The Maria Graham Collection allocated to Chawton House through Arts Council’s Acceptance in Lieu scheme

December 18, 2023

A collection of portraits, books and drawings belonging to Maria Graham – the first professional female travel writer – has been allocated to Chawton House, via Arts Council England’s Acceptance In Lieu Scheme

Portrait of Mrs. Maria Graham (1785-1842), attributed to John Jackson RA, 1819. Oil on canvas.
Portrait of Mrs. Maria Graham (1785-1842), attributed to John Jackson RA, 1819. Oil on canvas.

Portraits, drawings and books that belonged to Maria Graham and her close relatives will come to Chawton House, the home of pre-20th century women’s writing, via Arts Council England’s Acceptance in Lieu Scheme. Maria Graham (1785-1842) was a pioneer: the first woman to build a whole career as a published travel writer. She published journal accounts and letters of her residences in India (1812 & 1814), Rome (1820), Chile and Brazil (both 1824), and she became further known for her art histories and popular histories for children, including Little Arthur’s History of England (1835). Maria Graham was one of only a handful of women who were publishing travel accounts in Europe at this time to achieve commercial success, despite charges from her peers that the topics she discussed were ‘unfeminine.’ Even more unusually, she wrote of her travels to non-European countries, immersing readers in unfamiliar landscapes.

Her writings catered to the Enlightenment-era interest in non-European cultures and places, but were led by her distinct point of view as a woman, highlighting the oppressive treatment of women abroad, and the horrors of enslavement. Unlike other female travel writers, she combined written and visual accounts of her travels. Many of the engravings in her publications were based on her own drawings, made in situ, of landscape, wildlife and ecology, individual peoples and specific events.

Highlights of the Maria Graham Collection include portraits of Maria and her husband, Thomas, that have remained in family possession. They have been on loan to Chawton House for public display for the last decade. An unfinished portrait of Maria Graham by John Jackson RA (1778 – 1831), from 1819, is the final portrait of the writer to leave private ownership, joining three other oils in public collections. Like Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of the writer (in the National Portrait Gallery), it was painted during a stay in Rome, where the Grahams spent time as part of a vibrant artistic expat community that included the artist J. M. W. Turner.

Robert Graham, the 12th Laird of Fintry in Scotland, commissioned portraits of his sons from the leading artists of the day, choosing Sir Henry Raeburn to depict his third son, Thomas, later Maria’s husband. The painting has remained in private hands since its creation in 1812, first at the family seat in Scotland; then transported to Thomas’ nephew in South Africa in 1873; before returning to England in 1932.

Another item of particular importance is a leather-bound portfolio labelled ‘Mrs Graham’s travels in Brazil and Chili [sic]’ containing 53 loose sheets of previously unknown original drawings by Graham from her travels in India, Brazil and Chile. Graham’s drawings are based on first-hand observation, not only of places and environments, but crucially of indigenous peoples. These range from depictions of enslaved Africans to early visualisations of South Americans going about their daily lives. Some of these drawings were subsequently reworked into engravings and included in her published works. Access to her original depictions offers the unique opportunity to compare subtle changes in the presentation of indigenous peoples when they were reworked by a hand back in England. The collection also includes everyday scenes of individualised indigenous Brazilians, in contrast to the archetypical depiction of non-European groups that were the standard accompaniment to travel writing. It is a resource that can benefit scholars across disciplines of art history and anthropology, now accessible in Chawton House’s collection.

The Collection was assessed by an Expert Panel and classified as pre-eminent, through its strong association with British history and national life; its artistic value and art historical interest; and its importance for the study of travel writing, anthropology, and early women’s writing.

Katie Childs, Chief Executive, Chawton House says: “It is an enormous privilege to have this very important collection assigned to Chawton House, and we are grateful to the Graham family and Arts Council England that these rare works are now in a public collection allowing us to tell the story of the remarkable Maria Graham and ensure she receives the attention her pioneering writing and illustration deserves. This is a wonderful way to mark the end of the 20th anniversary of the opening of Chawton House to the public for the first time.”

“The Maria Graham Collection is a fantastic addition to our collections,” says Emma Yandle, Curator, “supporting our mission to promote the work and lives of early women writers
through books and manuscripts, whilst giving these pioneering women a visible presence on our walls. The Panel’s decision to allocate the collection to Chawton House – where it has previously been on long-term loan – is a real show of faith in our transformation from research institution to an historic house that displays and interprets women’s literary history. Following on from the success of our 2022 exhibition on women travel writers, Trailblazers, we are excited to encourage research, particularly into the original drawings by Graham, as well as to create thoughtful programming that frankly examines the role of travel writing in upholding and promoting colonial ideas, and the often vexed role played by women in the abolitionist movement.”

Chawton House opened to the public as a centre for women’s writing in 2003, after an extensive renovation to save the near 500-year-old manor house. Once owned by Jane Austen’s brother Edward, who provided an estate cottage for his sisters and mother, it is somewhere she visited regularly and was very familiar with. Inspired by the fact that Chawton House inspired one of the greatest and best-known pre-20th century women writers, the house and gardens were restored to be a place to explore pre-20th century women’s writing and became home to a collection of over 10,000 works by and relating to women writers, including published and unpublished works, portraits, manuscripts, artworks and ephemera. Since 2017, Chawton House has transformed from being solely an academic library to become a popular and much-loved historic house and estate, with an award-winning visitor experience, and public programme, attracting 24,000 paying visitors each year.

The portrait of Maria Graham from the Maria Graham Collection is currently on display in Chawton House’s major exhibition Treasures of Chawton Housen (running until 28th April 2024). It will remain on permanent display, alongside the portrait of Thomas Graham, following the exhibition’s run.

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