Genevieve Drinkwater, MA Student, History of Design Masters, V&A/RCA
Often damaged, dismantled, or dispersed at auction, sources supporting the existence of collections amassed by women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are often scarce. However, a small community of scholars have begun to piece together the elusive scraps of history left behind by elite women to reveal a rich—and largely overlooked—field of research. With an engaging line-up of postgraduates and early career scholars, the Society’s latest workshop illuminated the vital, and extremely varied, educational and curatorial contributions women made with their collectors.
Dr Lizzie Rogers, a historian of eighteenth-century gender and the English country house, kicked off the evening with a lively discussion concerning women who were able to use the collecting of objects and ideas to achieve ‘enlightenment’. Rather than deploying it as a fixed term to blanket her discussion, Rogers characterised the act of becoming enlightened as a process individuals entered into in their pursuit of ongoing daily intellectual progress. To demonstrate this, she drew on the Duchess of Northumberland’s collection as a case study. Although almost no physical evidence of her collection has survived, Rogers outlined the ways the Duchess’ extant collection catalogues and published diaries revealed her use of the semantics of enlightenment (such as ‘knowledge’, ‘curiosity’, and ‘accomplishment’). This, in addition to the people she encountered and the material culture she amassed, illustrated both her embeddedness and her agency within European networks of knowledge production and exchange.
Setting the scene further afield, the art historian specialising in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain Dr Madeleine Pelling opened her presentation by recounting the aftermath of a fierce cyclone that sunk 20,000 ships—and their precious cargo—off the coast of West Bengal. Surveying the way women networked with East Indian Company officials to procure objects for their collections, Pelling revealed not only the international scale of the Duchess of Portland’s collection but also the inherent racism latent within the elite practice of displaying and taxonomising ‘exotic’ acquisitions. Examining the limited archival remains of the collection, Pelling outlined how non-European ethnographic and natural history specimens became fetishcised by aristocratic women. Transported back to Bulstrode Park in Buckinghamshire, the Duchess’ objects became museum exhibits which were dislocated from their original contexts and subject to new narritivisations when they were labelled, displayed, and handled by her visitors. Decolonising the Duchess’ museum, Pelling’s research highlighted how collections—even those that are no longer extant—should be viewed as complicit in the complex economies and philosophies of imperialist expansion.
Casting a critical eye over the way eighteenth-century women in Paris have been remembered by scholars, Natasha Shoory’s presentation shifted the discussion towards historic—and enduring—gender biases that marginalise and obscure the efforts of women collectors. Deconstructing the assumption that collecting is a distinctly male practice, Shoory drew on a number of contemporary engravings and texts to indicate the reductive characterisation of women as mere ‘consumers’; easily seduced by luxury, the pursuit of taste, and the acquisition of frivolous commodities. Rarely ever, she suggested, were women positioned as autonomous—or even serious—purveyors of art and antiquities. Unlike the measured connoisseurial judgement associated with male practices of collecting, the art collections amassed by women signalled impulsive spending, unbridled consumption and moral collapse. Debunking the myth that collecting belonged to the realm of men, Shoorey suggested that researchers should return to the archive and ‘start afresh.’ Tantilisingly, she signalled that she had so far found a total of 50 (yes, really!) potential case studies of women collectors who have not been addressed in detail in scholarly literature. Often, the main challenge when researching women’s collections is the limited archival sources that remain and, in time, it will be fascinating to see how much Shoorey can reconstruct as the research for her thesis unfolds.
Closing the evening, Sarah French’s presentation focussed on the Victorian collections of the travel writer Lady Brassey. As the wife of one of the leading railway builders of the nineteenth century, her purchasing power was formidable and her wide-reaching mix of colonial material culture reflected that. It included, but was not limited to, cases of pottery, works in marble, ancient armour, furs, silks, scrapbooks, prints, and photos from across the globe—all of which she actively displayed to the public at Normanhurst Court in East Sussex. Like many other women who dedicated their lives to collecting, Brassey’s recognition as a significant figure within the histories of both collecting and travel writing has been minimised and, in some cases, entirely misattributed to her husband. Examining photographic material, travel literature, and the extant objects Brassey collected, French’s forthcoming research will ask several pertinent questions of Brassery’s eclectic collections. Perhaps most pertinently, though, she will attempt to see if twenty-first-century audiences can produce more sensitive recontextualisations of displays of colonial collections; widening narratives and including more voices beyond that of the original collector.
Genevieve Drinkwater is currently writing her MA research dissertation on the role of women collectors of natural history in the long-eighteenth century, supervised by Dr Caroline McCaffrey-Howarth, V&A/RCA