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.

Cheryll Duncan: Reflections from the Globe Theatre

This summer the WSG annual outing was to the Globe Theatre, where a Study Day had been organised by WSG member Miriam Al Jamil in association with Globe Education. The event consisted of a visit to the theatre’s Library and Archive, followed by a performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (on until 5 August). WSG member Cheryll Duncan reflects on the trip:

The Globe’s Library and Archive is a research facility for academic scholars and theatre practitioners: the Library comprises several collections of books broadly concerning Shakespeare studies and theatre history, while the Archive’s holdings relate entirely to the history of the current theatrical site. In view of the pivotal role that research played in the Globe reconstruction project from the outset, and its continued importance in shaping the theatre’s work today, it comes as something of a surprise to find the collections are housed in a very modest building indeed. There are plans for a new, purpose-built library in the future, but with current space at a premium there is little opportunity for even the most significant items to be exhibited. We were therefore fortunate in that an interesting cross-selection of materials had been put together especially for our visit by Archivist Victoria Lane.

Mark Rylance’s costume for Olivia, Twelfth Night (2012)

A magnificent black velvet dress worn by Mark Rylance in the role of Olivia (Twelfth Night, 2012 production) from the ‘Original Practices’ Clothes Archive was the most striking item on display. This collection consists of garments created from historically-informed textiles and techniques for use in specific original practice productions. As the Globe’s first Artistic Director, Rylance is a dominant presence in the archives; among the more personal items available for us to look at was a letter from Eddie Redmayne in 2002, regretfully declining the role he had been offered because he wanted to complete his Cambridge degree. We watched an extract from the Moving Image Archive, which holds recordings of all productions at the Globe and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (only available to view on site). Several performances of each play are recorded using multiple static cameras set at different angles to the stage, thereby capturing not only a range of audience viewpoints but the arc of an entire production.

Other materials from the Performance Archive include prompt books, photographs, posters, programmes and press reviews, a selection of which was assembled for us to peruse. Among the many interesting books from the library collections is Salvador Dali’s illustrated Macbeth, Ellen Terry’s Four Lectures on Shakespeare (with her own annotations), and recent publications by the Globe’s in-house academic researchers, including Will Tosh whose particular interest concerns gender identity in the early modern period.

As an unexpected bonus, English folklore expert Jon Kaneko-James gave us a tour of the theatre’s current exhibition. This comprises an art installation and exhibits relating to Renaissance ideas about alchemical structures and transformations, which is a particular interest of Rylance and informed the experimental 1991 production of The Tempest. Jon also gave a fascinating talk about alchemy, emphasizing its significance as a democratizing force and citing the large number of self-taught women practitioners in Elizabethan England.

The day concluded with a performance of Twelfth Night, part of the Globe’s ‘Summer of Love’ season and the last to be directed by Emma Rice. Her view of the play will not endear her to Shakespearean traditionalists, yet the result was insightful on a number of different levels and hugely engaging, as was testified by the rapt attention of a packed (and largely youthful) audience.

This production takes the kind of irreverent approach to Shakespeare that an audience of the eighteenth century might have enjoyed; there are lots of amusing interpolations to the text, and the dramatic structure is subverted by an invented Prologue depicting a shipwreck, which contextualises Act 1: scene 2. From the opening dance routine where white-clad sailors sing the 1979 hit song ‘We are Family’ by Sister Sledge, music plays a very significant role in this production; Ian Ross’s score is an expertly executed tour de force ranging from Highland jigs to calypsos, hard rock, disco, punk, folk, Argentinian tango and much more. Such eclecticism surely keeps faith with Shakespeare, who calls for a wide variety of music in Twelfth Night – not as incidental to the play, but as integral to its larger dramatic considerations (though for a dissenting opinion, but still rapturous review, see Dominic Cavendish in The Telegraph).

In the same way, Rice’s lengthy afterpiece with its semaphore dance routine might be seen as a homage to the traditional Elizabethan jig, though in this case with music in place of the traditional spoken text. The production plays on the gender fluidity that lies at the heart of the play by, for example, casting Feste (performed by impressive bass-baritone Le Gâteau Chocolat) as a bearded, be-sequined drag queen. The role of Malvolio is taken by the diminutive Katy Owen, dressed as a moustachioed boy and sporting a pronounced Welsh accent. There are pantomimic elements, certainly – the cheeky entrance of Sir Andrew Aguecheek (who wears a pink Pringle sweater and talks with a lisp) is itself worth the price of a ticket – but there is much more to this production than mere high-spirited, anarchic misrule. I enjoyed it immensely, but also found it illuminating and deeply thought-provoking, and have already booked to see it again.