Arlene Leis / Kacie L. Wills (eds.): Women and the Art and Science of Collecting in Eighteenth-Century Europe, London / New York: Routledge 2020, 212 S., 12 colour ill., ISBN 978-0-3675-4539-0, GBP 130,00
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This edited volume reflects the current aim in feminist historical scholarship to study the lived experiences of women as part of networks in which women moved, acted, created, commissioned, and acquired. The collection is composed of an introduction by editors Arlene Leis and Kacie L. Wills and fourteen chapters. These are divided into four parts (Artificialia and Naturalia; Travel, Borders, and Networks; Displaying, Recording, and Cataloguing; and Beyond the Eighteenth Century) comprising a balance of longer essay-length chapters and shorter case studies. The volume is necessarily interdisciplinary, as the editors themselves note in the introduction, with essays written by scholars from a diverse range of fields, including history and art history, library sciences, conservation, archaeology, gender studies, modern languages, and biology. The book illuminates not only how and what women collected, but what they did with these collections to affirm or subvert their positions in society and to solidify their legacies.
The introduction opens with a vignette illustrative of the legacy of collections assembled by women whose continued presence in the world extends beyond that of their original possessor. Leis and Wills narrate the afterlife of the porcelain collection of Lady Dorothea Banks (1758-1828), which was wrongly believed to have been assembled by her husband, Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820) when their combined collections were sold at auction more than half a century after their deaths. As the authors relate, research produced within the last decade has shown that the collections and collecting practices of both halves of this partnership were "meaningfully interconnected but also distinct" (2). As is frequently the case with women artists, too, when collaboration occurred with a male artist of greater societal or community prominence, credit has often been given to the male artist alone. The editors and chapter authors of this volume together call for greater attention to be paid to women's agency and legacies and celebrate the strides made in recent scholarship to this end. The fate of misattribution, suffered as often by collections curated by women as by works of art produced by women, has become an all-too-familiar refrain in scholarly interventions and revisionist histories such as those assembled in this collection.
The volume seeks to "take a position of inclusion" (4) and to dismantle the boundaries between art and science, the aesthetic and the scientific, in part through fluidity of movement from one medium to another and one discipline to another. Indeed, many of the women featured occupied liminal spaces themselves, if only in the areas of expertise they cultivated. Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), the subject of Katharina Schmidt-Loske's chapter, continues to serve as a prime example of a savant artist-naturalist who pursued a dual career in the visual arts and the natural sciences. Kelsey Brosnan writes of the artist Anne Vallayer-Coster's (1744-1818) deftly and intentionally cultivated position between naturalists and connoisseurs, while a friendship album, like that of Anne Wagner (born 1771), which forms the subject of Ryna Ordynat's case study, can be read as an indication of one's place as the nexus of one's own social and familial circle.
Many contributions to the volume deal with issues of social class by acknowledging, to a greater or lesser extent, the elite status of women collectors and the ways in which women took advantage of "the considerable personal or intellectual freedom that wealth can offer" (25). In their chapter, Erica Y. Hayes and Kacie L. Wills turn their attention to the numismatic collection of Sarah Sophia Banks (1744-1818). Banks's documented exchanges of rare coins with an unnamed housekeeper in the employ of friends of the family illustrates "how the practice of collecting has the potential to break class boundaries" (86). This same pair of authors goes on to identify another major theme of this volume: that "collecting was not about just keeping the objects in a drawer" (87). Instead, female collectors deployed the objects in their collections for all sorts of personal and social gain. Beyond a sense of curiosity for naturalia and artificialia, collections could serve as a means of self-fashioning, a process shared by partners, friends, or family members, a strategy for stimulating conversation, or an opportunity to indulge in nostalgia for a bygone era.
Once objects have been taken out of circulation and given a fixed position in a collection or display, their status commonly transforms from dynamic to static, unless they are activated. The varying means of activation employed by collecting women is another discursive thread running through the volume. The contribution on Anna Maria Luisa de' Medici (1667-1743) by Irina Schmiedel and the chapter on the Bluestocking Lady Mary Hamilton (1756-1816) by Madeleine Pelling discuss women as producers and commissioners of the documentation of collections. In other essays, Lizzie Rogers uses the correspondence of two friends, Henrietta Fermor, Countess of Pomfret (1698-1761), and Frances Seymour, Countess of Hertford (1699-1754), to reveal the ways in which these women employed the collections of others as tools for their autodidactism, while Charis Ch. Avlonitou writes about how Catherine the Great's (1729-1796) extensive art collections "were meant to radically change her political image in both Russia and Europe" (111) once catalogued and on (limited) display, indicating the powerful storytelling potential a collection might hold.
Part IV, which includes the final two essays, looks beyond the eighteenth century to an ongoing project to conserve an eighteenth-century print room and to a collection of eighteenth-century objects assembled by an Italian noblewoman in the twentieth century. The first three parts of the collection take into account the chronological scope of the 'long' eighteenth century, with studies of women stretching temporally from the naturalist and scientific illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) to businesswoman Eleanor Coade (1733-1821), and feature discussions of artists, naturalists, and collectors from Germany, the Netherlands, France, Great Britain, Ireland, Italy, and Russia. The essays generally reflect on the ties binding natural history collections with colonial exploitation and imperialism but refrain from pursuing these cross-cultural relationships further. However, since this volume's publication, Arlene Leis has edited a second collection of essays that builds upon this work, titled Women, Collecting, and Cultures Beyond Europe (2022), which certainly holds great promise for extending the boundaries of this productive and necessary line of inquiry.
The frameworks and methodologies set forth by the authors gathered here will provide models for future feminist scholarship in archival research and in the effective deployment of endeavours in the digital humanities that make use of social network analysis. Many of the authors themselves include within their essays a call for further research, acknowledging that these collected studies represent an early but important step in scholarship on early modern women's histories. This edited volume ultimately serves as testimony to the fact that "women used the practice of collecting as a vehicle for imaginative self-projection, producing enduring cultural legacies" (8) worthy of as much attention, respect, and thoughtful criticism as those of their male counterparts.