Pictures or Conversations

It is a truth universally acknowledged these days that all pictures are available via a computer.  Many publishers now actively discourage researchers from leaving their desks to look further, but thankfully History Today does not, so I still regularly visit libraries and look through drawers of black and white prints in pursuit of unscanned gems.

Elizabeth Tollet portrait

At our annual awards party back in January, telescope historian Nick Pelling, asked me to tell him the most interesting or exciting find of the previous year, and I thought immediately about tracking down an unknown portrait of the 18th century female poet Elizabeth Tollet for an article by Patricia Fara.  All sources said there were no likenesses, so I hoped to find something - anything - which connected to her. Times Digital Archive revealed that the library she created at Betley Hall, Staffordshire had been sold by auction in 1923, but could anything remain and if so, where?  Her nephew had inherited the house and persistent Google searching showed that one of his descendants married a Viscount Bridgeman, with mention of Tollet papers passing to that family. This was a happy coincidence as I’ve known Harriet Bridgeman, founder of the Bridgeman Art Library, for many years. On my next monthly visit to the library we chatted about how she could help. Within a day or two she put me in touch with a relative who not only unearthed a book signed by the poet, but was surprised to turn over a painting hanging in her hallway and see ‘Elizabeth Tollet 1707’ written very faintly on the back. Of course that wasn’t the end of it.  Large oil paintings don’t scan well so I had to locate a local fine art photographer to go along with proper photographic equipment and lights. It was the perfect blend of new and traditional research which Nick suggested other people would find as interesting as he did.

The title of my blog comes from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, ‘What is the use of a book’, thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversations?’  I’ve always liked this quotation, but it seems especially appropriate here since personal contact and conversation have always played such a huge part in winkling out pictures.  As digitisation takes over and individual collections die or sell up to larger organisations, it is perfectly possible to work entirely online and alone, but it would make unavailable many of the pictures I’m likely to write about.  I hope to show in this blog that there still is, or can be, more to putting pictures on the page than meets the eye.