WSG Summer visit: The Gibson Library, Saffron Walden, and Audley End House, 4th July, 2019

Many thanks to WSG member Miriam Al Jamil for writing this fascinating report.

Hidden gems and women collectors

Uncovering hidden gems in plain sight became the theme of this year’s visit to the small Gibson Library in Saffron Walden with its range of quirky and unexpected holdings, and to Audley End House at the opposite end of the scale with its fascinating collections where the curator revealed unacknowledged female contributions both to the objects on display and to those largely kept in storage. WSG member Gillian Williamson efficiently organised our full and thought-provoking day which was well-attended and enjoyed by all. This was a first for the group as it ventured further afield than the metropolis to explore resources which were new to most of us. These provided the focus of a pleasurable and sociable occasion in the picturesque Essex market town and the country estate nearby as well as inspiration for potential scholarly engagement in the future.

The Gibson Library https://www.townlib.org.uk/society.html is housed above the main town library in two main rooms. The reading room is a quiet and pleasant space, surrounded by the elegant bookcases donated by its founding benefactor, the Quaker George Stacey Gibson. His name replaced the earlier one of Library of the Saffron Walden Literary and Scientific Institution, founded in 1832. The library was part of the nineteenth-century momentum to provide educational opportunities for both scholars and working people and continues to work with nearby universities and on projects to encourage readers from the area, schoolchildren and subscribers to visit. Gibson’s interest in botanical, herbal and horticultural books is reflected in the early donations to the library, and the scientific, historical and archaeological interests of the old Literary and Scientific Institution are clear in other parts of the collection. We explored a display of books from the shelves. These included Martin Luther’s copy of Josephus, complete with his own marginalia; local shopkeepers’ day books of 1765 and 1814; commonplace and scrapbooks, such as those related to The Great Exhibition; grangerised copies of Granger’s A Biographical History of England, and of Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson; a sumptuous edition of Dr. Goldsmith’s illustrated The Roman History volumes; various early biographical publications such as an edition of Mary Anne Clarke’s Authentic Memoirs and Anecdotes and Last Moments and Death of Her Majesty Queen Caroline (3rd edition, 1821), as well as a rare 1800 original of James Penn’s potboiler The Farmer’s Daughter of Essex, or the Life of Miss Davis. Almanacs and guides to art and book history, as well as the complete set of The Gentleman’s Magazine and Eminent Women series find space in the surprising tardis-like space of the library.

Image taken by the author. English Heritage collection

It was hard to leave the enticing profusion of bibliophilic treats but we moved on to lunch and a tour of Audley End House https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/audley-end-house-and-gardens/ which culminated in curator Dr. Peter Moore’s presentation from the archives there. Audley End began as an Abbey which was granted to Sir Thomas Audley (c.1487-1544) after its dissolution. The house is substantially Jacobean, although around one half was demolished in the early eighteenth century and the interiors remodelled in the second half of the same century, so that we see a glorious fusion of architectural styles, mainly Georgian but including later nineteenth-century redesigns. The painting collection was largely made by Sir John Griffin Griffin, 4th Baron Howard de Walden (1719-1797). His additions to the house and work on the landscaped park were ambitious, anticipating a visit from George III which never materialised. Sir John’s heir was his nephew, Richard Aldworth Neville, 2nd Baron Braybrooke ((1750-1825), whose Grand Tour is explored in a small exhibition at the house until October 2019. For a review by WSG bursary winner, Madeleine Pelling: https://www.bsecs.org.uk/criticks-reviews/souvenirs-of-italy-an-english-family-abroad/.

Image taken by the author. On loan to English Heritage from a private collection’

For the purposes of our visit, the curator had thought about female agency in the collections displayed in the house. The recent renovations and displays on the second floor make features of family life and the nursery which Lady Jane Cornwallis (1798-1856), wife of the 3rd Lord Braybrooke, redesigned to make a suite of comfortable rooms for her eight children to whom she was devoted. This clearly feminine domain is however, only part of the story. There are 16,500 objects on display at Audley End and the majority are presented in the context of patriarchal lineage and masculine networks of connoisseurship and influence, particularly through the ‘standard narrative’ of the 4th Lord Braybrooke’s (1820-1861) prolific natural history, geological and archaeological collecting, activities and writing. However, as the curator suggested, the influence of the women of the family has been consistently overlooked. Lady Jane’s travel diaries for 1836-46 show her interest, comments and observations which contributed to the family’s collections. The labels on rock samples are in her hand along with her description of the ‘curious Dropping Well’ ,(https://thejournalofantiquities.com/2013/03/20/the-dropping-well-knaresborough-north-yorkshire/, and petrified bird’s nest from Mother Shipton’s cave, labelled ‘1838 Knaresborough’. She was personally as much involved in shaping the collection as her husband though the objects are now seen solely as his initiative.

Image taken by the author. On loan to English Heritage from a private collection

Jane inherited sheet music annotated by her aunt, Lady Mary Singleton. This and other personal objects were part of her and her children’s domestic life. We all loved other items of female skill, such as the boy’s small red coat and the exquisitely sewn child’s dress in coral silk and lace, both of which are carefully preserved and rarely shown in public. A set of small watercolours, painted on ready-made card mounts were probably made by Jane’s daughters, Mirabel Jane (1821-1900) or Louisa Anne (1822-89), both of whom were talented artists but as with so much feminine production they did not leave a signature. But other objects such as paintings from family homes which were part of Jane’s Cornwallis family inheritance are hidden as such among the displays in the house and have no connection with Audley End. When an inventory was made in 1946 by the Ministry of Works after the house was acquired for the nation, much of the history of the family through marriage was lost. Female inheritance and provenance was absorbed into the default male story attached to the house.

At last, there is more awareness and progress in uncovering and reinterpreting the history of the collections at Audley End, the families who lived there and particularly the female line which has so sadly been forgotten. This new approach would surely benefit so many of the grand houses we can visit and ultimately recover so many lost histories. Aristocratic women are clearly subject to the same phenomenon of disappearance from the historical narrative which besets minor female figures in history and frustrates research into their lives. Our day’s visit uncovered a wealth of hidden texts and some exquisite material culture which was so rich and evocative. Our thanks are to Gillian Williamson and to Martyn Everett, chair of the Gibson Library Society who gave us an introduction, and to Audley End curator Dr. Peter Moore for such an excellent day.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s