WSG Workshop 2018: keynote speaker Jeanice Brooks

Thomas Rowlandson, Music has charms to soothe the savage breast, Etching and aquatint, 1784/6. Courtesy Wellcome Collection

The WSG is thrilled to announce that the the keynote speaker for our 2018 annual workshop will be Jeanice Brooks, Professor of Music at Southampton University.  Jeanice’s research interests include music making in Renaissance France and Georgian England, performance, pedagogy and material culture.  She will be speaking on “Music and the Culture of Domestic Craft in Georgian Britain”, based on her major AHRC-funded projects “At Home with Music: Domestic Music-Making in Georgian Britain“, and “Music, Home, and Heritage: Sounding the Domestic in Georgian Britain.”

The date for our next annual workshop has been fixed for Sunday 13th May 2018 at the Foundling Museum, London, and the theme will broadly reflect the keynote’s of music, crafts and the home.  WSG & music is a good fit with the Foundling – did you know that Handel conducted benefit performances of his famous Messiah to raise funds for the Foundling Hospital, and that the museum is home to an important Handel archive and regularly holds musical events? Registrations for the workshop will open in the spring, and participants are usually expected to bring a 5-minute contribution to present in the afternoon.  Places will first be advertised to the wsg members mailing list – to find out before everyone else, why not become a member?

Review: Sampled Lives exhibition, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Sampled Lives: Samplers from the Fitzwilliam Museum
Fitzwilliam Museum, Trumpington Street, Cambridge CB2 1RB
Free entry, until Sunday 8th April, 2018.

Accompanying catalogue: Carol Humphrey, Sampled Lives: Samplers from the Fitzwilliam Museum. Accomplishment, Identity, Education and Employment (Cambridge: The Fitzwilliam Museum, 2017). Pp 242, illustrated.  £19.99 (paperback), ISBN 9781910731079.

Sophia Ellis, Band sampler with pictorial panels, 1785 (exhibition catalogue No. 62). Image courtesy of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Curated by the Honorary Keeper of Textiles, Carol Humphrey, this is a fascinating small exhibition of 123 samplers from the Fitzwilliam Museum’s collection which are not usually on general display. Dating from the early 17th to the 20th century they are attractive in their own right as material objects and a testament to the expertise and artistry of their often very young (under ten years old in some cases) female makers. Most of those makers are anonymous, destined perhaps to be known only by the initials or name they stitched into their pieces. In a few cases, especially where that name is unusual, a short life has been reconstructed from the archive, though even here the sampler is pretty much the only surviving evidence of a female life. What the exhibition does very successfully is take this evidence and use it in a fresh way: as the equivalent of a life-writing text to illuminate the under-recorded lives of girls and women. This is therefore a very helpful extension of sources not just for scholars of textiles but for all members of the Women’s Studies Group who research women’s lives.

The samplers have been arranged not only chronologically but also in groups that illustrate the themes of accomplishment, identity, education and employment which are more fully explored in the sumptuous fully-illustrated catalogue. Most of the makers are, as far as can be discovered, of gentry or middling-sort families. Their work is a testament to the embroidery skills that were a key element in a female identity, used to make and embellish clothing and household linens. Some of the later examples are interpreted, however, as portable CVs demonstrating a working woman’s employable skill with the needle. Similarities between samplers are pointed out and traced not only to printed pattern books and popular texts but also to female networks such as the pupils of teachers Judith Hayle and her daughter Rebecca Thomson of Ipswich (fl. 1691-1711), late-17th- and 18th-century Quaker circles, and the charity school of St Clement Dane’s in central London.

The technically elaborate earlier 17th-centry spot motif samplers gradually gave way to the simpler (in stitching terms) pictorial samplers with alphabet and text often intended to be framed and hung on the wall of the family home, maybe as a dutiful gift to parents. The former had included clues to a girl’s or her family’s political alignments (heraldic and royalist symbols for example), whereas the latter can be thought of as extending this to a more personal interpretation of a girl’s emerging female identity and sense of self. For example, nine-year-old Sophia Ellis’ 1785 sampler (see illustration) incorporates standard motifs (as the ‘Solomon’s Porch’ in the centre, Adam and Eve in the band below, and the urns of flowers and geometrical trees) alongside symbols of loyalty at a time of war in America (the two grenadiers and the crowned lions). She has demonstrated her ability to both read and write, now expected in gentry and middling-sort females, with her top bands of upper- and lower-case alphabets and a moral motto which is again typical in framing a female sense of piety and quiet obedience. However, in the bottom band has allowed her imagination to run riot with a charming series of more frisky pastoral images.

