Englefield House Case Study: Global Goods at Englefield House

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Carpet, 1600-1725, Turkey, Romania or Bulgaria, Hand-knotted woollen pile on woollen warp and weft, 225-1889. V&A.

Between 1530 and 1782 the executors of wills were obliged to compile a probate inventory, which listed and valued all the movable goods belonging to the deceased. When Powlett Wrighte died in 1741, the executors of Wrighte’s will called upon Richard Chillingworth to compile an inventory. In responding to this request Chillingworth created a historical document that goes some way to showing what Englefield’s interior spaces held before Richard Benyon entered them in 1745. Before any direct connection to the East India Company was established, Englefield House was full of globally-sourced objects.

Inventories are problematic sources, which often contained inaccuracies as they were dependent on the skills and knowledge of the appraiser.[1] The 1741 inventory of movable goods at Englefield House, for example, depended on Richard Chillingworth’s ability to recognise and value particular objects. In this particular case Chillingworth recorded the movable objects of Englefield House in great detail. Such care may have been due to his skills, or as Mary Wrighte remained in the house she may have been able to assist him with the inventory process. The 1741 inventory shows that Powlett and Mary Wrighte lived well at Englefield, surrounded by a diversity of luxury objects. For example the inventory describes how the house included a dressing room adjacent to a bedroom, which contained green mohair curtains, two chairs, a small ‘India’ cabinet, a frame, a dressing table, two little japanned dressing boxes, four brushes, three ‘India’ pictures, sixteen small prints and two small family portraits or busts.[3] Here Chillingworth ably identified the material of the curtains and the method of production for the dressing boxes. Nevertheless, his description of the ‘India’ cabinet and three ‘India’ pictures is more opaque. Jessica Keating and Lia Markey have shown, that in the early modern period the term ‘Indian’ connoted objects from the Americas and India, as well as Africa, China, Japan, the Levant, and even Europe.[4] In this context Chillingworth’s lack of specificity means that defining what exactly the ‘India’ cabinet and three ‘India’ pictures actually were, is difficult. Despite this uncertainty it is possible to see that the Wrightes lived in a home which contained objects imbued with global connotations. Nevertheless, the presence of these globally-inflected objects was not an unusual feature of domestic spaces (particularly elite domestic spaces) in the early eighteenth century.

Despite the ubiquity of these objects, Englefield’s 1741 inventory suggests that Mary and Powlett Wrighte not only lived with global luxuries but also placed a particularly high value on them. The objects contained in the dressing room (the small boxes, prints, chairs and table) mark this space out as intimate and personal. The warmth provided by the insulating qualities of the mohair curtains, the small japanned boxes sat on the dressing table, the chairs and multiple pictures and prints (nineteen in all) connote comfort and familiarity. In contrast, other rooms in the house such as the ‘old library’ seem impersonal and uncomfortable, containing worn objects and no fire implements. By reading the rooms in this way it is possible to suggest which spaces and therefore which objects were highly valued by the Wrightes.

The inventory lists that the ‘old library’ contained a pair of globes, a desk with drawers, five old chairs, two tables, a crossbow, a longbow, some armour and sundry shelves.[8] The presence of five ‘old’ chairs creates the impression that this room is in a state of decay and neglect; a sense bolstered by non-convivial objects such as the crossbow and longbow. Moreover the inventory states that a ‘new’ library exists. According to the inventory, the ‘new’ library contained a large cherry tree book case, a large mahogany chest, a mahogany whist table, two glass sconces, a Turkey carpet, a mahogany side board table, a mahogany pillar table, six walnut tree chairs, four coloured prints of houses in frames, one painted piece of Turkey horses, a pair of dogs, a shovel, tongs, bellows and brush.[9]

These contrasting rooms provide an important insight into the material culture of Englefield House in the early eighteenth century. They demonstrate how certain rooms and objects in the house were active and present members of a network, which constituted the family identity. For instance, the ‘new’ library was clearly in use. The glass sconces provide light, the active fire provided warmth and furniture provided intimacy. Prints and paintings characterize this room as an active space. Moreover, the particularity of the inventory – noting the furniture as made from specific materials such as mahogany, cherry tree and walnut – marks this room and the pieces within it as well-known and valued. At the same time, the inclusion of global objects in the ‘new’ library suggests that the Wrightes understood these objects as fashionable and novel. The presence of global objects in what Amber Epp and Linda Price might describe as the ‘warm’ space of the ‘new’ library demonstrates that these fashionable pieces were an important part of the performance of the Wrighte identity. [10] In contrast globes, crossbows and longbows seem neglected and forgotten, moved as they were into the ‘cool’ space of the ‘old library’. Of course, the fire implements may only have been present in the new library on the particular day when the inventory was recorded. The old library may have been a much loved and used space. The poverty of material culture in the space and the lack of detailed description, however, suggests that such use was infrequent. Despite the possible neglect of the globes in the ‘old’ library, the objects that filled the ‘warm’ and thus the valued spaces of Englefield House in 1741 reflect the Wrightes’ interest in and valuation of global material culture.

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[1] See N. Cox and J. Cox (2000) ‘Probate 1500-1800: a system in transition’, in T. Arkell, N. Evans and N. Goose (eds.), When Death do Us Part: Understanding and Interpreting the Probate Records of Early Modern England, Oxford: Leopard’s Head Press, pp. 13-37; M. Spufford (1990) ‘The limitations of the probate inventory’, in J. Chartres and D. Hey (eds.) English Rural Society, 1500-1800. Essays in Honour of Joan Thirsk, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. 139-74;

[2] The National Archives, Will of Powlett Wrighte of Englefield (1741), PROB 11/708 106/1AS.

[3] Berkshire Record Office, Inventory of household goods of Paulet Wright esq – taken at his mansion house at Englefield (1741), D/EBy/E2.

[4] Jessica Keating and Lia Markey, ‘”Indian” Objects in Medici and Austrian-Habsburg Inventories: A Case Study of the Sixteenth-Century Term’, Journal of the History of Collections, 23:2 (2011), p. 283.

[5] Lorna Weatherill, ‘The meaning of consumer behaviour in late seventeenth and early eighteenth century England’ in John Brewer and Roy Porter (eds), Consumption and the World of Goods (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), pp. 206-227.

[6] Weatherill, ‘The meaning of consumer behaviour’, p. 219.

[7] Ibid., p. 222.

[8] Berkshire Record Office, Inventory of household goods of Paulet Wright esq – taken at his mansion house at Englefield (1741), D/EBy/E2.

[9] Inventory of household goods of Paulet Wright esq – taken at his mansion house at Englefield (1741), D/EBy/E2.

[10] Amber M. Epp and Linda L. Price, ‘The Storied Life of Singularized Objects: Forces of Agency and Network Transformation’, Journal of Consumer Research, 36 (2010), p. 821.

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