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.

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Researching Colonial Portraiture in England

This summer, I was awarded a Reves Center International Travel Grant to conduct research in England for my dissertation. My research trip is one month long and will take me to London and Oxford and then around the countryside to several houses. My dissertation, “The Art of Plantation Authority: Domestic Portraiture in Colonial Virginia,” looks at the social function of portraiture in Virginia until about 1776. So, why does a doctoral student researching colonial portraits need to spend so much time in England?

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