GILLIAN WILLIAMSON

WSG 30th Anniversary Commonplace Book

As regular readers of this blog will know, the WSG is celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2017 (the date is a little bit hazy – it was so long ago! – but it is generally agreed that our panel at BSECS 1987 was our first meaningful action). As part of the celebrations, WSG has not only instituted a bursary, but is in the process of compiling and editing a volume intended to be a reflection of its members’ 30 years of research and activism.  Edited by Carolyn Williams, Sara Read and Louise Duckling and with a working title of the Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 Commonplace Book, it will comprise a mixture of short research articles, reminiscences, interviews and poems by members past and present.  Those interested in the upcoming book can get a taste of it by listening to Elaine Hobby, Professor of Seventeenth-Century Studies at Loughborough University and a long-time associate of WSG, in conversation with Sara Read in a separate blog post later this month.

Commonplacing was a common knowledge-making practice during the early modern period whereby people would write short extracts or digests from their reading into books under topical headings.  These could be poetry, prose, quotations, proverbs, letters and prayers, which the compiler could then reference and recombine.  Books could be kept for pragmatic as well as recreational reasons.  Men such as Francis Bacon and John Locke famously wrote about and kept commonplace books, but women kept them too, and in recent years much work has been done on a closely related genre, the recipe book, to which the whole household might contribute.  Some thought the practice of commonplacing a cause for concern, because it would encourage superficial reading.

The commonplace book as a discursive practice arguably reached its peak during the early modern period but commonplacing is by its very nature also highly personal and has continued in various forms into the Romantic period and the present day.  WSG’s Commonplace Book will be a printed rather than manuscript form, but it will reflect the collaborative, interdisciplinary, unruly, highly mobile forms of interaction and support WSG has encouraged over the years. We hope to see it published in 2018.

Material Girls: Women Money and Markets (1750-1850) conference and WSG panel report

The Women, Money and Markets (1750-1850) conference took place at Kings College, London on 11 May 2017 and three WSG members formed one of the panels delivering papers, writes Johanna Holmes. Co-ordinated by Miriam Al Jamil, the panel spoke on married women’s use of their moveable property as security in the credit market in eighteenth-century Scotland (Rebecca Mason, University of Glasgow), women painters constructing careers in the art world of the period 1820-1850 (Johanna Holmes, Royal Holloway) and Eleanor Coade, a woman who meant business in decorative stonework in the eighteenth century (Miriam al Jamil, Birkbeck College).

The conference was extremely well-attended – an estimated 100 or so delegates and panel speakers, including international delegates who had made a special trip. In view of this, conference organisers Emma Newport and Amy Murat also facilitated a visit for delegates the following morning to the Foundling Museum, a trip partly inspired by WSG’s connections there.

With a total of twelve panel sessions and two plenary lectures, it was a long and busy day, but the number and enthusiasm of delegates ensured that every panel had a good-sized (and discerning) audience, and that speakers found plenty to stimulate their thoughts when not on the platform. The full programme and speaker details can be found on the event website. Audio will be available shortly.

The WSG panel’s personal highlights of the day included:

  • The consistency of a number of themes emerging from the discussions, particularly in recognising women’s agency in a wide range of business activities in various forms of family and business relationships with men – this was history with women in equal focus
  • The opportunity to share research and emerging thoughts with other enthusiastic delegates.

WSG member Carolyn Williams gave a paper independently, on women and their makeshift ways of making money, which was full of illuminating quotes and anecdotes about the lengths to which women had to go in order to survive.

So WSG were well represented at the conference. Many thanks to our speakers!

WSG Workshop 2017 ‘The Fruitful Body’ report

Karen Hearn (UCL) giving her keynote at the WSG workshop 2017 (Image courtesy Sara Read)

The Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 annual workshop took place at the Foundling Museum on 6 May, with the theme this year of “The fruitful body: gender and image”, keynote speaker Karen Hearn speaking in the morning on ‘Women, agency and fertility in early modern British portraits’, and presentations relating to the theme from participants and discussion in the afternoon. The following report contains references to pregnancy, miscarriage, infertility and bereavement, which some readers may find distressing.

After tea and coffee conference organizer Miriam al Jamil introduced the keynote. Karen is a former Curator of 16th and 17thC British Art at Tate and is currently Honorary Professor at UCL. At Tate she curated several major exhibitions and is now planning a project on early modern representations of pregnancy for early 2019. Karen gave a wide-ranging and fascinating talk focusing on painted portraits of elite British women. She suggested the difficulties of researching these images, as few sources such as diaries or account books that might explain the intention behind and reception of these portraits survive, and the portraits themselves are constructs, the product of decisions as to what to include as well as what to leave out, and thus can be misleading. Nevertheless, we can learn a lot by looking closely and critically at these images.

