Review of Arlene Leis and Kacie L. Wills (eds.), Women and the Art and Science of Collecting in Eighteenth-Century Europe by Kristina Decker

Women and the Art and Science of Collecting in Eighteenth-Century Europe, edited by Arlene Leis and Kacie L. Wills, is an exciting edited collection that brings together scholars from different disciplines to explore the relationship between women and collecting in the long eighteenth century. Through a selection of case studies and longer chapters it examines the wide range of women’s collecting practices, countering the art/science dichotomy, by looking at the lives, interests, collections, and objects of a selection of women from across eighteenth-century Europe. It further examines women’s role as producers of items to be collected, ways in which to recover collections that have been lost through the use of textual evidence, and the afterlives of collections. 

The book is organised into four parts, with an editors’ introduction on ‘Women and the Cultures of Collecting’ that situates the collection and sets the scene for the book with a vivid description of the auction of Lady Dorothea Banks’s collection of porcelain in 1893, identifying her omission from the auction catalogue as part of a larger trend to which women are often absent from formal collecting records. The book is divided into four broad themes, starting with the intersections of art and science, which is then followed by the geographies, methodologies, and afterlives of collecting and collections. 

The first section of the book, ‘Artificialia and Naturalia’, examines how female collecting practices crossed the boundaries between art and science. Opening with a longer chapter on the Ladies’ Society for Physical Sciences of Middelburg, Anne Harbers and Andrew Gáldy show how the combination of scientific and religious ideas, along with the emphasis on female education, enabled the society to survive as an institution for over one hundred years, from 1785 until 1887.  The Society’s collections, contributed by its members, included books and scientific instruments that were intended for practical use and study. These collections were housed at the Musaeum Medioburgense in Middelburg, alongside art and scientific collections belonging to three other societies. Two shorter case studies follow, one by Irina Schmiedel on the paintings of citrus fruit owned by Anna Maria Luisa De’ Medici and another by Kelsey Brosnan on Anne Ballayer-Coster’s painting, Still Life with Coral and Sea Shells. Both of these counter the idea of the art/science dichotomy, demonstrating how natural history was integral to the subject matter of both sets of paintings. Brosnan’s chapter further demonstrates how the later history of Ballayer-Coster’s painting contributes to this, as it was displayed by the Prince de Conti alongside his extensive natural history collection rather than with his art collection. 

Part II, ‘Travel, Borders, and Networks’, is the longest section, consisting of four chapters and one short case study. It investigates the ‘geographies of collecting’, looking at how the movement of items and people and the interaction with widespread social networks affected collecting practices. Katharina Schmidt-Loske’s chapter on Maria Sibylla Merian investigates Merian’s entomological work and art, her travel within Europe and to Surinam, as well as her engagement with language in scientific and vernacular scientific descriptions. Erica Y. Hayes and Kacie L. Wills then focus on women’s collecting networks by examining Sarah Sophia Banks’s coin collection and her detailed coin acquisition and exchange lists. Lizzie Rogers’s chapter explores the connection between the collecting of knowledge and the collecting of material items, identifying the importance of sociability in knowledge exchange, in her examination of the letters exchanged between the Countess of Pomfret and Countess of Hertford. This is followed by the only case study for this section; Maria Antonietta Spadaro’s discussion of a portrait of Marie Therese Charlotte, the daughter of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI of France. It examines the portrait’s position as part of a collection belonging to the sitter’s aunt, Maria Carolina di Bourbon and how it travelled with its owner amid other select items of her collection when unrest prompted her move from Naples to Palermo. Finally, Charis Ch. Avlonitou’s chapter on Catherine the Great’s collection investigates her collecting as a political act and part of a greater project of identity manufacture.  

The third part, ‘Displaying, Recording, and Cataloguing’, consists of one chapter and three case studies that explores various methodologies around collecting. It commences with Madeline Pelling’s chapter about Mary Hamilton’s writing on the collections of Horace Walpole and David Garrick, exploring Hamilton’s physical interactions with collections on display as well as her written attempts to quantify the collections in the context of Bluestocking sociability. This is followed by three case studies. The first, by Nicole Cochrane, on the Coade Caryatid, which examines the professional relationship between Eleanor Coade and Sir John Soane, with Coade the producer of items Soane utilised and displayed, and their shared interest in reimagining the past. Two other case studies follow, providing an interesting contrast as both examine more traditionally feminine collections tied to friendship and the domestic, with Ryna Ordynat looking at Anne Wagner’s friendship album and Hanneke Grootenboer exploring Petronella Oortman’s dollhouse and how both Wagner and Oortman’s collecting can be seen as a means of creating an alternative historical records.

The final part, ‘Beyond the Eighteenth Century’, is the shortest, consisting of one chapter and one case study that examine the afterlives of eighteenth-century collections and objects. Of particular note to those interested in Irish women’s history is the chapter by Anna Frances O’Regan, ‘Collection, Display, and Conservation: The Print Room at Castletown House’, which investigates Louisa Conolly’s print room at Castletown House (the only surviving example of an eighteenth-century print room in Ireland), its creation, how it has survived to the present, and asks questions relating to its conservation. The final case study by Arlene Leis looks at Olivia Lana di Mazzarino’s collection of eighteenth-century fans and how they became a part of  twentieth-century self-fashioning.  

One thing that is perhaps lacking within this collection is an overall sense of cohesion. The four categories that each of the chapters and case studies are divided into are somewhat unpersuasive, while the mixture of longer chapters and shorter case studies can feel rather inconsistent, with some sections carrying a bulk of case studies and others primarily longer chapters. Yet, perhaps this further emphasises the editors assertion that ‘the very practice of collecting resists categorization, which has been long understood as one of the driving principles behind the practice’ (p. 7). 

Ultimately, Women and the Art and Science of Collecting in Eighteenth-Century Europe is a collection in the same sense of those discussed within its pages. As such, it has that same resistance to categorization. Yet, as a collection, it captures the reader’s curiosity and provides an interesting discussion on how women participated in knowledge exchange, collection, and creation, and opens up possibilities for future research. Its interdisciplinary nature means that it is sure to be of interest to academics and students from a wide variety of backgrounds, including history, art history, literature, and gender studies, as well as those interested in material culture, conservation, and museum studies. 

Kristina Katherine Decker is an IRC-funded PhD student in the School of History at University College Cork. Her thesis is entitled ‘Women and Improvement in Eighteenth-Century Ireland: the Case of Mary Delany’, which focuses Delany’s experience of the Enlightenment. Kristina is also the Web Officer for the Women’s History Association of Ireland.