It’s now our turn to ask the questions and dig deeper as we interview Dr. Cathryn Spence, Bowood’s Curator & Archivist.
She may just have the most interesting and valued position at Bowood, as she takes care of all the irreplaceable historic artefacts.
We caught up with her recently to find out more about her role at Bowood and amongst other questions, which artist (dead or alive) she would most like to meet!
How and why did you become a curator?
I was very lucky to have parents who appreciated history and art. I grew up near London and visited museums and galleries regularly. I wanted to be a ceramist, but I had terrible eczema on my hands and was advised against it as a career by a dermatology consultant. Heartbroken, I was directed towards art history at A level and then studied history of art, architecture and design at university.
While studying for my Masters I worked part-time for a commercial gallery. A work of art (fine and decorative) should be appreciated for the skill of the workmanship and/or creativity, as well as the emotion it provokes and what it is saying. A country house curator looks after, preserves, and helps to interpret incredible pieces of human endeavour both in terms of the creators and the collectors.
What do you love most about your job?
It is a privilege to be able to care for beautiful things and present them in such a way that other people can appreciate the craftsmanship and skill involved in creating something that (hopefully!) will be around for future generations to enjoy too.
What does a typical day look like?
No two days are the same, other than the daily preventive conservation (checking displays, temperature, light, humidity, etc.). Once I have checked all the displays, my day could be anything from meeting with a conservator, such as Kate Armor who is currently working on a watercolour for us, or for example today I will be receiving back one of the Georgian x-frame chairs that Erica Hemming has re-caned for us during the closed season.
This afternoon, I will be in the Muniment Rooms hoping to find answers to some enquiries we have received as well as preparing archive documents for two researchers who are visiting Bowood later this month. My colleague Peter Jones and I need to assess one of the clocks in the collection that is running slow. We will try and solve the problem first, otherwise, it will be off to a clock specialist. Being a curator is very practical and I am rarely at my desk.
Can you tell us an unusual fact about Bowood?
One of the many unusual or surprising things on display at Bowood is Napoleon’s death mask. The Lansdowne’s have an extraordinary and complex family history seeing former friends and enemies linked by marriage. The 5th Marquess of Lansdowne’s mother, Emily, was the daughter of Charles Comte de Flahault who was rescued from the French Terror by the 2nd Marquess of Lansdowne. Charles later became aide-de-camp to Napoleon Bonaparte. Emily’s grandfather was Admiral Lord Keith who fought Napoleon at Waterloo and conducted him to his incarceration on the island of St Helena.
What was your most surprising find when curating the 2022 Exhibition?
Surprisingly the 2nd Marquess has not been studied in any depth before. Almost everything was new to me and totally fascinating. He was travelling across America and Europe at one of the most turbulent times in history (end of 1700s / beginning of the 1800s). Almost every country was at war or on the brink of war. The letters he sent back to his father recorded what he saw, particularly military and naval reserves; the state of relations between countries; the health of Europe’s leaders, such as Catherine the Great of Russia; and the rise of Napoleon. This correspondence is a rich resource covering a complex time and should be better known.
What are the biggest challenges when putting together an exhibition?
Our annual exhibitions are entirely drawn from the Bowood Collection. I might have a good idea, but do we then have enough archive material to support the extent of our changing exhibition space? I always want to engage our visitors and try and use a variety of objects and documents to make the exhibition appeal to as wide a group of people as possible.
What’s your favourite object in the Bowood House collection?
It’s probably the ‘dress up doll’ miniature of Princess Charlotte. You can see it in the Top Exhibition Room. It is a very rare example of an unusual amusement that came into fashion after about 1650. It consists of a miniature portrait set in a leather case. Accompanying the miniature are 19 historic costume details painted in opaque colour on slivers of a transparent mineral known at the time as a ‘talc’. In fact, the little costume sheets are pieces of the mineral mica. The owner could dress up the subject in different costumes by laying on the ‘talcs’ one at a time. They were never particularly common, but this 19th century version is especially rare.
Do you collect anything yourself?
I collect a variety of things, not just a specific type. I don’t have a huge collection of Sèvres porcelain for example, but probably the common link will be Rococo and Chinoiserie and then subjects I’ve researched and written on in the past – Bath (where I live), artists: Thomas Robins, Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Millais, John Piper and William Hogarth.
Who is your favourite figure from history?
I think that’s a moveable feast! It depends heavily on what I am working on. At the moment, it would either be the 2nd Marquess of Lansdowne or the Georgian artist Thomas Robins. I have just published a book on Robins after 15 years of research. Most people have something fascinating about them and no one is perfect. I am always open-minded to their character and motivation and will challenge pre-conceived ideas about who they were. It is always important to consider the era they lived in and not project 21st century ideals on everyone who is long dead.
Finally, which artist, alive or dead, would you like to meet and why?
That list is probably endless! My top ten would be Leonardo da Vinci, Hans Holbein, Maria Sibylla Merian, William Hogarth, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Frida Kahlo, Eric Ravilious, Rex Whistler, John Piper, and Pauline Boty. They all produced work that I admire and am drawn to and I would happily own an original by any of them! I feel they all had very strong and distinct personalities. They pushed boundaries and challenged perceptions of what is art.