Early modern elite men and women commissioned portraits for a variety of reasons and life events, and genres such as the marital portrait and maternity portrait are well known, argued Karen, but the pregnancy portrait is less studied.[1] It was popular during the Elizabethan and Jacobean period and Karen showed workshop participants a number of images by artists such as Marcus Gheeraerts II and Hans Eworth. Eworth painted a portrait of Mildred Cooke Cecil, Lady Burghley pregnant with what would turn out to be her son Robert in 1563, which is now in Hatfield House. Cecil had miscarried several times prior to this successful pregnancy, by contemporary standards she was an older mother and the portrait represented the continued hopes of the family that she would produce a male heir.[2]

Themes of loss and gain ran throughout Karen’s talk. Pregnancy was a risky time for early modern women and its representation would be freighted with fears of miscarriage or death, but also hope for or in celebration of a successful birth. These portraits therefore suggest interesting questions and interpretive challenges as to time – when were such portraits began, late in pregnancy when it was likely a woman would carry to term, or earlier? When were they ended, before or after the birth? Did some paintings end up as memento mori, if the mother died? And since women were pregnant so often, were pregnancies actually routinely erased in the process of representation?

Afternoon discussion at WSG workshop 2017 (Image courtesy Sara Read)

Lunch was followed in the afternoon by participants’ 5-minute presentations and discussion (for images and comments from the day, see the twitter hashtag #wsg2017). The chair Felicity Roberts had organized speakers into broadly chronological and thematic groups of three, and in the first Jennifer Evans discussed early modern aphrodisiacs, followed by Sara Read on diagnosing early modern pregnancy and Carolyn Williams on seventeenth-century pregnancy cravings or ‘Pica’. Carolyn described how women who claimed cravings for exotic fruit were suspected of exaggerating this desire, exploiting the special status that being pregnant brought in what might be termed an early modern “power play”.

In the second group of presentations, Helen Draper described the 17thC professional portrait painter Mary Beale’s art practices, and detailed how a portrait of her cousin-in-law Alice Beale by the artist Peter Lely, was finished after her death by having other female family members sit as model instead. Sara Ayres discussed the gendered portrayal of elbows in early modern royal portraits, while Rosemary Keep looked at the prevalence of maternity, where the mother is shown with her children, over paternity portraits. These presentations provoked questions concerning the ir/replaceability of women subjects.

Following this, Rebecca Whiteley looked at early modern anatomical images of the gravid uterus, which functioned “analogically”, depicting the uterus as ripe fruit. Helen Hackett described early modern male poets’ use of pregnancy metaphors to describe the labour of literary invention, while Helen Hopkins discussed some uses of maternity in Shakespeare’s plays. Clearly there were rich resonances between visual and literary metaphors of early modern pregnancy.

Just before the break, Jasmine Losasso discussed the representation of female homicides in 1630s broadsides, noting the way their bodies were still described as maternal, thus making their crimes seem more monstrous.

Gillian Williamson looked at images of landladies in the mid-18thC, including a lurid print of a real life case in which a landlady was murdered by her lodger, an artist, after a disagreement about… her portrait, which he had undertaken. Yvonne Noble described the 1730s actress Anne Oldfield’s directions for her burial clothes, arguably her last great performance.

After a break for tea and coffee, Annette Rubery discussed a print of the actress Peg Woffington closely modelled on earlier images of Nell Gwyn. Charlotte Keighron considered the eighteenth-century gentlewoman Sarah Hurst, her diaries and emotional relationships to clothes she wore and made, while Louise Duckling looked at the choices the late eighteenth-century poets Charlotte Smith and Helen Maria Williams made concerning their public images. This group of presentations suggested how the comparative availability of resources for studying 18thC portraiture and material culture gives the researcher greater scope for determining the relative agency of women in shaping their own reputations, representations and identity.

Next Carol Stewart discussed Henry Fielding’s Amelia and the presence of men during childbirth in the eighteenth century, while Angela Escott described the actress Sarah Siddons’ maternal roles and her use of her own son as her fictional child on the stage. Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou looked at William Blake’s representation of the soul as a female figure.

In the last group of presentations, Georgina White discussed the establishment of the Society for Lying In Women in the early nineteenth century, while Moira Taylor looked at women’s efforts to provide inheritances for female relatives during the same period. Finally, Joanna Crosby brought the workshop to a close with a storming presentation on Victorian paintings and the role of apples in gendering images of women as fallen, including this one by the artist Augustus Egg, where the woman seems to reach out of the frame towards the viewer. It had been a whistle-stop tour of women, gender, portraiture and identity from the early modern through to the mid-Victorian period, but many fruitful connections were made.

[1] For a famous example of an early modern woman’s commission of her own portrait, see Karen Hearn, ‘Lady Anne Clifford’s “Great Triptych”‘, in Karen Hearn and Lynn Hulse (eds), Lady Anne Clifford: Culture, Patronage and Gender in Seventeenth-Century Britain (Leeds, 2009), 1-24.

[2] For further information see Karen Hearn, ‘A fatal fertility? Elizabethan and Jacobean pregnancy portraits’, Costume 34 (2000), 39-43.