19 Feb 2013 12:30pm - 2:30pm CRASSH, Seminar room SG1, Ground floor


Jane Wildgoose (Kingston University and Keeper of The Wildgoose Memorial Library) 
The Duchess threatens to produce me among the antiquities(1) (Mary Delany, letter. August 16th, 19776)
Dr Mary Brooks (Durham University) 
Re-materialising things: a conversation in time.
Conversations with broken things.



Jane Wildgoose: 

When the artist Jane Wildgoose was commissioned to create a cabinet in celebration of the friendship between Mary Delany (1700-1788) and the Duchess of Portland (1715-1785), she turned her attention to aspects of the material culture of the two women’s lives that had formed their “objectscapes” – in which, as Jo Dahn suggests, they had situated themselves ‘like a self-portrait’ (2) – that had either disintegrated or disappeared. Focusing on Delany’s ephemeral shell-work made to decorate her home and as gifts for her friend (long since physically lost, yet enshrined in her correspondence); and the Duchess’s “Portland Museum” (dispersed at auction over 38 days in 1786, though documented in an accompanying catalogue enumerating over four thousand lots), Wildgoose devised Promiscuous Assemblage, Friendship, & the Order of Things: an objectscape delineating a portrait of the friendship, comprised of over 200 things from the collections at Yale University, together with specially devised hand-crafted artworks; a ‘memory theatre’ that was ‘neither a literal nor a strictly historical re-creation, but…a poetic celebration of…the enduring friendship’ (3).
Critical response included an assertion that the artist had “channeled” Mrs Delany; and a visionary message about the work, which, its author claimed had been conveyed in a dream by Joseph Cornell(4) – the 20th century American artist who pursued “eterniday”: ‘a fusion of the timeless and the daily’, in numerous box assemblage dioramas (5). This paper examines the fusion of the timeless and the daily in the collecting and making activities of the 18th century women friends, and the practice of the latter day artists assembling found and made objects: considering ways in which a close engagement with things may allow ‘real and imagined places and events [to] flow together with a dreamlike logic. [So that] Actual things seem suddenly remote and unfamiliar, while stray wisps of a dim past become real and immediate (6).’


  • ‘The King and Queen drink tea here this evening, and the Duchess threatens to produce me among the antiquities…All things were prepared for their reception, and the drawing-room divested of every comfortable circumstance.’ Mary Delany, letter to Mrs. Port, Aug. 16th 1776, in George Paston, Mrs. Delany (Mary Granville) a Memoir 1700-1788 (London: Grant Richards, 1900), 220-1.
  • Jo Dahn. “Mrs Delany and ceramics in the objectscape,”  Interpreting Ceramics issue 1 (2000), < http://www.interpretingceramics.com/issue001/delany/delany.htm> (3 January 2013).
  • Jane Wildgoose, Promiscuous Assemblage, Friendship, & The Order of Things. An Installation by Jane Wildgoose In Celebration of the Friendship between Mrs. Mary Delany & the Duchess Dowager of Portland (New Haven: Yale Center for British Art, 2009), x.
  • Allan Appel, ‘Let’s botanize, and embroider’, New Haven Independent, 22.9.2009; Comment in visitors book accompanying Promiscuous Assemblage, Friendship, & the Order of Things, signed ‘TC for JC’, 2009.
  •  Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, Joseph Cornell Shadowplay Eterniday (New York: Thames & Hudson), 2003, 40.
  • David Bourdon, ‘Enigmatic Bachelor of Utopia Parkway’ [interview with Joseph Cornell (1903-1972)]. Life, December 15, 1967, 66.


Dr Mary Brooks 


Museums are usually seen, implicitly or explicitly, as places of preservation where things are somehow able to transcend their materiality and the impact of time but this is ‘magical thinking’ which overlooks the inextricable link between preservation and its obverse – decay. Museum conservators have an extended engagement with physical objects which have been neglected, broken or have suffered damage during their journeys through time. Their narratives and connections are also broken. From the museum perspective, such things may fail either physically or stylistically to meet physical condition which is defined as the ideal state for their life in the museum. Conservation remaking thus deals with both the material and immaterial. It is a way of making meaning which demands intellectual and technical engagement which also acknowledges meaning and emotion. The contradictions and paradoxes implied in this dual acknowledgment and denial of the impact of time on things through conservation interventions will be explored using the example of early modern English embroideries.




Open to all. No registration required

Part of the Things: Early Modern Material Cultures Seminar series.

For more information about the group, please visit the link on the right hand side of this page.

Upcoming Events


Tel: +44 1223 766886
Email enquiries@crassh.cam.ac.uk