Dr Sara Pennell (Independent Scholar)
Roisin Inglesby (Assistant Curator, Victoria & Albert Museum)
Dr Sara Pennell
‘A cake of beeswax, which I knew to be mine’: materiality and identification amongst the mundane in eighteenth-century England
Beyond fine and decorative art histories, wherein the work of scholars is in part to provide the objects (the ‘art’) with contexts and provenance that make them fully legible within a culture which values the artist/maker, as well as the role of the known owner/patron, objects which lack these identifiers, or a paper trail that can supply such evidence, often recede in our accounts of material pasts. Many of these objects lack distinguishing aesthetic or formal features which tie them into discourses of art and design; or have, in the documentary sources so often utilised by socio-economic historians to populate the early modern past with ‘things’, resided in the category of ‘lumber’ and ‘small things forgotten’, or indeed evaded most such records by their ephemerality.
Very few of these things, however, were truly anonymous to their owners, users, makers. The efforts made to identify, and claim ownership of, seemingly mundane things or objects of very small value, by victims of robbery, theft and burglary at the Old Bailey and in newspaper advertisements of the period, reveal the profound attention paid to surface detail, the wear and tear evident on objects, and even the transient material states goods might pass through, as ways of identifying possessions. Such attention to materiality, in the face of high-velocity urban circuits of new and used goods, both licit and illicit, can tell us much about how chattel property, be it ever so modest and perhaps on first glance, indistinguishable from others of its type, was claimed, owned and made ‘mine’ by early moderns.
Women’s needlework and the expectations of biography
Anonymous objects pose a problem for museums. Without knowing who made something, how can it convincingly be displayed, interpreted and explained? In a context overwhelmingly dependent on attribution to an artist, designer or maker, where do you start when there is no hope of biography?
This talk considers an anonymous 17th-century embroidery of Mary Magdalene, recently discovered in the V&A’s stores. Iconographically unique, the embroidery cannot simply be assimilated into standard interpretations of women’s domestic needlework, yet as an ‘orphan’ object, we have no way of tracing its provenance or original context. I will suggest that while anonymity can obscure meanings and demoralise researchers, it also creates new opportunities for interpretation. By forcing scholars to consider them without prior reference to their creators, anonymity can liberate things from the expectations of biography.
Open to all. No registration required
Part of Things that Matter, 1400-1900 Research Group seminar series