News | February 23, 2023

Focus on Art of Letter Writing in 18th and 19th Centuries

Chawton House

Italian-English artist Maria Cosway (1760 – 1838), writing a letter

Chawton House begins its 2023 visitor season and 20th anniversary year with two exhibitions. Quills and Characters is its major exhibition of 2023, exploring the art of letter writing in the 18th and 19th centuries. Inside Charlotte Brontë’s Wardrobe (March 1 – June 4), previously on display at the Brontë Parsonage in Haworth, is an artistic imagining of what the author of Jane Eyre would have worn.
Quills and Characters provides fascinating insights into stories of science and scholarship, love, and literature through the manuscript letters on display. These include letters written by mathematician Mary Somerville and her protégée Ada Lovelace on loan from the Bodleian Library, letters written by the novelist and abolitionist Amelia Opie, and letters from the Chawton House collection never before displayed. Today, women’s letters provide an unending and increasingly-recognised resource for understanding their lives – both material and imaginative – for piecing together their social networks, fleshing out their biographies, exploring their self-construction, and uncovering the information they valued and shared.
In addition to re-telling some of these stories, Quills and Characters considers the practicalities of letter writing, from making ink and sourcing paper to folding, sealing and postage. On display are objects used in composition, including novelist Maria Edgeworth’s inkwells, travel writer Maria Graham’s wax seal stamps, and a selection of 18th century letter writing manuals. Visitors will be encouraged to pen their own letters, or to take part in reading and transcribing early 19th century letters.

“From brains and hands through ink and paper, across the country and overseas, and sometimes translated into print, letters provided insight into the private worlds of the first celebrities," said Deputy Director of Chawton House and Curator of Quills and Characters, Dr Kim Simpson. "From the mundane to the momentous, letters captured the everyday and changed the world. The mere act of writing a simple letter was often an international endeavour with quills imported from North America, ink components sourced from Aleppo and Sudan, and sealing wax from India. We write fewer letters now, yet Quills and Characters is a timely reminder of the need for connectivity in a digital world.” 

Quills and Characters runs March 8 until September 3, 2023.
Inside Charlotte Brontë’s Wardrobe focuses on some of the remarkable garments and accessories worn by Charlotte Brontë featuring work by historian, writer and illustrator Dr Eleanor Houghton who captures Charlotte Brontë’s wardrobe in eight original illustrations These brightly coloured, fashionable, even exotic items boldly challenge the preconception that Brontë and her famous protagonist Jane Eyre were, at least in terms of dress, one and the same. Also on display are four original illustrations, created especially for Chawton House, depicting clothing worn by Jane and Cassandra Austen. These take their inspiration from fabrics found in Jane and Cassandra Austen’s quilt, made c.1811 and now held at Jane Austen’s House.