Through a reflection on one man and his family history, this case study sets out to uncover something of how the meanings of objects acquired from Asia in the eighteenth century changed over time, reflecting the changing socio-political relationship that Britain had with Asia. The trans-generational history of Quex house, its inhabitants, and its decorative art provide an interesting framework through which to interrogate the legacy of objects acquired by East India Company officials, and this can add a deeper understanding to the research already carried out by the East India Company at Home 1757- 1857 project.
In the case of Quex House, the meanings of its Asian objects were adapted according to new settings (i.e. where in the house they were placed for people to see), and new ways of thinking (i.e. alongside a revival in neo-classical architecture as well as the Aesthetic Movement which greatly valued Orientalist art, exoticism, and antiques). Deborah Cohen argues that within this line of thought, one’s possessions served to reveal something about an individual’s tastes and moral make-up: ‘possessions did not just speak to the outside world. They offered a lifeline for coming to terms with one’s identity in a society so much in flux’. She also writes that ‘design reformers endowed goods with new meanings: what one owned, bought and treasured, helped to communicate something of the moral makeup of a person’. Percy Powell-Cotton clearly understood this, because of the careful curation and organisation that he put into his home.
As well as being dictated by the ideals of Victorian society, the meanings of objects were also adapted by the individual. Percy Powell-Cotton was a complex figure: in addition to his passion for decorative arts and family history, he was also interested in ethnography and anthropology, which was unusual for this period and for a leisured man of his standing. His interaction with his collections developed alongside his interactions with other cultures. Before his extensive travels, the family collections and artwork contributed significantly to his comprehension of other cultures. These pieces also linked him to his ancestors- important for a man interested in family history. In addition to this, these pieces were often highly valuable (the Indian carved furniture for example), and so their continued display contributed to an image of prestige and privilege that would be expected of such a family. But Percy also added to the collection, and through this, he was able to show himself as an experienced collector, cultured traveller, and knowledgeable about global arts. All of this contributed to an identity which satisfied his personal inquisitiveness, but fitted with the ideals of Victorian society, and ensured that his family legacy lived on. In other words, his collecting acted as a legitimising tool at a number of levels.
The history of Quex suggests is that across generations, objects are still able to conjure specific ideas about a person, a family, or a society. When placed in different historical contexts, we can see changes and continuity in their meanings. In Percy Powell-Cotton’s case, it seems he was using the objects to try and synthesise his family legacy with new ideas about anthropology and cultural difference.
In a more in-depth study, it would be interesting to explore the African objects housed in the Quex Park Museum, and to compare Percy’s specific treatment of these to the pieces in the house which were largely from Asia and the Middle East, and used specifically in the decoration of the home. This analysis would provide new insights into ideas of African ‘art’ during the Victorian period.
Another unexplored topic in this essay, has been the role of Hannah Powell-Cotton, Percy’s wife, and later on, his children, particularly Diana (the eldest daughter), Antoinette (the youngest daughter), and the middle daughter, Mary, in the decoration of the house. Nineteenth-century literature stressed the importance of a gendered division in the home, especially in rooms such as the drawing room and the dining room. This idea is echoed in Quex House, where the drawing room and study, thought to have been used largely by the women of the house, were distinct from Percy’s Oriental Drawing Room for example. But Hannah had also travelled extensively with Percy, and Diana and Antoinette were distinguished anthropologists and photographers. They undertook fieldwork and collecting trips to Southern Angola during the late 1930s, and many of their collections are now housed in the British Museum. Mary was the only child to marry and from her, the genealogical line continued. She was a talented photographer and painter, and trained in photography at the Polytechnic Institute c. 1930.
It has been mentioned that Jane Hamlett has studied the gendered context of male and female decoration in student colleges in the late nineteenth- century, and has shown that gendered decoration in this context was not always clear cut. The Aesthetic style of decoration, for example, was appropriated by both genders. Some photographs used in her study show that although many men had African objects as trophies and signifiers of the hunt, some women had animal skin rugs, it is suggested, as signifiers of differentiation. It would be interesting, therefore, to explore more closely the gendered differentiation, or indeed similarities of style, taste, and decoration in Quex House, particularly within its nineteenth- to twentieth-century colonial context.
 Cohen, Household Gods, p. xii.
 Cohen, Household Gods, p. 19.
Jane Hamlett, cited p. 149, inJ. Kinchin (1996) ‘Interiors: nineteenth-century essays on the ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ room’, in Pat Kirkham (Ed.) The Gendered Object (Manchester: Manchester University Press), p. 13.
See AOA Ethdoc 190 – papers relating to the expedition to Angola by Miss D and Miss A Powell-Cotton.
 Ibid, p. 154, in Brian Lunn (1948) Switchback (London: Eyre & Spottiswood), p. 69.
 Ibid, p151, in RHUL Archives, RHC/PH/116/53.