the brain, and cultural processes in our society that pre-date the modern concept of the aesthetic; structures that we have used for millions of years to understand the world around us, and its inhabitants, by ascribing narrative meaning to them. Despite this, artistic theory still seems reluctant to let go of the idea that our experience of aesthetic narratives, and fictional characters in art, are rarefied in some way: what is often called “aesthetic illusion”. When we respond to a work of art – when we empathise with the characters, observe their travails within our minds' eyes, it is commonly thought that we do so within a “magic circle”, a neutral demesnes of lets-pretend where we can engage with the emotions and experiences that they evoke – our understanding of being a being – safely. Our firm and constant “distance” from these imaginative experiences sets them apart formally from other imaginings in our lives from which, seemingly, we have no distance: religious belief, delusions, and the social experiences of everyday existence.

Project knole, in attempting to solve the problems of computational character – to find that crucial equilibrium between the work I make and the reception it receives in my audience's mind – begins by reframing this narrow concept of the imagination, drawing on a growing body of interdisciplinary research between the sciences and arts. This research demonstrates that, on neurobiological and conceptual levels alike, our imaginative responses to art (and in particular fictional characters) are not so different from those in the rest of our lives, including our responses to the people around us, tangible experiences in the real world, or deeply-held religious beliefs and superstitions. Our supposed “distance” from the great characters of fiction is deeply questionable, and likewise the concept of “belief” in religion is more complex than it first appears. Instead, such experiences seem to be part of the same promiscuous spectrum of mental/physical experience, drawn from a common and ancient set of human phenomena. While I certainly don’t want the responsibility (or, frankly, the reading list) for formalising such a spectrum, in my work I tentatively call it the autocosmic, steering clear entirely of the far more freighted imagination.

a picture of Beelzebub Beelzebub, Artis Magicae, c.1775 (Wellcome)
a picture of Donald Trump Donald Trump, c.1946

This idea of a network of ‘self-worlds’ that abut and intertangle within the human mind, inhabited by beings both actual and non-actual, provides the computational artist with an avenue out of their predicament. The cultures of computational art currently rely heavily on models of narrative from other types of art, whether the Hollywood blockbuster or the realist novel: an unsurprising result when the idea of “aesthetic illusion” both unifies and balkanises all aesthetic endeavour from the rest of human life. The autocosmic breaks computational art’s dependency on other artforms which limit the debate, and the vision, for what a computational being might look like, and how they might be built and experienced. Instead, happily promiscuous, an artist can range outside and away from traditional artforms and instead look for models within other ‘self-worlds’, other arenas of human experience where we imaginatively and materially engage with personified, functioning systems rather than merely observe their doings on the page or the screen.

a picture of the Cairngorms Cairngorms Mountains, Scotland
a picture of Donald Trump Throat of The World, Skyrim (2011)

Project knole represents only one specific approach to this general philosophy of design and authorship. In particular, it is interested in how human engagement with landscape, place and environment – from the earliest shamanic rituals, Roman genius loci and the nascent Romanticism of the 18th century upper classes, to the herbal grimoire and modern nature writing – have framed places as characters, persons and beings in and of themselves: as agents with whom we socialise, and to whom we alternatively kowtow and disrespect, through both religious ceremony and secular fascination. In particular, the Project relates this to the prevalence of immersive virtual spaces within computational art; spaces often imbued with more character and resonance than the beings that are supposed to inhabit them. By trying to combine these ideas autocosmically, Project knole arrives at the concept of character-as-environment, and implements it through Anne's "Beest": a computational character who, like the witch-haunted moorland which surrounds the village of Nighthead, is both an environment to explore and a being to meet.

Visiting The Installation

The installation at the heart of Project knole was hosted in a pilot run at the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic in Boscastle, Cornwall from July 3rd - July 5th 2018. For the final assessment of the PhD in May 2021, it was hosted in the cool, flagstoned basement of Corsham Court, a late Tudor manor deep in the Wiltshire countryside which serves as Bath Spa University's postgraduate campus. There are plans to host the installation elsewhere in the future.

a picture of corsham court Corsham Court, Wiltshire
a picture of the witchcraft museum The MWM, Cornwall

The installation consists of several different elements, including the Housekeeping text of the cunning woman Anne Latch, a computer simulation, physical props, atmospheric effects and other ephemera. While the Housekeeping text and academic thesis are available to download through this website, attendance at the installation itself is always by prior registration only.

If you are interested in visiting the installation at some point in the future, providing feedback on the work or merely want to keep up to date with the project, please sign your name and email address below. When submitted, this form will subscribe you to a mailing list which will be used to provide (very) occasional updates on the project and details for arranging a visit to the installation. You can unsubscribe from the list at any time, and if you have any questions about the project, your attendance or anything else you can instead contact me by email.

October 20, 1760 £  s  d One Chapbook    0 = 0 = 6 Rec'd by Hand & Paid by of
SHEFFIELD: Printed for your Fancies Solely by Mr. William Cryer of the Company of Stationers
above the signe of the Delphin upon Balm Green without-Far-Gate

M D C C L X To be Solde by all goodly Markets and Vendors
or for Subscryption by Cart to Mr Chapman of Bower Ln.
[ 3s 6d when Bound ]
top of crack
the creature in its hole