Our curator Emma Yandle explores the breadth of our collection and introduces her work to make it more accessible to the public.
My job, as the first curator of Chawton House, is look after our extensive collection: safeguarding it physically and researching and sharing the stories it holds. We have long been known for our collection of early women’s literature and criticism – around 16,000 volumes – but visitors to the House interact with the whole range of objects and artworks. For those of you who have not yet had a chance to visit, here is a glimpse of what you can see.
Our walls are hung with portraits. Their sitters include women actors, artists, writers and campaigners of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as Amelia Opie, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and George Sand. These works are painted by some of the most popular artists of their day, including Joshua Reynolds, John Hoppner and Mary Beale. Our historic interiors showcase furniture from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, including the table where Jane Austen sat on frequent visits to dine at the ‘Great House’ with her brother Edward and his family. Our textile collection ranges across a substantial Flemish tapestry from 1600, to Regency-era costumes, embroidered samplers, and fine needlework. We display historic maps of wildly different sizes: from the earliest portable British roadmap to John Rocque’s magnificent map of London from 1746, spanning a massive 4 metres by 2 metres high.
We are also delighted to house works on loan, thanks to the generosity of our supporters. They include the life-size portrait of Edward Austen, which has been returned to the walls of our Dining Room, courtesy of the Jane Austen Society of the United Kingdom. Thanks to Richard Knight, the direct descendant of Edward Austen Knight, we can tell the story of the Knight family, the ancestral owners of Chawton House. Their large and varied collection, handed down by generations, is back here on display in its former home.
To cover here all of our collections – whether decorative arts, manuscript and archival documents, or our library collections of early women’s writing – would far exceed the capacity of this blog post. Together, they enable us to tell the story of women’s contributions to the arts, long overlooked. We place our focus on women’s literary outputs from the 16th to the mid-19th century, within a house that has a personal connection to one such writer: Jane Austen. For the last few years, we have welcomed visitors to Chawton House seven days a week, opening up our collections to the public through exhibitions and events. We have just finished an ambitious project to re-hang Chawton House – which involves moving and reinterpreting our collection – offering visitors a new narrative as they move from room to room. This month also saw the opening of our new year-long exhibition Man Up! Women who stepped into a man’s world, profiling women who stepped into conventionally male fields and changed the rules of the game – whether by picking up a pen, pistol or sword. Inspired by the new film adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Emma, we have curated a new gallery display. We do hope you will come and experience these when it is safe for us to reopen our doors. However, behind-the-scenes there is still much research to be done to bring to light the stories behind each of our objects, and to make our collection readily accessible to the public. This is the work that I am doing as the house’s first curator.
Yet I have come to think of myself only as the first ‘official’ curator of Chawton House, for I have an honorary predecessor. In the months since I joined the team I have discovered how much work was done by Montagu ‘Monty’ Knight – squire of the estate from 1879-1914 – to preserve the history of the house and its collection. In the the year he inherited Chawton House, Monty compiled and published a catalogue of its paintings: Pictures at Chawton, 1879. Its existence made many details I had previously noted become clear. Paintings in the Knight collection each have a number painted somewhere on the canvas: this, I discovered, corresponded to an entry number in Monty’s catalogue. Visitors to Chawton House today will see museum labels beside the artworks we display. However, when we took the paintings off our walls to clean and move them, we discovered that Monty had beaten us to it, attaching his own identifying labels to their reverse. Remarkably, he used his distinctive wax seal to hold them in place. Monty clearly had a curator’s desire to systematise and preserve information about his family’s collection, in a format that could be easily referenced and added to (many pages include extra hand-written notes). This remains the spirit of the work I am undertaking across the breadth of our collection today.
Sadly, many of the paintings in Pictures at Chawton are no longer a part of the Knight collection, suggesting a tantalising future research project to trace where artworks that once hung on the house’s walls reside today. Such work is only possible thanks to Monty’s record-keeping. It is research of this nature, that often resembles detective work, that I am embarking on at Chawton House, alongside my colleagues and an impressive group of volunteers.
I will be sharing the stories and discoveries I uncover here on our blog, and on our social media channels. Watch out for my hashtag: #ChawtonCurator. I hope you’ll join me on this journey, and in turn share your knowledge and thoughts about the collection with us.