After the close of the celebrated and critically acclaimed Diana: A Celebration exhibition in August 2013,after 15 years, Althorp is delighted to unveil a new exhibition for 2014 – The Spencer Family Exhibition.
Althorp’s Curator, Louisa Hill, gives an insight into the creation of the exhibition, and how she set about portraying such an influential family – the Spencers – and their home, Althorp.
How did you choose the items displayed in the exhibition?
Althorp is a treasure trove, so the main challenge was choosing only a limited selection from such a wealth of objects – but this was a wonderful problem to have! The exhibition is an introduction to some of the people, places and events that have shaped the history of the Spencers at Althorp. Every object tells a story and the items in the exhibition were selected to do just that. Paintings, furniture, embroidery, silver and porcelain bring each generation to life and give a taste of the wider collection.
Particular emphasis has been placed on Spencer women – how do the artefacts you have selected portray their individual characters?
Sarah Jennings, Duchess of Marlborough was a powerful matriarch whose wealth and family were central to her purpose in life. She adored her Spencer grandchildren who became her heirs. The silver Monteith bowl was commissioned by her and has been used to christen Spencer children ever since. It is a symbol not only of her riches, but also her passion for her family heritage.
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, was a famous society hostess, fashion icon and political campaigner whose everymove was followed by a frenzy of press commentary and public adoration. Her glamour and colourful character were captured by famous artists and satirical cartoonists alike. However, the portraits in the exhibition show her in a different light: as a young innocent with her mother, as a composed young woman depicted by her cousin and as a lonely woman crippled by debts shortly before her death.
What do you feel the Spencer women, perhaps Sarah Jennings Duchess of Marlborough in particular, have brought to the collection at Althorp?
Each generation of Spencer women has contributed to the collections at Althorp but the Duchess of Marlborough’s legacy of wealth and valuable goods including silver, jewellery, paintings and furniture is unparalleled. She is known to have changed her will dozens of times according to which grandchild was most in favour but in spite of this Althorp benefited hugely from her final bequest. The Marlborough silver was, and still is, a dazzling centrepiece of her gift. The group of solid silver pilgrim bottles, plates, dishes, cisterns, candlesticks and wine cisterns belonged to the First Duke of Marlborough who took them on his European campaigns during the War of the Spanish Succession. Further items were added later in celebration of his victories including two enormous gold ice-pails.
Which is your favourite piece in the exhibition?
My favourite object is the hall chair, part of a set originally from Spencer House in London. I love the fact that this plain, wooden chair was designed without upholstery to accommodate the wet or dirty clothes of those arriving on horseback. Perhaps the painted medallion on the seat back also acted as a deterrent to prevent any weary travellers leaning back and getting too comfortable!
What discoveries did you make while researching in the collection at Althorp?
Although not a new discovery, the carved oak panels from Wormleighton House were a particularly pleasing find in one of the store rooms. Wormleighton was the main home to the Spencers during the 16th and early 17th centuries, but much of it was ruined when it was set alight by Royalist forces in the 1640s. Relatively few items from this building survive which makes these bold assertions of Spencer lineage all the more significant.
The Spencer Family Exhibition is now open to the public, on Althorp’s opening days, and included in the ticket prices. To pre book tickets, please click here.
Pictured: Hall Chair