Women and the Art and Science of Collecting in Eighteenth-Century Europe (Series: The Histories of Material Culture and Collecting, 1700-1950)

Arlene Leis and Kacie L. Wills, 2021. London & New York : Routledge, 212 pp., 12 colour & 25 b/w illustrations., £96.00 (hardback) £29.59 (ebook). ISBN 9780367856663 (hardback) ISBN 9780367856670 (ebook)

 – Natasha Shoory

Women and the Art and Science of Collecting in Eighteenth-Century Europe is the latest from Routledge’s series The Histories of Material Culture and Collecting, 1700-1950. The volume offers a collection of nine essays and fiver shorter case studies examining the different ways in which women formed or engaged with collections in eighteenth-century Europe, as well as an introduction by the book’s editors Arlene Leis and Kacie L. Wills. Divided into four parts (Artificialia and Naturalia; Travel, Borders, and Networks; Displaying, Recording, and Cataloguing; and Beyond the Eighteenth Century), the structure aids the reader in considering how these women and their networks engaged socially, culturally, politically and intellectually with material and visual culture within the vibrant period of the Enlightenment.

As well as dissolving the dichotomy of art and science, a recurrent theme throughout the book is the dissolution of traditional gender binaries in regards to the motivations, methodologies, and material objects collected. For example, Charis Ch. Avlonitou’s chapter on Catherine the Great inserts her into the ‘princely tradition’ of collecting, a realm usually reserved for great male monarchs. Her collecting strategies are likened to military action, conquering Europe through purchases and patronage. Further to her enormous collection, the grandeur of the Hermitage building, made specially to display her material glory, places her in the tradition of (male) ‘magnificence’: using cultural status to boost political status (p. 114). The acquisition of whole collections (she purchased the complete collections of powerful men such as Graf von Cobenzl, the Count Heinrich von Brühl, the banker Louis-Antoine Crozat, baron de Thiers, and 240 of the best paintings of Robert Walpole’s collection) is likened to possession of the male personalities who first assembled them. Finally, her legacy is highlighted as influencing successive male collectors: a century later American collectors such as H.C. Frick and J.P. Morgan, ‘collectors of collections’, acquired the cultural capital of Old World collections, endowed with illustrious provenance, by following similar motivations (pp. 120-1).

Anna Frances O’Regan’s chapter on Lady Louisa’s Print Room at Castletown House contextualises the creation of the room within contemporary ‘shifting ideals’: a room previously used for grand ceremonial purposes is transformed into one for education and entertainment through collecting and display. Lady Louisa and her circle sat together, carefully cut prints into different shapes (octagonal, oval, circular, etc.), and prints were arranged carefully so that those with similar subjects, decorative elements, or matching frame shapes hung opposite each other. Collecting & display thus is again emphasised as a social and group activity. Ryna Ordynat’s fascinating case study of an album belonging to Anne Wagner (little is known about her outside of the album), also shows how women collaborated on collections. The portable-sized album was filled with contributions from friends: poems, paintings, and locks of hair. Ordynat asserts the importance of this being a strictly ‘feminine’ object: ‘while locks associated with death and mourning were very common for both men and women, exchanging locks of hair to commemorate friendships was a very feminine activity, and was part of a shared feminine visual culture’ (p. 149). The case study acts as a reminder that women’s collecting activities need not always depart exclusively ‘feminine’, private spaces to be of scholarly interest and importance. This idea is furthered through Hanneke Grootenboer’s case study of a delightful dollhouse belonging to Petronella Oortman. Testament to the wealth and contacts of its owner, the dollhouse included specially commissioned miniatures including a set of imported blue-and-white plates. Although considered an exclusively ‘feminine’ object, the dollhouse attracted the same cultural tourists who came to visit the celebrated collections of men such as Simon Schijnvoet (1653 – 1727) and Albert Seba (1665 – 1736).

