News archive 2008
Bluestocking exhibition13 Mar 2008, PR 48/08
Brilliant Women: 18th-century Bluestockings is a major exhibition opening today (Thursday 13 March) at the National Portrait Gallery co-curated by Dr Elizabeth Eger, Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century and Romantic Literature at King’s.
This is the first exhibition to explore the culture, impact and identity of the Bluestockings, and their followers, who forged new links between gender, learning and virtue in 18th-century Britain.
‘The exhibition aims to show how this remarkable group of creative and intellectual women in 18th century Britain were celebrated as icons of patriotic pride and came to symbolise the progress of a civilised and commercial nation, ’ explains Dr Eger.
Publicly celebrated in their time, these women, who met together in salons and were known as ‘bluestockings’, invented a new kind of informal sociability and nurtured a sense of intellectual community among the writers, artists and thinkers who attended their ‘conversation parties’.
Creative and intellectual women
Initially associated with a specific social group, the term ‘bluestocking’ came to apply to creative and intellectual women more generally. Active in art, literature and even political thought, the bluestockings were not just brilliant - they were exceptional, both for their individual accomplishments and for collectively pushing the boundaries of what women could undertake or achieve.
The exhibition begins by exploring the intimate world of the original Bluestocking Circle. It moves on to consider the way a wider range of bluestockings, such as the artist Angelica Kauffmann, historian Catharine Macaulay and early ‘feminist’ Mary Wollstonecraft, used portraiture to advance their work and their reputations in a period framed by the new possibilities introduced by the Enlightenment and the restrictions imposed in the age of revolution.
Dr Eger says: ‘The exhibition considers the way in which women used portraiture to advance their work and reputations in a period framed by Enlightenment and Revolution. By considering fine art alongside various commemorative items and other popular culture, 'Brilliant Women' explores how the educated woman was, for the first time, celebrated as a figure of national pride – but also satirized and feared, particularly by the end of the century.’
There are 50 works on display including oil portraits, drawings, satires and personal artefacts. There are rediscovered portraits and well loved masterpieces by Romney, Kauffmann, Ramsay, Vigée-LeBrun and Robert Adam.
Sandy Nairne, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, London, says: ‘These were remarkable, brilliant women and the “bluestockings” are an excellent subject for the National Portrait Gallery to explore.’
Brilliant Women: 18th Century Bluestockings is co-curated by Dr Elizabeth Eger, and Dr Lucy Peltz, 18th Century Curator at the National Portrait Gallery. It runs from 13 March to 15 June in the Porter Gallery, admission is free. It is sponsored by BlackBerry® and was made possible through the support of the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
A fully-illustrated book by the curators, Dr Elizabeth Eger and Dr Lucy Peltz, accompanies the exhibition and additionally establishes the legacy of the bluestockings for successive generations of creative and literary women.
[Image: (033) Elizabeth Carter as Minerva by John Fayram, c.1735-41By permission of Miss Paddy Barrett]
Notes to editors
Bluestocking - definition
Bluestocking: a scholarly or intellectual woman. [from the blue worsted stockings worn by members of an 18th century literary society]
The term arose through a visit to a Bluestocking gathering from the botanist Benjamin Stillingfleet, who was a close friend of Elizabeth Montagu, the literary critic and salon hostess. He famously came to one of her meetings wearing the blue woollen stockings normally worn by working men, instead of more formal white silk. The term ‘bluestocking’ subsequently became associated with these/such conversation parties, which included many men who offered intellectual support to women.
Stillingfleet was among the first English advocates of the Linnaean system of plant classification. In the portrait featured in the exhibition he is seen holding a volume of Linnaeus’s work and a magnifying glass beside a table scattered with grasses, in reference to his recent work, Observations on Grasses (1759).
Dr Elizabeth Eger
Elizabeth Eger has written articles on bluestocking culture, poetry anthologies and eighteenth-century Shakespeare criticism. She is currently completing a book, Living Muses: Women of Reason from Enlightenment to Romanticis.
King’s College London
King’s College London is one of the top 25 universities in the world (Times Higher 2007) and the fourth oldest in England. A research-led university based in the heart of London, King’s has 19,700 students from more than 140 countries, and 5,400 employees. King’s has an outstanding reputation for providing world-class teaching and cutting-edge research. The College is in the top group of UK universities for research earnings and has an annual income of approximately £400 million. An investment of £500 million has been made in the redevelopment of its estate.
King’s has a particularly distinguished reputation in the humanities, law, social sciences, the health sciences, natural sciences and engineering, and has played a major role in many of the advances that have shaped modern life, such as the discovery of the structure of DNA. It is the largest centre for the education of healthcare professionals in Europe and is home to five Medical Research Council Centres - more than any other university.
Melanie Gardner, Senior Public Relations Officer, Public Relations Department, King’s College London. Tel: 020 7848 3073; email firstname.lastname@example.org
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