Archive for the ‘Quebec House’ 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?

Heroes and hero worship

August 20, 2010

The death of Wolfe, 1784 copy by George Roth Jr of the painting by Benjamin West dated 1770. ©NTPL/Matthew Hollow

Following my previous post about Quebec House, I thought it would be interesting to show a few of the objects inspired by General James Wolfe’s death at Quebec. Benjamin West’s painting was very influential in shaping the iconic image of Wolfe expiring just as a messenger brings news of the French defeat.

Section of printed cotton showing the death of Wolfe. ©NTPL/John Hammond

It was widely copied in a variety of formats, even making its way onto toile de Jouy fabric – which presumably in this case was made in England rather than France.

Staffordshire blue and white meat plate depicting the death of Wolfe. ©NTPL/John Hammond

English households could proudly dine off patriotic dinner services and have General Wolfe slowly emerge from beneath the meat and gravy.

©NTPL/John Hammond

The Wolfe brand also extended to the marketing of stirring patriotic songs.

Wolfe's quilted cotton dressing-gown, at Quebec House. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Wolfe relics were reverently preserved, such as this dressing gown that was alledgedly used to transport his body back to England. Wolfiana still sell for high prices at auction, such as the portrait that was knocked down at Bonhams in London recently for more than £400,000.

Questions at Quebec House

August 16, 2010

Quebec House, by Roy Willard. ©Estate of Roy Willard

Quebec House, in Westerham, Kent, is the childhood home of James Wolfe, who was born there in 1727 and spent the first 11 years of his life there.

Bow figurine of General Wolfe in a heroic pose, at Quebec House. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Wolfe later became famous for leading the victorious attack on the French at Quebec in 1759, which was one of the key battles in the Seven Years War.

Wolfe being told of the victory at Quebec while he lies mortally wounded, in a print dated 1779 after a 1764 painting by Edward Penny. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Wolfe was mortally wounded in that battle, and posthumously became a national hero. His slight figure and beaky profile became a patriotic brand, featuring in numerous paintings, prints, statuettes and so on.

The drawing room at Quebec House. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Quebec House was given to the National Trust by Mrs J.B. Learmont in 1918. It is displayed with eighteenth-century furniture and furnishings.

The 1630s decorative scheme. ©National Trust/William Webb

Most of the internal fabric of the building was lost or altered over time. However, when the staff flat was recently rearranged to allow visitors to see the main bedroom, it was found that the walls there still have layers of paint going back to the 1630s.

A slightly later, mid-seventeenth-century scheme. ©National Trust/William Webb

The question now arises which particular decorative scheme should be shown. The 1630s scheme is very rare and seems to be worth showing in its own right.

The eighteenth-century scheme. ©NTational Trust/William Webb

However, the rest of the house is shown in a mid-eighteenth-century way, in accordance with the wishes of the donor.

Analysis of the various paint layers.

Should we reveal the earlier scheme, or just record it and show the eighteenth-century scheme instead? The question is currently being discussed with various experts, and the visitors are being asked their opinion as well – so do let me know what you think.