Archive for the ‘Assembly Rooms’ Category

Von Ranke redux

August 25, 2010

James Wolfe's all-in-one field dinner table, or canteen: an evocative relic, but how was it actually used? ©NTPL/John Hammond

One of the perennial aims of historical research is to find out what actually happened at some point in the past – or, in Leopold von Ranke’s famous phrase, ‘Wie es eigentlich gewesen.’

This is, of course, an incredibly difficult undertaking: even if we know many facts about a particular moment in the past, and even if the contemporary artefacts are still available, it still requires a huge effort of the intellect and the imagination to recreate what it actually felt like to be there.

Eighteenth-century soap bubbles at Quebec House. ©National Trust

Historic houses like Quebec House exemplify this problem: they can be beautiful, seductive and inspiring places, but was that what they were actually like, back then? In most cases we are dealing with multi-layered places, made up of elements from a number of different periods.

Re-enactments by costumed interpreters can seem more like theatre than historical reality. However, if done sensitively and using the available research, they can bring visitors into direct contact with aspects of the past.

Eighteenth-century surgery explained. ©National Trust

At Quebec House Jane and Geoff King from living history group The Mannered Mob were recently asked to demonstrate elements of mid-eighteenth-century life. The custodian of Quebec House, John Rawlinson, has kindly sent me these images.

The accoutrements of silhouette-making. ©National Trust

Geoff King, in the guise of an eighteenth-century surgeon, talked about the wounds sustained by General James Wolfe at Quebec. There was very little that any doctor could have done for Wolfe on the battlefield, as he had been shot in the arm, the shoulder and the chest. 

A genteel girl engaged in a genteel pastime. ©National Trust

Jane King showed visitors something about the genteel accomplishments of the time, such as music and making silhouette portraits. GDK Historic Consultancy supplied hand-made hats, dresses, coats and boots. More events like this are planned at Quebec House for the near future.

The house in Trim Street, Bath, where James Wolfe lived before departing for America. ©austenonly

In response to the earlier posts about James Wolfe, Julie Wakefield of the austenonly blog generously sent me this picture of the house in Trim Street, Bath, where Wolfe lived before he left for America.

It looks a picture of genteel tranquility, but, as Julie found when she recently stayed at another house in the street, the nights are disturbed by stag and hen parties and by the raucous gulls feeding on discarded fast food.

The ballroom at the Assembly Rooms, Bath: the scene of refinement, or of tawdriness? ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

And that makes one wonder what life in eighteenth-century Bath was like: full of elegant people taking the waters and dancing in the Assembly Rooms, or also with some of the tawdry and transient elements that seem to be common to resort places? As von Ranke might have said: Wie war es eigentlich gewesen?