Tickets still available for the WSG Portraying preganancy tour: 11am, 15th February 2020

Karen Hearn, curator of the new exhibition at the Foundling Museum ‘Portraying Pregnancy’, will be giving the WSG a tour on 15th February, at 11am.

There are still a few places left if any member would like to join us.

The event is free, though there is a cost to enter the museum, which will be at a concession rate for the group, and free for Art Fund members. Feel free to go earlier to see the exhibition and join the group in there for the tour.

We are also planning to have lunch afterwards for anyone interested. This will be at Cosmoba Italian restaurant at 12.45 p.m. Their menu is available here: http://www.cosmoba.co.uk/. 

The address is: 9 Cosmo Pl, Holborn, London WC1N 3AP

Please contact Miriam for more details, to book and to confirm for the lunch by 31st January, at the WSG email address: wsgpostbox@gmail.com.

Miriam will be in contact shortly with those already on the list.

WSG members visit the National Portrait Gallery

Many thanks to WSG member Carolyn D. Williams for writing the following report on this fascinating visit. Karen Hearn will be giving a tour of her upcoming exhibition, Pregnancy Portraits, 1130am, Saturday, 15th February 2020 and if you would like to attend the tour, please send an expression of interest to Miriam Al Jamil.

On Thursday, 3 October 2019, Karen Hearn and Helen Hackett gave the National Portrait Gallery’s lunchtime lecture, on the appearance of Queen Elizabeth I at 60. WSG members were reminded of this by email and the website, and those of us who attended were treated to a presentation that was just as thought-provoking and informative as you would expect from this pairing. They alternated every few minutes, with each speaker focussing mainly on her areas of particular expertise: Helen told us a lot about written records, while Karen concentrated on the more practical details of the materials and methods used to create early modern portraits (which sometimes overlapped dangerously with the materials and methods used to apply early modern make-up). Nevertheless, it quickly became obvious from the slickness of the dovetailing that each presenter was well versed in the relevant aspects of the other’s disciplinary field.
They paid due attention to events in and around 1593, including contemporary perceptions of Elizabeth I as a waning moon, and fears about what might happen when this virgin queen died without having given birth to, or even named, a successor. They also examined more recent attitudes to her, including nineteenth-century comparisons with Queen Victoria, where the former is considered an evil tyrant and the latter a model monarch (because of her role as wife and mother). I was reminded of Louise Duckling’s conclusion to Exploring the Lives of Women 1558-1837, which draws similar comparisons, and also uses visual material to support the argument.

The most challenging element of the presentation consisted of Elizabeth I’s appearance in pictures, films, and television programmes, where she often becomes a Gothic monstrosity, with a dead white complexion, a bald pate covered by a series of unconvincing red wigs, and appalling teeth that would have fallen out years before if they had been real. These portrayals sometimes seem to have been executed without paying any attention to the date of the incident depicted: whether she was in her 40s, 50s or 60s, illustrators, performers and make-up artists have endowed Elizabeth I with perpetual, and exceptionally grotesque, old age. Perhaps this could all be accounted for by carelessness or ignorance. Anybody who attended this lecture could have learned, for example, that wearing wigs was not a sign of baldness, but a fashion that had become popular among the upper classes since the middle of the sixteenth century, when women’s hair was no longer concealed. They could also have learned that the dead white complexion to be found in so many sixteenth-century portraits was not intended by the artists, who would have added touches of vermilion: unfortunately, the vermilion has usually faded over time. As for those terrible teeth, well, yes, they were pretty bad by the end of her life, and she had lost so many on the left side of her face that her speech was indistinct, but at least she kept her slim, girlish figure to the last, due to a regimen of diet and exercise. But maybe these depictions of Elizabeth are not just mistakes. We are left wondering whether they indicate enduring hostility to older women with power.

Pregnancy Portraits at The Foundling Museum: a tour with Karen Hearn

Karen Hearn will be giving a tour of her upcoming exhibition, Pregnancy Portraits, 1130am, Saturday, 15th February 2020.