A stand-out feature of the book is the exploration of the different ways in which women engaged with and experienced the collected object, beyond the obvious roles of collectors and patron.  This is done particularly well in Lizzie Rogers’ chapter examining the correspondence exchanged between Henrietta Fermor, Countess of Pomfret (1698 – 1761) and Frances Seymour, Countess of Hertford (1699 – 1754). The letters cover a three-year period from September 1738, when Lady Pomfret departed for a tour of continental Europe with her husband and their two eldest daughters. Although travelling with her family, Lady Pomfret not only breached the traditionally ‘masculine’ frontier of the Grand Tour, she also conveyed her discoveries, observations, and knowledge in great detail to her friend through letters. She not only visited collections but critiqued them (she thought the Barberini Palace in Rome to be crowded with ill-kept objects). Lady Hertford was able to engage with the collections remotely, experiencing ‘enlightenment’ from her armchair. The experience of collections thus became a shared and collaborative one, and the letters as material objects themselves facilitate knowledge and education as do the original objects they describe. Similarly, Madeleine Pelling’s chapter on Lady Mary Hamilton (1756 – 1816), demonstrates how women may have been excluded from all-male societies, but managed to access objects privately through negotiation, which we see through the letter and diary records of Lady Hamilton’s visits to Strawberry Hill and Hampton house. Rather than being seen as on the outside, as mere observers of collecting histories, women are thus reframed into important roles of documenting, and writing collecting histories. In a similar fashion, Katharina Schmidt-Loske’s chapter on Maria Sibylla Merian’s meticulous artistic observation and documentation of exotic plants, insects and their life cycles, demonstrates the engagement of the artist-collector, concluding, ‘from nature, to personal collection, to artistic rendering, to, eventually, prominent public and private collections. Her works become the collectibles, rather than the natural objects she initially collected.’ (p. 69). Finally, a short case study by Nicole Cochrane highlights the role of Eleanor Coade (1733 – 1821), who ran the business which was one of the most used sculpture manufactures in Britain for fifty years, working with influential architects including Robert Adam and John Nash and architect-collector John Soane. Although fitting with the book’s aim to expand upon the different ways women were part of collecting histories, this connection seems a little peripheral. However, perhaps the greater issue is that the short case study only focuses on one object of the Coade Caryatid, and its importance is framed through its acquisition and display by Sir John Soane. It is disappointing to not know more about the catalogue, Coade’s Gallery (1799), produced by Mrs Coade and therefore perhaps a more fitting connection to her engagement with the history of collecting.

As these women, both as individuals and collaboratively, reconciled themselves to their position within Enlightenment Europe, it is significant to consider not only their shifting roles and identities, but how our own evolving twenty-first century attitudes affect our perceptions of them. Leis and Wills raise the point in their introduction: ‘one of the problems with the ways collecting has been thought of is that women’s collections and their collecting practices have so often been measured and valued in relation to the content, methodologies, and collecting practices of men.’ (p. 3) Although this is certainly a valid point—as indeed women were impeded by obstacles which did not affect men, such as legal issues of property ownership—it could also be said that this is at odds with our current (and even the eighteenth-century) conceptions of gender. It seems much more common that edited volumes such as Women and the Art and Sciencecompare women with other women, here of different countries, but sometimes of different times, stretching from the Renaissance to the present. This approach seems to inadvertently maintain the gendered assumption that women collectors across time and place share a quintessentially ‘female’ experience of collecting. Leis and Wills also raise the significant point regarding the categorisation of coins as ‘masculine’ objects and the case of Lady Banks, ‘‘This, importantly, shows that our gendered dichotomies are often constructs imposed in current times, which place more rigid divides on collecting than existed in the eighteenth century.’ (p. 5).

Indeed, interpretation is a malleable tool in the presentation of women’s histories. For example, Kelsey Brosnan says of the Prince de Conti’s decision to display the woman artist Vallayer-Coster’s paintings of shells not with the rest of the French School in his galleries, but in his l’appartement dit le Coquiller, ‘Conti’s decision to display Vallayer-Coster’s pendants there was a fascinating juxtaposition of natural artefacts with artistic representation, and a significant departure from his own rigorous system of display […]’ (p. 45.) However, one could equally interpret this as removing and reclassifying her (an extraordinary talent and one of the few women to be admitted into the French Académie) as a recorder of specimens rather than an artist. Further, Anne Harbers and Andrea Gáldy’s chapter on the Dutch Eighteenth-Century Ladies’ Society for Physical Sciences of Middelburg shows that they received the same lectures as the fraternal Men’s society (based on the French Abbé Jean Antoine Nollet’s Leçons de physique expérimentale of 1743 and delivered by Rev. Ballot). World War II bombings destroyed most of the collection holdings and eighteenth-century documents, leaving only two objects preserved: a Chinese porcelain milk jug and a cup and saucer. Whilst it may be disappointing that these women who sought education over entertainment with their collections should be represented metaphorically today by pieces of a tea set, Harbers and Gáldy conclude that these objects act as a fitting metaphor for ‘the importance of the domestic setting and women’s role in the home as wife and mother to the moral and intellectual formation promoted by the Ladies’ Society, but they also symbolise the underpinnings of the independent wealth that enabled the ladies to pursue their interests in self-education.’ (pp. 33-4).

