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.
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.