Chief executive Steve Lawrence bids farewell to Chawton

>>Chief executive Steve Lawrence bids farewell to Chawton

Chief executive Steve Lawrence bids farewell to Chawton

2016-11-23T10:23:53+00:0016th May 2014|Library Blog|

Steve Lawrence

It’s six-and-a-half years since I first looked down the long, graveled drive and saw the magnificent Chawton House perched on a hill. Even now, I still have great feeling for it.

When you see the light cast on the wilderness or the house itself at different times of the year, it has a truly magical quality. You can’t always capture it in photographs but you can experience it when you’re there. It’s a dramatic but joyful place to be and you can’t help but be inspired by such surroundings.

My time at Chawton House Library has been wonderful and memorable and a unique opportunity with an equally unique organisation. To be associated with such a place has been an absolute delight and so the decision to pass the reins to someone else hasn’t been an easy one. However, there just came a time when it felt right to do so, enabling someone else to lead Chawton House Library into its next decade and me to spend more time in Wales and contemplate my next challenge.

I’m immensely proud of what we’ve achieved here over the last few years, from developing educational and funding programmes to establishing Chawton House Library as a unique place for weddings and other events. While we’ve remained true to the mission of being a centre for learned study, we’ve also been creative – in the spirit of Jane Austen, you might say – in trying to make sure we do other things and give the general public access to the historic house and beautiful grounds with lectures, events, open days and estate walks. I like to think that we’re striking the right balance between making a contemporary mark on the place without taking away from what we understand to be its inheritance.

As custodian of something so special, I wanted to make a mark and achieve good things for the next person who comes along so that they have a sound base to work from, but also have the opportunity to put their own stamp upon the place. I’m delighted to be leaving Chawton House Library in the capable hands of all of my colleagues, some of whom I have worked with since my arrival, others who have joined the team more recently. All of them know and love the place, and together they bring different perspectives and new opportunities. Likewise, we have a splendid group of volunteers: dedicated and hardworking to a woman (and man).

The key challenge, of course, is to ensure the long-term financial sustainability of Chawton House Library. We know we’re not a ‘heartstrings’ charity but we think we do a wonderful job in preserving the heritage of the house by allowing scholars full and uninhibited use of the collections of women’s writing and encouraging schools and members of the public to enjoy the house, the estate and the agricultural history of Chawton.

But small education or arts-based charities, particularly ones who have an Elizabethan manor as their base, are expensive to run. Higher education institutions in the UK have depended a great deal on legacy donations to build their endowment and Chawton House Library has the same need to build reserves through bequests and general donations – success in this area is vital to safeguarding its heritage for generations to come.

That’s why we were delighted to announce

[this month] that one of our trustees, Professor Joan Ray, has made a six-figure legacy pledge (in dollars) and, in doing so, has become the first member of our new 1817 Legacy Circle, which has been set up to recognise and thank supporters who have decided to remember the charity in their will.

Such generosity will help us to continue developing our scholarly programmes, which have so far been enormously successful in helping to both discover and re-discover and position and re-position early women writers within the literary canon. We can also continue to develop projects on the estate, such as our plan to create a wilderness garden with the help of Kim Wilkie, one of the finest landscape architects of his generation.

It’s heart-warming at the end of my stint to both look back on the past years and also forwards, knowing that this is a wonderful organisation with a great future ahead of it. It’s been an absolute privilege to work with such a great team of colleagues and volunteers because they make a huge difference to what we can achieve and I’m so grateful to all of them for the way they’ve worked on behalf of the charity. I will miss all of them greatly.