The exhibition opens on 24th January 2020 at The Foundling Museum and will close the 26th April 2020. It will explore changing social attitudes to pregnancy, and to the pregnant female form, through images and other artefacts (mainly made within Britain) dating from the 15th century to the present day.

If you would like to attend the tour, please send an expression of interest to Miriam Al Jamil.

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.

WSG Outing 2018: NPG Heinz Archive and Library

This year our summer trip was organised by WSG member Miriam al Jamil and we went to the National Portrait Gallery’s Heinz Archive and Library, where staff had organised a sumptuous display of prints and other material all related to gender and women’s studies in the early modern period and long eighteenth century.  WSG member Susan Schonfield went along and here reports on the day:

Twelve WSG members and friends visited the Archive and Library where the Curator of the Gallery’s Reference Collection, Paul Cox, had put out material for us to view. As an example, he had been asked by Miriam al Jamil, who had organised the visit, to show what the archive and Gallery held on the Chevalier d’Eon (1728-1810). Several prints and a copy of the one oil portrait (on loan to a Berlin museum) gave an indication of the wealth of material available to researchers and students.

Images of the Chevalier D’Eon at the NPG

Paul gave a short talk on the life of the Chevalier. He included explanations of the different print techniques used, e.g. stipple and intaglio, and mentioned the various sources of the prints, including contemporary scandal sheets. The Chevalier had been a soldier, diplomat and spy for Louis XV, and was famously a cross-dresser, living from 1786 as a woman. To complement D’Eon’s story, Paul had also looked out what the archive held on Hannah Snell (1723-92), a woman who had passed for a man to serve as a soldier and sailor; one print portrait of Snell was probably taken from a real-life sitting, and certainly her resourceful character was evident. After the talk, we had time to look more closely at the individual prints and ask questions.

Our second speaker was Carys Lewis, an Archivist at the collection, who spoke about the acquisition of portraits of women, as well as work by women artists. The first Annual Report of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), founded in 1856, was in 1858 and listed 57 portraits acquired, five of which were of women. Carys also took us through some of the problems of provenance and previous incorrect attributions; some of the prints shown to us still had not had their sitter identified. We were also privileged to see the first Director of the Gallery, George Scharf’s sketchbook, with his own drawings of copies of prints and his notes on the colours of the works he’d sketched. The archive holds a collection of the 17thC artist Mary Beale, together with her husband’s diary, where he affectionately records what she was working on. Again, after the talk, we had the opportunity to look at the prints more closely, gently handle the sketchbook, and ask questions.

The Archive is open for study by members of the public Tuesdays to Thursdays, from 10.00am to 5.00pm, by appointment. The staff are most helpful and friendly. This is a real treasure trove, and several members of the group expressed the intention of returning for a visit to help them with their research.

After final questions and thanks, we went round the corner to an Italian restaurant for lunch, a pleasant social occasion.

Thanks Susan, for writing this report.  And thanks too, to Paul and Carys of the NPG for organising the visit. Captivated by this post? Support the NPG’s work by becoming a member of the gallery. Want to learn more about the history of gender? Join the WSG.

For further reading:
Judith M Bennett, Shannon McSheffrey, ‘Early, Erotic and Alien: Women Dressed as Men in Late Medieval London‘, History Workshop Journal (2014), 1-25.

David Cressy, ‘Gender Trouble and Cross-Dressing in Early Modern England‘, Journal of British Studies 35 (1996), 438-465.

Miqqi Alicia Gilbert, ‘Cross-dresser‘, Transgender Studies Quarterly 1 (2014), 65-67.

Gary Kates, ‘The Transgendered World of the Chevalier/Chevalière D’Eon‘, Journal of Modern History 67 (1995), 558-594.

Mark Stoyle, ‘‘Give mee a Souldier’s Coat’: Female Cross-Dressing during the English Civil War‘, History 103 (2018), 5-26.