Uncovering Women’s Involvement in the Historical Record: A Few Notes on the Country House

One of the significant challenges in researching women’s history is the difficulty in discovering their agency within the sources. When researching the origin and curation of the exciting collections in British country houses, women’s choices tended to be obscured behind the names of their husbands in shopkeepers’ accounts and manufacturers’ ledgers. This demonstrates the necessity of reading between the lines to distinguish who chose objects to come into the country house and who purchased them.

Nostell Priory, a neoclassical country house under the care of the National Trust near Wakefield, is a prime example of the value to be gained from piecing together fragments of information in order to discover what mark the ladies of the house left behind in the objects on display. The woman in question here is Sabine d’Hervart, the Swiss wife of the 5th Baronet of Nostell, Sir Rowland Winn. They fell in love when Rowland visited Sabine’s hometown of Vevey during his Grand Tour and married in 1761. Upon Rowland’s inheritance of Nostell in 1765, they set to work transforming the house, including the array of objects inside.

Rowland spent vast amounts of time at their London house in St James’ Square and constantly wrote to Sabine, meticulously detailing everything he had been doing. A letter from Rowland to Sabine dated 22nd February 1773 refers to ‘My friend Adam’ – the neoclassical architect Robert Adam – working on Nostell Priory[1]. In another letter dated 24th May 1783 he says to Sabine that he could do with another piece of Chippendale furniture for his things.[2] These small details show that she was her husband’s confidante and that her advice was welcomed by him. Nostell Priory has one of the largest collections of Chippendale furniture within the National Trust and a copy of the 1754 Chippendale catalogue entitled the Gentleman & Cabinet Maker’s Director can be seen by visitors today on a shelf in the study, a room in which Chippendale furniture sits. This suggests Sabine would have had the same access to this information as Rowland, and that she assisted him within their spousal partnership: she, like him, was a decision maker about Nostell.

nostell-rowland-and-sabine-portraitImage: Sir Rowland and Lady Winn in the Library at Nostell Priory (1767-1769) (author’s image)

This is supported in a visual source on display at Nostell in the same room as the Chippendale catalogue. Hugh Douglas Hamilton’s portrait Sir Rowland and Lady Winn in the Library at Nostell Priory (1767-1769), though probably commissioned by Rowland, serves as an indication of the impression that the couple jointly hoped to cultivate with their different activities and is, as portraits of the period go, strikingly gender inclusive in that it presents the couple as equals in their cultural and patronal endeavours. It creates an enduring presence in the space they wanted to be remembered for creating, with the books, furniture and building plans indicative of their joint legacy to Nostell.

It was not as unusual as some historians suggest for women to be intimately involved in the cultivation of the country house. The examples from Nostell Priory laid out here show how this can be discovered and demonstrate how looking beyond the immediately obvious sources like account books can reveal a whole new story about the fine objects in the British country house.

Elizabeth J Rogers, PhD Candidate, University of Hull

Notes

[1] WYAS, WYW1352/1/1/6/3, Letter from Sir Rowland to Sabine Winn, 22nd February 1773, 2. Trans.: “Mon amie Adam”.

[2] WYAS, WYW1352/1/1/6/3, Letter from Sir Rowland to Sabine Winn, 24th May 1773, 3. Trans.: “au ainsy ma chere je pouvait faire un par Chippendale d’apres la modelle les Eppingles et les gartiers parfumer ne resout pas ou oublier je les apporteroit avec moy”.

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