An offer of a study trip to London is a difficult offer to turn down. But London in January? The invitation was met with visions of frost bite. I am among those who like it hot. I eschew air conditioning. I don’t even like ice in my drinks. Would I return home with my fingers and toes intact? Despite a strong preference for warm weather, I am no fool. Recognizing this as the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that it was, I resolved to fire up my inner furnace and spend two chilly weeks studying English design history with the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture’s fabulous class of 2014.
The trip was led by Winterthur’s dynamic duo of furniture scholarship, the indefatigable Brock Jobe and Wendy Cooper. This being the first time that a Winterthur librarian has tagged along, I joined the group as “guest staff,” with thanks to funding from a travel and training grant provided by the Mellon Foundation. After years of witnessing the returning students’ afterglow and prodding them to share their experiences, I could now see for myself whether they were rosy-cheeked from excitement or because they were still thawing out. Each January, London becomes a living laboratory for the WPAMC students, along with three others from the University of Delaware. The itinerary was packed. We took walking tours led by historians to better our understanding of the city’s layout and architectural development. We followed prominent curators into the remote recesses of museums to learn insiders’ secrets on exhibition planning. All the while, we were immersed in the history of English decorative arts.
On January 18 we visited Sir John Soane’s Museum, a site I was particularly excited to see for the first time. After an hour or so spent exploring Soane’s carefully arranged collections of paintings, furniture, and antiquities, we were invited to view books and drawings with the museum’s drawings curator, Stephen Astley. I remembered Stephen fondly from my 2011 Attingham Summer School experience, where he had given a rousing lecture on Robert Adam. That evening at the Soane museum, our group crowded around a table in a very small room. The room’s windows looked out onto Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where the sun had set and snow fell in the glow of the streetlights. This was the moment I had been waiting for. As some readers may know, among the gems in the Winterthur Library is a very special copy of The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam. One of very few copies to feature color plates, the colors fresh from being closed inside the book for more than 200 years, this copy offers rare insight into Adam’s original color schemes. Each time it is cracked open, I can almost hear a choir sing. However, in the very room we stood that evening, in a glass cabinet along the wall lay our competition in the form of fifty-eight albums.
These albums represent the largest collection of original Adam drawings known to exist in the world. Readers may know that by the time Robert Adam’s drawings were sent to auction in 1796, his work was out of fashion. Soane was able to purchase the collection for a mere £200. Laying out album after album of Adam drawings, nearly all in color, Stephen Astley generously and anecdotally answered our questions and shared his knowledge of the collections. When asked if the colors we were seeing were true to Adam’s original color schemes, Stephen answered that these drawings survived because they had likely been rejected by Adam’s clientele. As such, they might not have been the color schemes that were ultimately chosen. Regardless, I was captivated in that moment. Each album sang louder and more gloriously than the last.
Over the course of fourteen days, we participated in four walking tours and visited more than twenty sites. A free day was spent carefully navigating Euston Road in the snow, with long stops at the British Library and the Wellcome Collection. We travelled to Bath for the final leg of the trip, where our endurance was tested as we were led on a fascinating but blustery cold walking tour by the aptly named Amy Frost, curator of Beckford’s Tower.
Among the things I learned was that Winterthur has established many valuable connections with our British peers in the study of material culture. The energy and enthusiasm of Brock, Wendy, and the students was elevated by that of our many esteemed hosts, all of who gave so generously of their time and expertise. I returned with a deeper respect for the library’s outstanding collection of English design sources and a stronger understanding of their impact on American decorative arts. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime trip for me.
Emily Guthrie is Winterthur’s NEH Librarian, Collection of Printed Books and Periodicals and frequent contributor to Winterthur’s Library Newsletter.