Queen’s House Lecture Series: Remarkable Women

Half marathon notice

Visitor notice: On Sunday 4 March Cutty Sark and the museum car park will be closed for the Vitality Big Half Marathon. All other museums will be open as normal and DLR and rail links will be running. Find out about road closures

Essential information

Event type: 
Date and time: 
Thursdays, 1-29 March | 10.30am - 12.30pm | Evening lecture 6.30pm - 9pm
Adult: £8 | Concession: £6
Orangery & South Parlours
Queen's House

Hear about the lives of five remarkable women through our Queen's House lecture series this National Women’s History Month.

Spanning the Elizabethan and Victorian Ages, follow the lives of five extraordinary women – matriarch and entrepreneur Bess of Hardwick, poet and writer Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, local Deptford businesswoman Mary Slade, antiquarian collector Sarah Sophia Banks, world traveller Annie Russell-Cotes and the explorer and archaeologist Gertrude Bell

1 March

The harem and the veil: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and the Ottoman Empire – Christine Riding, Royal Museums Greenwich

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, born into a noble family, travelled to the Ottoman Empire in the early 18th century as the wife of the English Ambassador to Istanbul. Her Embassy Letters were an immensely popular account of her travels and experiences and have been described by subsequent historians as the very first example of a secular work by a woman about the Muslim Orient. In these letters she overturned Western fantasies about the East, in particular those concerning the typically gendered and sexualised female spaces, as represented above all by the harem, and the perceived suppression of women through the wearing of the veil. Lady Mary also pioneered the use of inoculation against smallpox, a practice she learned about while in the Ottoman Empire, upon her return to England, and wrote plays, essays, and poems that, along with her letters, inspired Orientalist paintings and contemporary debates about gender and the relations between the sexes. This lecture will discuss her writings and her life that inspired other European women to follow in her footsteps as tourists, travellers and commentators in the Middle East. 

8 March

From Out of Her Brother’s Shadow: The Life and Collections of Sarah Sophia Banks (1744-1818) – Arlene Leis

The British Museum’s Trustees Report dating February 12, 1819, notes that John Thomas Smith, the Keeper of Prints and Drawings, was preparing a “catalogue of Miss Banks’s truly interesting collection of visiting cards and Co.” The collection to which the report refers is that of Sarah Sophia Banks (1744-1818), sister of the well-known botanist, collector and President of the Royal Society Sir Joseph Banks. During the two centuries since her death, Sarah Sophia, also an avid collector has remained for the most part in her brother’s shadow. However, as my talk will demonstrate, Sarah Sophia was an active collector in her own right, and to regard her projects as mere offshoots of her brother’s ventures would be to grossly underestimate their independent importance. At the time of her death, her stockpile of paper items boasted well over 19,000 articles; now housed at the British Museum and British Library, it comprises admission tickets, playbills, fashion plates, political caricatures, satirical prints, ballads, political prints, watch plates, trade cards, newspaper clippings, bookplates and visitor cards, amongst other items. Sarah Sophia also collected coins and medals: over 9,000 specimens are divided between the British Museum and Royal Mint.

During Sarah Sophia’s life, her large collection was stored alongside her brother’s herbarium, library and printing press in the house that she lived in with Sir Joseph at 32 Soho Square, London, a thriving scientific hub where natural history specimens where collected, studied, and exchanged.

Focusing on Sarah Sophia’s collection of printed materials alongside her surviving hand-written inventory, my talk will explore Sarah Sophia’s complex and innovative collecting practices and methodologies. Importantly, it will consider the Banks siblings’ collections as meaningfully interconnected but also distinct, reclaiming Sarah Sophia’s place in the house as an authoritative collector and ‘curator’. In doing so, it will demonstrate that women participated in and helped shape scientific and cultural pursuits in ways often undocumented by traditional narratives of the eighteenth century.  

15 March

‘Exalting the Divine: Bess of Hardwicks picture collection at Hardwick Hall David Taylor, National Trust

David Taylor, Curator of Pictures and Sculpture at the National Trust and the co-editor and co-author of ‘Hardwick Hall: A Great Old Castle of Romance’ (Yale University Press, 2016), will discuss the picture collection of the great Tudor dynast, Elizabeth Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury ('Bess of Hardwick’).  One of the few people who was, for a time, close to both Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, Bess is probably most famous for her four marriages, which each brought her increased wealth and status.  She is also well known for her building activities and for the dynastic marriages her descendants made. She is less well known, however, for her picture collecting and this talk will explore the pictures that she commissioned, bought and displayed at Hardwick Hall, the most famous of her houses.  Mostly comprising portraits, her picture collection was a strategic and persuasive display of her social standing, including royal images that promoted her granddaughter Arbella Stuart’s potential inheritance of both the Scottish and the English thrones.

Evening lecture: 21 March

The Remarkable Life of Gertrude Bell - Janet Wallach

As a young woman, Gertrude Bell suffered the constraints of contemporary Victorian society but overcame them to become one of the most important women in the Middle East. Despite the difficulties of being a rare female in a very male world, she was an archaeologist, an explorer, a spy, a political officer in the British army, a major force in the creation of modern Iraq after World War I and a close advisor to the King of Iraq. Gertrude Bell was a brave and brilliant woman who helped to change the world. Janet Wallach will share with us the fruits of her many years of research into the life of Gertrude Bell which culminated in her best-selling biography Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell. Copies will be available for purchase and signing after the lecture. 

7pm - 9pm | £10-12 | Price includes a welcome drink upon on arrival from 6.30pm.

Find out more and book tickets

22 March

Working Women in Eighteenth-Century Deptford – Margarette Lincoln

This talk will focus on Mary Slade, often confused with her namesake, the cross-dressing female shipwright who also lived in Deptford. Slade was related to the greatest naval architect of the age, Sir Thomas Slade; she had relatives in high office in the naval dockyards, and was a considerable businesswoman in her own right, constructing properties that still stand today. Why is her achievement so little known? Based on research for a larger study of maritime London in the age of Cook and Nelson, this session offers insights into the neglected lives of local women who contributed to London’s maritime power in the time of those celebrated heroes.

29 March

Annie Russell-Cotes (1835-1920): ‘Local politician, art connoisseur, collector, traveller and explorer’ – Amy Miller

Although the above description was written for Merton Russell-Cotes, Annie’s husband, it could well be applied to Annie herself.  Her accounts of her global travels in the 1880s established her as a writer, collector and connoisseur. An early, elected, member of the Japan Society, her book detailing her globetrotting through the ‘East’, Westward from the Golden Gate (1890), saw her elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.  However, her legacy has been largely overshadowed not only by her flamboyant husband but also by media-savvy contemporary travellers Isabella Bird and Annie Brassey.  This talk explores Annie Russell-Cotes achievements and influence as a traveller and collector who not only shaped popular perceptions of Japan and the ‘East’, but created a lasting memorial in her home of East Cliff Hall, now the Russell-Cotes Museum and Gallery.