Frustrations of the Archive & the Joy of Material Culture

I visited several archival collections in England, including the British Library and the National Archives. I was looking for records that placed Virginia colonists in England during specific years and references to certain people and portraits. Unfortunately, after hours of looking at papers, official records, personal account books, and wills, I found almost nothing that would be useful in my dissertation. This was not a big surprise. Colonial Virginia records and references to Virginians have been collected, transcribed, referenced, and published for many years so I already had some idea of what to expect from the archives. Further, there are relatively few references to specific portraits and many artists’ names from the eighteenth century go unrecorded. Even in probate records – inventories of property taken after a person’s death – and wills, portraits often go unmentioned. Tracking the whereabouts of colonists in England is also difficult unless they were sent abroad on official business and appear in government papers.

Still, the lack of materials was frustrating.

Lucky for me, studying art history and/or material culture means that there is another type of archive: the material archive! Researching objects necessarily involves getting close to the materials and experiencing them with different senses to understand how they are made and used/viewed.

London and the surrounding area has some great museums and collections. I viewed paintings, particularly portraits, at the National Portrait Gallery, the National Gallery of Art, and the Tate Britain. Viewing paintings in person complemented the reference materials I spent so much time looking at in the National Portrait Gallery Library and the Witt Library.

On this trip, I have also been trying to identify a basket and textile that appear in a portrait. The basket could be Native American or African and the origins of the textile is a complete mystery. I hoped to find objects with similar patterns and of similar construction in collections. I visited Native American objects at the British Museum and made a trip to their storage facility to view an early eighteenth-century Cherokee basket in person. This was given to the British Museum by Hans Sloane who received it from colonial Virginia governor Francis Nicholson. I also viewed global textiles and African and Native American objects at the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Ashmolean Museum, and the Pitt Rivers Museum (the last two are in Oxford). English collections have some of the best early American materials because they were collected by people like Hans Sloane, who always intended to preserve and display them as curiosities. In the colonies, objects like Indian baskets were utilitarian, everyday objects and use and seventeenth and early eighteenth-century baskets rarely survive.

The best part of my research trip, however, involved hitting the road and visiting five country houses.

Me at the glorious Blenheim Palace, built for the 1st Duke of Marlborough. Virginian Daniel Parke was Marlborough's aide-de-camp and William Byrd II visited Blenheim Palace while it was under construction.

Me at the glorious Blenheim Palace, built for the 1st Duke of Marlborough. Virginian Daniel Parke was Marlborough’s aide-de-camp and William Byrd II visited Blenheim Palace while it was under construction.

I visited Blenheim Palace, Burghley, Boughton, Chatsworth, and Hardwick Hall. These homes have connections to Virginians and paintings in Virginia. They were built at different times and have varying architectural styles. It was incredible to experience these places because Virginians built and designed their plantation estates with British country houses in mind. While the American iterations are smaller, they are conceptually related. It was important to experiences the British country landscape and country homes as sites of display for portraiture.

Family portraits in the staircase at Chatsworth.

Family portraits in the staircase at Chatsworth.


Some of the family portraits in the Long Gallery at Hardwick Hall.

Museum settings are usually sterile; portraits were intended to be viewed in homes like the ones I visited. Looking at images in books and reading diary entries cannot fully prepare you or replace the physically experience of these homes – particularly for a room like the “Hell Staircase” at Burghley. Why anyone wanted a massive view of hell in their house is beyond me, but it does make a spectacular visual statement.

The "Hell Staircase" at Burghley, painted by Antonio Verrio.

The ceiling of the “Hell Staircase” at Burghley, painted by Antonio Verrio.

Thanks to this long research adventure, I have a better understanding of British portraiture and evidence I need to make arguments about specific colonial portraits. I would like to thank the Charles Center, the Decorative Arts Trust, the Office of Graduate Studies and Research, and the American Studies Program for contributing funds to make this research trip possible.