Miriam Al Jamil: thoughts from the Geffrye

This year the WSG’s annual outing was to the Geffrye Museum.  WSG member Miriam Al Jamil writes about the day:

Family portrait (artist and sitter unknown), c1750, Geffrye Museum
Family portrait (artist and sitter unknown), c1750, Geffrye Museum

“This year our group visit was to the Geffrye Museum, coming close on the heels of our workshop.  So from discussions centring on the public voice increasingly claimed by women we turned to the traditional private sphere of domestic spaces.  The museum occupies a modest almshouse building which opened for pensioners of the Ironmongers Company in 1714.  It was built by the wealthy merchant Sir Robert Geffrye, and rooms in a side wing of the museum have been restored to display the accommodation offered to pensioners until the early twentieth-century. The emphasis was on cleanliness, godliness (regular attendance at the small chapel was compulsory), but also on a degree of comfort and stability. As a ‘Museum of the Home’ there is an emphasis on the variety and development of material culture from the seventeenth century onwards. The personal items included in the reconstructed pensioners’ rooms are the first examples we saw of the carefully displayed objects that characterise the Geffrye’s approach to historical engagement.

The main gallery conducts us through an enfilade series of period room settings beginning with 1630 and concluding in 1998. Although our visit mirrors the experience of progressing through the rooms in stately homes the emphasis is specifically on middle class life and culture. Informative displays of materials and construction, the trades and markets supplying necessities and luxuries are well presented introductions to each room. We are encouraged to imagine that the residents have just slipped out and we are thus voyeurs encountering the possessions that defined a family’s status and interests at particular points in time.

Arrangements and contacts made by WSG members Angela Escott and Marion Durnin meant that archivists had prepared a selection of books, documents and objects from the archive as part of our visit. This was certainly a highlight and I am sure will encourage further exploration by WSG researchers. The archive focuses on domestic material, mainly from London, and with an inevitable accent on women’s history. There is a fine collection of cookery and medical recipe books, household accounts and diaries, prints and manuals. A small chest of drawers with a pencilled note indicating that it was made for a woman in 1728 has rare provenance, as does a japanned corner cupboard of around 1750 with the japanner’s stamp inscribed. The museum keeps a selection of shipwreck porcelain tea ware, complete with barnacles, to demonstrate what might have been kept in the cupboard. These pieces could be handled, and are among resources available for a variety of educational programmes.

Items from the Geffrye Museum library and archive
Items from the Geffrye Museum library and archive

Our trip concluded with WSG member Helen Draper’s fascinating insight into the life and work of her research subject, the artist Mary Beale. Beale’s self-portrait with her husband and son of about 1660 is her first known painting and it was a treat to have the opportunity to examine and discuss it. The possibility that the artist had depicted herself in late pregnancy was of particular interest. Helen showed us sketches related to the work, and placed it within the context of Beale’s career. Our trip provided much food for thought as I am sure everyone who attended would agree. Many thanks are due to the organisers for such a pleasant and stimulating day!”

WSG member Helen Draper will be writing more about the artist Mary Beale in a forthcoming blog post.

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