Charmian Mansell awarded WSG 30th Anniversary Bursary

The WSG is pleased to announce it has awarded its 30th Anniversary Bursary of £500 to Charmian Mansell for her project ‘A new history of female service in early modern England 1550-1650’, which will give a more accurate picture of everyday life for female servants, how they fitted within their local communities and how their work and sense of place shaped their identities.

Building on her PhD thesis, Charmian is producing a monograph on the history of female service.  The WSG bursary will assist with research costs for this as well as a journal article on female service and space within the rural community in early modern England.

In awarding Charmian the bursary, the WSG panel highlighted her thoughtful application, its social interest, and the fact that her dataset will be deposited with the UK Data Service at the end of the project, making these records open access. They thanked the other applicants for their applications, many of which were of very high quality.

Charmian, of the University of Exeter, recently gained her PhD for research examining the experiences of female servants in the south west of England from 1550-1650.  She is the current EHS Power Fellow at the IHR and tweets as @charmianmansell.

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.

Susan Civale: Chawton House fellowship

WSG member Susan Civale, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Canterbury Christ Church University, just finished a month at Chawton House Library researching the poet and actress Mary Robinson (1757-1800). She reflects on her experience below.

Chawton House Library
Chawton House Library

I spent the month of April on a Visiting Fellowship at Chawton House Library, the one-time home of Jane Austen’s brother, Edward, and now a research centre specialising in women’s writing 1600-1830. For the entire month, the three other Visiting Fellows and I had free rein over the library’s collection and reading rooms, its 275-acre grounds (which include a Walled Garden and a ‘Wilderness’!), and its ‘Stables’, the modest 7-bedroom ‘cottage’ which was our place of residence for the month. We had at our disposal the expertise and support of the Chawton House Head Librarian and the exclusive use of the upper reading room. We were also invited to attend evening lectures, to join the Chawton monthly reading group, and to give presentations on our own research topics. Needless to say, the collection, location, and research culture at Chawton House Library made for a period of study marked by productivity, creativity, and sociability.

Susan in front of the Mary Robinson portrait at Chawton House
Susan in front of the Mary Robinson portrait at Chawton House

My research at Chawton was focused on one of Jane Austen’s more scandalous contemporaries: the poet, actress, and royal mistress, Mary Darby Robinson, whose stunning 1782 portrait beamed out at me from the wall of the Library’s Great Hall on a daily basis. I was devoting my time at Chawton to a chapter of my monograph that examines the impact of Robinson’s life writing on her posthumous reputation. My argument is based around the idea that Robinson’s Victorian readers found her Memoirs seductive, perplexing, and sympathetic, a contradictory mix that is often borne out in complex affective nineteenth-century responses to her. I found exciting evidence for this argument in the archive at Chawton, where I discovered an original subscription copy of Mary Robinson’s Poems (1791), which had been bound and inscribed with the personal insignia of Victorian poet and memoirist Violet Fane, the pseudonym of Mary, Baroness Currie (1843-1905). Apparently, there are only three other books known to feature this same personalised design of the gold violet: Lady Currie’s own Collected Verses (1880) and the two volumes of her Poems (1892). However, the bound copy of Robinson’s Poems is unique in bearing the inscription of her pen name, ‘Violet Fane,’ on the front and back covers.

That Lady Currie took such pains to personalise her copy of Robinson’s Poems in this way suggests she felt an affinity with her eighteenth-century predecessor. The similarities in their private lives are certainly striking. Both writers were known for their loveless marriages, affairs, and scandalous reputations. Lady Currie, like Robinson before her, was nicknamed ‘Sappho’ by her contemporaries, and the thinly veiled satire of her marriage, Edwin and Angelina (1878), may be a gesture toward Robinson’s 1796 novel Angelina. Finally, Lady Currie’s unfinished manuscript memoir was written on the reverse sides of menus and other cards retained from social visits, a choice of writing material that recalls Robinson’s decision to draft her Memoirs on the backs of envelopes, many of which had enclosed letters from subscribers to her Poems (1791). Lady Currie seems to have been styling herself as a late-Victorian Robinson, a strain of self-fashioning that speaks to Robinson’s own highly skilled self-construction and her enduring literary afterlife.

Besides offering such exceptional opportunities for research, Chawton also fostered a scholarly camaraderie among the ‘Fellows.’ As we traipsed into the reading room every morning, chatted about our work over lunch, and walked to a country pub in the evening, we settled into a routine of research and leisure that was productive, enjoyable, and empowering. One of the nicest aspects of the Fellowship was engaging with three other academics who shared so many of my own research interests, but who each had her own unique area of expertise. With so much to talk about, and so many opportunities to discuss questions big and small, we got to know each other both academically and personally. By the end of my stay at Chawton I felt I had gained not only three new colleagues but three new friends.

Although it was sad to say goodbye to this idyllic Hampshire home at the end of April, I left Chawton inspired. In a letter written to her friend and fellow writer Jane Porter in 1800, Mary Robinson had articulated a particular wish:

“Oh! Heavens! If a Select Society could be formed, – a little Colony of Mental Powers, a world of Talents, drawn into a small but brilliant circle, – what a splendid sunshine would it display.”

I couldn’t help thinking, as I left the light-filled conservatory of the ‘Stables’ on my final morning there, that at Chawton House Library I had participated in just the kind of “small but brilliant circle” of inquiring minds and lively discussion that Robinson had imagined 200 years ago. The trick, now, would be to take that “splendid sunshine” back to Canterbury with me, and amidst the paperwork and exam boards, find time for the illuminating conversations with colleagues and students that are the heart and soul of every university campus.

The deadline each year for applying for a Chawton House Visiting Fellowship is usually April.  You can learn more about Chawton’s Fellowships here.   Susan tweets as @susancivale.

WSG members online: Early Modern Medicine blog and the Orlando Project

Now that the academic summer break is well and truly over, WSG wants to highlight the rigorous research of WSG members online.  Over the past twenty years the internet has allowed new academic formats to take root and flourish and two great examples are the Orlando Project, co-run by WSGer Isobel Grundy, and the Early Modern Medicine blog, co-edited by WSG committee member Sara Read.

Orlando Project logo
Orlando Project logo

The Orlando Project is a textbase of women’s writing in the British Isles from the beginnings to the present.  Collaboratively authored and published by the University of Cambridge online since 2006 and available by subscription, the database is usually open access every March, Women’s History month.  Recent entries from WSG’s time period include Lady Hester Pulter (1605-1678) a significant poet who has remained unknown because she did not circulate her work, even in manuscript; Margaret Calderwood (1715-1774) a journal writer; Maria Susanna Cooper (1737-1807) a novelist and poet; and Isabella Hamilton Robinson (1813-1887), an erotic (possibly fantasist) diarist.

The Early Modern Medicine blog was founded by the University of Hertfordshire’s Dr Jennifer Evans and is a fast-growing collection of short essays on all aspects of early modern health, medicine, and gender.  Previous posts include discussions of postpartum incontinence, the therapeutic use of human body parts, and prayer and spa cures.  Jennifer and Sara also welcome guest bloggers and book reviewers.

In some ways the Orlando Project and the Early Modern Medicine blog represent two poles in the kind of innovative scholarly work, on women’s and gender studies in the early modern period and eighteenth century, that can be presented and disseminated online.  And as a group that prides itself on its independent, radical approach, WSG is happy to have connections with both.