Behind the scenes at the museum: Chawton House

Rachel Nott speaks to Emma Yandle, curator of Chawton House in Hampshire, about her favourite object in the collection

Chawton House

What is your role at Chawton House?

Chawton House has always had a librarian, but I’m the first person to hold the post of curator. This means I am responsible for all the collections that we have, which includes 13,000 books by and about women, along with significant artworks, furniture, textiles and household objects. We often think of books as ‘ideas’, but they are also physical objects. Seeing them in the first form that they came into readers’ hands, and the manuscript drafts where the ideas were first coming into fruition, can tell us so much.

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Chawton House

What can be found at Chawton House?

The main challenge of my role is making sure that I am safeguarding the thousands of objects that we hold for public benefit. One of the most precious and popular objects is a silhouette showing a young Edward Austen being handed over by his parents to their distant relatives. The childless Knight family formally adopted him as their heir, making him a member of the landed gentry and changing the fortunes of the entire Austen family.

This silhouette was passed down from generation to generation of the Knight family, and is generously on loan to us from Richard Knight. However, its popularity and importance mean it has been framed and on the wall for two centuries and through light exposure the previously white background has turned brown. If displayed for decades to come, the paper will eventually disintegrate. Thanks to technology, we can replace the original with a facsimile that is indistinguishable.

Chawton House
This precious silhouette shows Edward Austen’s parents handing him over to their distant relatives, the Knight family.

The Dining Room is the place most strongly associated with Jane Austen. It was here that Jane came to dine, walking up from the cottage in the village (now Jane Austen’s House), to her brother’s grand manor. From pocketbooks and diaries, we see how frequently she came here. So the dining table, purchased by Edward Austen, is very special, as we know that Jane sat at it, along with the Austen and Knight families. We have chairs around it where visitors can sit – many make a point of sitting in each chair so they can say for sure they have sat where Jane Austen once did!

What is your favourite object?

It’s very hard to pick a favourite object, but one of our paintings holds a special place in my heart. It is a portrait of Mary Robinson (1757–1800) an actress, novelist, radical and huge celebrity of the late 18th century. She is shown in the costume of her most famous role – Perdita in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. It is not only an intensely beautiful painting by John Hoppner, but it also allows us to consider the contradictions in how Mary has been defined by history.

Emma’s favourite piece in the collection is this portrait of actress Mary Robinson, in her most famous role as Perdita in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.
Emma’s favourite piece in the collection is this portrait of actress Mary Robinson, in her most famous role as Perdita in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.

The painting is sensual, but her gaze piercing. She is shown as an actress, which was looked down upon by polite society, but also as a celebrity worthy of attention. It is bold and dramatic, but her manner is intimate. It is also revealing for what it doesn’t show. In her lifetime, Mary became a figure of intrigue and satire as the mistress of the Prince Regent, at the expense of her valuable contribution to literature, the arts, and the cause of female emancipation.

Mary Robinson the writer is absent from this painting, but we hold many works by her in our collection. So the painting’s meaning can shift depending on how we choose to interpret it and I hope that encourages visitors to look closely and consider what they are being shown.

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Visit chawtonhouse.org for more information