Collections Learning: Victorian Children at Eton

These students at Eton are not Eton students. They are four to seven year olds visiting for a school trip, to learn more about what life was like for Eton boys one hundred and fifty years ago.  As part of a new offer from Collections, local primary school students are being invited in to discover history through the lives of Eton students.

We started the session by trying to decipher an object from the collection of the Museum of Eton Life that even Collections had misidentified until recently.  With some observation and careful thinking the children were able to decide that the object had something to do with lights – it was indeed a rush light holder (and not for pinching people). This began a discussion of candles, rush lights and life before electricity, letting the children display their prior knowledge.

Now that their brains were warmed up, students divided into small groups for various hands on activities, investigating the clothes, living conditions, leisure activities and education of Victorian Etonians. They had the chance to be creative, designing their own pop waistcoats. They practiced their skills of observation with the period schoolroom. They used primary sources with photos and excerpts from the Chronicle about different sporting events. As the children rotated around the activities, they gained an idea of what life was like for Eton students of that time period, compared to the Victorian children they had already learned about in class.  When we came together at the end, the general agreement from the children was that although they liked the idea of having cake in their rooms, they would not have liked the birch!

 

Completed Waistcoats worksheets

This session is part of an exciting long term process of making Eton’s extensive and varied collections more accessible to local schools by turning the previous informal service into a standardised programme. Although it might seem counter-intuitive that the history of Eton, a fee-paying single sex secondary school, could be relevant to co-ed state primary schools, in truth the population of Eton has one great characteristic in common with these visiting students – they are all children. The boys who attended Eton were still just boys, living through the turmoil of their time. Thus Eton is a perfect example of the home front during the Second World War, with rationing, air raid shelters and even bombing raids. Old Etonians sacrificed themselves during the Great War, Tudor students toiled at their Latin, and Victorian boys were bound by the expectations of their class. This programme is not limited to history sessions. With two other excellent museums at hand, primary school students can also investigate various aspects of natural history as well as the Ancient Egyptians!

Looking at House Life in a historic boy's room display

It is recognised that learning done outside of classrooms and through the medium of original objects is unique and different to that done in the classroom. These education sessions, using replica images and objects and containing activities to appeal to different learning styles, allow students from age four to 11 to access some of the collection’s rich resources. Once the primary programme is up and running, we will develop and expand our offer to secondary schools, focussing upon exam level students and the unique opportunities the Collection can offer them.  These sessions make our objects accessible to more people, benefiting not only the students who attend but also the Collections.

Saskia Nesja

Education Officer

For more on Collections Learning, see the latest Collections Journal Summer 2019 for Saskia Nesja’s article on Outreach and Engagement

‘A great sense of mystery and tension’: Sophie Macfadyen responds to Gainsborough’s ‘A Rocky Road with Trees’

On 28th January 2019, 11 A-Level students and members of the History of Art Club from St George’s, Ascot visited the Watercolours exhibition in the Verey Gallery. Prior to their visit the A-Level students researched selected works on display and prepared presentations which each student delivered in front of the artwork to the Club. 
Below is Sophie Macfadyen’s presentation on A Rocky Road with Trees by Thomas Gainsborough.
Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788). A Rocky Road with Trees, 1785, black and white chalk, with stump.

Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788). A Rocky Road with Trees, 1785, black and white chalk, with stump.

This sketch is of a lone figure walking along a winding path into the distance. The path leads the figure as well as the viewer’s eyes through some woodland. There are buildings in the distance to the right which appear to be a manor house or farm and tall mountains beyond them. It is evening and the lighting gives the illusion that the moon is shining bright, illuminating the scene and dappling light through the trees and onto the ground.

The use of black and white alone in the picture gives a sense of eeriness as light and shadow are emphasised. It is the darkness that surrounds the figure that puts us on edge because it creates mystery as to what could be lurking around the corner. The open space which we see through also makes the figure seem vulnerable as they are alone in a wide, open space meaning that anyone and anything can jump out at them as well as be watching them, as the viewer is. The fact that the figure is so far away makes us feel helpless and as if we are about to watch something bad happen.

The tree on the right also adds to the eeriness of the scene as it twists and contorts as if to reach out to the figure. The idea of the trees having life and being able to watch and reach out to the lone figure gives the effect of the trees closing in on the person and trapping them. As well as this, the ground itself is also wrinkled and writhed making it seem like old skin, adding to the life-likeness of the landscape.

The use of linear strokes in the same direction creates a sense of unity. By pressing both hard and gently with the chalk, Gainsborough creates chiaroscuro, adding to the unsettling nature of the scene. This medium enables him to quickly and easily sketch out a complete scene either as a study for a painting or, as many were, just for fun. Overall, a great sense of mystery and tension is created, intriguing the viewer and drawing us in.

Gainsborough created over 1,100 drawings much like this in his lifetime. He had a huge interest in nature and depicting it. He often painted at night by candlelight which explains why the majority of his landscapes (especially the sketches) use tenebrism and appear to be set at dusk/night. This sketch was created at the end of his life therefore his technique and style is well established and the picture echoes his earlier works in both composition and subject. He is most famous for landscape compositions as well as detailed and delicate portraiture. His landscapes are typically of English countryside and are very effective at drawing the viewer’s eyes into the depth of the scene, usually via a path or open expanse of land. This technique is evident amongst many of his paintings and sketches such as Road From Market and Landscape in Suffolk. Gainsborough is renowned as being one of the best British landscape artists in history and I believe that he certainly deserves this title.

Sophie Macfadyen, St. George’s, Ascot

 

 

 

A year in the life of an archives assistant

Coming to the end of my time as the Archives Assistant at Eton, I find myself divided between feelings of excitement for the future, gratitude for everything I have been able to see and learn, and sadness at leaving a Collections team that made it such an enjoyable experience, and one in which my consumption of cake has tripled.

The position is a trainee role, allowing me to learn what it takes to be an archivist, gain hands on experience, and (hopefully) help contribute to the work of the College Archives along the way. Over the year I have certainly been kept busy, working upon a range of projects including: cataloguing records of an island owned by the College; running a session as part of a challenge day at a local primary school, allowing 8 and 9 year old pupils to get hands-on with our records and investigate the life of Dr John Keate, a 19th century Eton Head Master; and assisting researchers using our records. The majority of my time has been spent cataloguing around 3300 letters sent to the College bursars between 1775 and 1900, which discuss day to day business – from food orders to the income from the College’s estates and the construction of new buildings to meet the needs of the ever expanding school.

When I started this job I thought that being a successful archivist was all about having a good eye for detail and an ability to order things, I now know that there is so much more to it than just that. You must have the confidence to trust in your knowledge and skills, knowing that a mistake could impact upon a researcher in the future. Be versatile enough to deal with the wide range of material in your collection, from wax seals, parchment rolls and boxes upon boxes of handwritten letters; to magazines, books and even emails. If I had my time again, I would certainly brush up on my non-existent Latin and Greek! Not to forget being willing and determined to spend hours removing rusted pins, paperclips and staples from documents they would otherwise damage.

I remember being unsure before I started of what to expect from the College Archives. What I have found is a place in which I was given the opportunity to ask questions, work within a fantastic archive on amazing records, and learn from excellent people.

By Josh Insley, Archives Assistant