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.

Helen Draper: Mary Beale’s self-portraits

During the WSG’s recent trip to the Geffrye Museum, member Helen Draper gave a talk about the seventeenth-century artist Mary Beale.  She writes more below.

As already described so beautifully by Miriam Al Jamil, members of the WSG met for this year’s annual outing at East London’s Geffrye Museum, an institution devoted mainly to the study and representation of England’s middle classes from 1600 the present day. A particularly interesting example of a middling family of the mid- to late-seventeenth century, that of artist Mary Beale, is represented in the collection by a very novel object. Beale’s Self-portrait with her husband and son (c.1660, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 76.2 cm) is the earliest of her firmly attributed works, and in it she put a daring new slant on a well established male genre – that of the artist’s self-portrait with his family. At first glance this slightly sombre yet affecting portrait appears too small and unassuming to be of revolutionary importance in the canon of British art history, yet in it Mary very purposefully placed herself, a virtuous Christian wife and mother, in the role of creator, the author of her own and her family’s painted biography.

Mary Cradock (1633-99), born the daughter of a clergyman in the hamlet of Barrow in Suffolk, married Charles Beale (1632-1705) in 1652 just days before her father’s untimely death left her an orphan. By 1654 the couple and their newborn son, Bartholomew ‘Batt’ Beale, were living in Covent Garden, the centre of metropolitan art production and patronage during the Interregnum. Mary’s near neighbours included fellow artists Peter Lely (d.1680), who prospered and went on to become Court Painter to Charles II, and the innovative Joan Carlile (d.1679) who was engaged in what proved to be an abortive strategy to earn a ‘fortune’ as a society portraitist. In 1658, when Charles Beale was appointed Deputy Patents Clerk, the family moved eastwards to occupy the Patents Office house in Hind Court, a narrow alley off Fleet St and just ‘Without’ the London Wall. It was in that house – full of family, lodgers and servants – that Mary made her way upstairs to her top floor studio to paint the triple, perhaps quadruple, portrait now at the Geffrye Museum. I have suggested elsewhere that it is entirely possible that the artist was pregnant with her son Charles at the time, and that the space in the portrait between her, her husband and young Batt alludes to the other member of the family who was at once absent and present.

When, in 1665, plague spread through the city the Beales swapped their cramped little street for five years on a smallholding in Allbrook, Hampshire. Although we know little of Mary’s painterly activities in the countryside, brief references confirm that she continued to work, while Charles prepared her canvases. During their sojourn Mary Beale painted her second surviving Self-portrait (c.1666, oil on canvas, 109.2 x 87.6 cm, NPG), this time openly in the guise of an artist with her palette hanging on the wall nearby, and as mother to two young children who appear as the subjects of a small double portrait held at her side. Here Beale is again gently subversive, playing with the concept of likeness and asserting her power to create progeny in paint as well as flesh – an undeniable advantage over her male colleagues, and one shared by many women artists through the centuries.

In 1670/1 the family left their rural idyll and returned to London, this time as householders in a newly built terrace of well-to-do middling homes on the north side of Pall Mall. It was there, a stone’s throw from the mansions of St James’s Square and Charles II’s palace, that Mary Beale established the fully professional portrait studio in which she created fashionable likenesses of patrons who were stalwarts of Court, County and the City. Mary also found time to paint several other self-portraits, and dozens of gradually ageing studies of her husband Charles. Her last known ‘selfie’ (c.1681, oil on bed ticking, 121.9 x 104.1 cm, private collection) painted when she was almost fifty, shows a self-possessed woman, well, but not opulently dressed, a pet spaniel by her side. Echoing the still, interrogative gaze of the earlier images, her expression in this portrait is again characteristic of the inner three-way visual conversation being conducted between Beale the creator, subject and viewer of her own likeness.

Helen is a conservator and is currently completing a PhD thesis on Mary Beale part-time at the Courtauld Institute and IHR. You can read more about her work on her very elegant website, www.draperconservation.com.

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.