MA Studentship at Temple Newsam: Ellie Leeson (2022)

Ellie Leeson was awarded the 2021–22 MA studentship with Temple Newsam, one of the finest historic houses in Yorkshire. Here, she describes her work on a project focusing on a deeper understanding of a selection of objects in the decorative arts collection.

During the summer, I had the fortunate opportunity to work at Temple Newsam on a project with their exceptional and extensive decorative arts collection. Having had the choice between two projects during the application process, I chose the one that focused on uncovering the images, histories and narratives of Black people within several objects at Temple Newsam.  My choice of this project arose from my considerable interest in material culture and the decolonisation of our museum and heritage spaces, which is something I consider to be of importance for our understanding of the ongoing impact of British imperialism and how we can move forward with decolonising our history.

In total there were four objects that I was tasked with researching and uncovering their narratives: a beaded mirror frame; a portrait of Henrietta Anne, Duchess of Orleans and an unknown attendant; the hatchment of Isabella, Marchioness of Hertford; and two wall brackets. I was tasked with conducting research into the objects using both the collection files within Temple Newsam and further sources outside to contextualise the objects, and with writing a report which can be used for further interpretation in the future. I have also written four blog posts for the Leeds and Museum Galleries website and some new interpretation for the hatchment and wall brackets, where there was no interpretation before.

Wooden wall brackets with a wild cat sitting on shelf held up by a Black figure

Unknown maker, two wall brackets, 1800-1899, pine, 40 cm. Temple Newsam Leeds. (Photos: © Ellie Leeson)

I have really enjoyed delving into this significant collection of decorative arts objects and most particularly its variety, which has led me down different paths of research into different eras and types of objects but all with a connected theme of decolonisation and uncovering hidden histories. My favourite object was the seventeenth-century mirror, as the intricacy and detail of the beading was exceptional. I was also particularly interested to find that it was most likely made from a kit by a young lady of noble birth.

Mirror with decorated border with figures and roundels against a gold background

Beadwork and embroidered looking glass; 1662-1670; glass beads, silk satin, linen, leather; oak wood case; 880 x 805 x 90 mm. Temple Newsam, Leeds. Photo: Courtesy of Leeds Museums and Galleries. 

Whilst I mostly did my research remotely, using a variety of sources, I was welcome to visit the house and use its collections and spaces as I wished, and I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity/being able to work in a such a beautiful house. I particularly love the house’s use of material culture and multimedia to tell the stories of those who lived and worked there, and so the chance to assist in and add to the interpretation of the house was also particularly exciting. The opportunity to write blogs for the Leeds Museums and Galleries website was also such an enriching experience. Both of these outputs allowed me to develop practical skills in writing concisely for a wider audience, particularly on a sensitive and important topic such as this, which is a significant skill for the heritage sector, where I aspire to work.

I look forward to hopefully being able to see my interpretation in the house in the future!

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