One point should be raised: that although collections are often inextricable from the life and personality who formed them, and collecting is linked to identity formation, when discussing women collectors, certain motifs almost inevitably enter the conversation. Kelsey Brosnan, examining Anne Vallayer-Coster’s Still Life With Sea Shells and Coral, highlights the duality of the shell in regards to gender in the eighteenth century: both associated with the male space of the natural history cabinet, and with women’s genitalia. This is neither a wild nor anachronistic view of the painting (Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae of 1758, widely circulated in Europe, used the sexual metaphor and named parts of the Venus Dionesshell after parts of women’s genitals), and Brosnan extends the metaphor through describing the shells as ‘a luxurious object of a French collector’s lust’ (p. 50). However, this interpretation seems to reinforce and privilege the male gaze, detracting from the Brosnan’s intriguing discussion of Vallayer-Coster’s skill as an artist: she created different textures, even using ground shells in her paintings, thereby engaging with the material object collected.

Further, it seems too often that women’s bodies become the subject and focus of discussions in the history of collecting. A popular subject is women collectors and whether their bodies have produced children. For example, the case study of Anna Maria Luisa de’Medici raises the trope about the childless woman collecting to fill a void, ‘Pictures of fantastic produce represented the princess’s native Tuscan land as flourishing. These images may have compensated for the fact that she had no offspring and that the Medici family were on the verge of extinction.’ (p. 40). In the concluding chapter, which offers an extension of eighteenth-century objects into a twentieth-century collection, Arlene Leis’ describes Olivia Lanza di Mazzarino’s eighteenth-century preserved fans: ‘Like her fans, Vivina spent much of her early life on display awaiting a good marriage; this display occurred through the various works of art through which her identity was strategically fashioned.’ (p. 172). Inevitably, if not emphasising the masculine motivations and methods of the collector (as in the case of Catherine II), it seems the pendulum swings the other way into the intimate realm of emotions, heartbreaks, and biographical traumas.

Although raising fascinating lines of enquiry, some of the case studies are disappointingly short, at only around two pages long. For example, Irina Schmiedel’s contribution on Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, who commissioned detailed documentary paintings of still-life local produce, states, ‘she played an important role in promoting the visual arts, literature, and music at their residence in Düsseldorf and beyond.’ (p. 41) but fails to offer any more detail. Maria Antoinetta Spadaro’s case study of the portrait of Charlotte de France opens with a fascinating discussion of the symbolic sentimental and political meaning behind a portrait of Marie Therese Charlotte, daughter of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. The portrait then travelled to the sitter’s aunt, Maria Carolina di Bourbon, Queen of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, to become part of an important art collection in the process of being assembled in Naples. However, the chapter then rather abruptly concludes, ‘As this case study demonstrates, Queen Carolina’s collecting practices in Naples and Palermo is an understudied area that is ripe for future research.’ (p. 109). After a half a century of feminist and revisionist histories, and almost a quarter of a century past since Cynthia Lawrence’s edited volume, Women and Art in Early Modern Europe (1997), a precursor to this line of enquiry, it seems trite to still publish the promise of future understanding of our field. Indeed, at less than 200 pages for covering a century and a continent of content, Women and the Art and Science highlights the extent of work still to be done. Further, it seems important to recognise that our field usually focuses on white, wealthy and elite women. It cannot be ignored that the collecting experiences we study are usually one-sided: Banks and her coin collection and Merian’s engagement with artificialia and naturalia ‘testament to the spread of Dutch global power through colonization’ (p. 68), show how collecting is inextricably linked with colonialism and globalisation. A closer examination of these issues would have perhaps made a more relevant concluding chapter.  Despite these shortcomings, Women and the Art and Science of Collecting offers a wealth of insightful, thought-provoking information regarding the varied ways in which eighteenth-century European women engaged with the material object, and through these experiences garnered their place in the history of collecting.

Image Credit: Anne Vallayer-Coster’s Still Life With Sea Shells and Coral

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