Encounters: The Life of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Lorna Rees is the Artistic Director at Gobbledegook Theatre and has been working with the team at Wentworth Castle Gardens to tell the story of an amazing and fascinating woman

Lorna in the dress made as part of the project, she is outside and there are sheep in the background
Lorna Rees as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

I’m a live artist, and I make work for the outdoors usually about science and heritage, with something of a side-line in feminist activism. The team at Barnsley Museums and National Trust Wentworth Castle Gardens commissioned me to make something about the extraordinary life of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, scientist, public heath campaigner, proto-feminist, writer and influencer.

During this project I’ve met hundreds and hundreds of people, and we’ve talked about everything from smallpox pandemics, covid, to decolonisation, to privilege to engineering for women and girls. People have even cheered when I said the words ‘women’s history’. We’ve engaged thousands and thousands of people both on and off-line and introduced them to this hugely overlooked woman. I thought this would be a good time to write down how we did it.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) introduced preventative medicine to the West. Against popular opinion and the resistance of many within the (male dominated) medical establishment at the time, she brought the practice of variolation (smallpox inoculation) from Turkey to Britain. It saved countless lives, 75 years before Edward Jenner introduced vaccination against smallpox.

Her achievement is commemorated by a plaque on the Sun Monument, a copy of a Roman obelisk erected in Wentworth Castle Gardens. It was the first monument in Britain dedicated to a woman’s ‘social achievement’, and a non-royal woman at that. The monument can be found onsite at Wentworth Castle Gardens. To mark 300 years since she introduced inoculation to England I was approached to make work about her. Anniversary apart, this couldn’t be more timely – in the context of mass vaccine roll outs for Covid and news headlines about Monkeypox and women’s place in society, Mary Wortley Montagu’s story as a scientific pioneer has so much contemporary relevance.

Read a previous blog about the life of Lady Mary: https://barnsleymuseums.art.blog/2021/04/15/lady-mary-wortley-montagu-trailblazer-in-medicine/

Sketches showing the planning of the dress
Costume inspired By Lady Wortley Montagu, image credit: Sophie Fretwell

Costume

I decided that the first part of the project should be the creation of an extraordinary and eye-catching costume which would tell the story of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s life. I was very keen that I wasn’t going to be ‘in role’ or performing as Mary herself. She was a Georgian woman, born into great privilege some 290 years before me. As such, we have some very different thoughts about the world, different contexts, and hugely different life experiences and so I didn’t want to be improvising around her thoughts, making excuses for some of the things she wrote (or writing them off!). What I did want to do was to draw into sharp focus her curiosity, talent, (radical for the time) feminist politics and sheer bravery. I particularly love telling women’s histories through women’s clothing. Herstories, are often overlooked, covered-up or forgotten and telling them through a medium which is often perceived as female – costume, design and fashion feels somehow right, particularly as Mary herself had such a passion for eccentric costume herself. The research phase involved the curatorial team feeding us articles about Mary, reading books, finding visual documentation of her life and finding the areas we wanted to amplify through dress and I worked with dramaturg Helga Brandt on the theatrical narrative of the costume and how we could tell these stories through cloth.

A planning meeting, four people sat around a table
Costume Team Meeting image credit: Lorna Rees

I approached designer Sophie Fretwell to create something I could wear to convey key aspects of Mary’s story, and together we talked through what the dramaturgy of this dress would be. It had to include Mary’s incredible story including her connection to the science of inoculation, pioneering public health campaigning, travel and her love of literature and fashion. We used visual references from portraits of Mary made during and after her lifetime and Sophie drew together a team of brilliant makers: Shelley Venables (coat and skirt) Kayla Bartlett (bodice) and Kelly J Morgan (millinery) to then physically interpret and make the outfit.

As you can see from the illustration, Sophie ensured that everything from the custom print she created on the lining of the coat (which shows the variola virus under an electron microscope), to the hat (inspired by her travels to the Ottoman Empire – modern day Turkey) and the petri-dish necklace all tell a part of an extraordinary life. Mary Wortley Montagu suffered horribly from smallpox – you can see the scars she sustained for her life referenced on the gloves which Sophie hand-drew onto the satin.

The photos of me in costume were taken at National Trust Wentworth Castle Gardens, by photographer Jayne Jackson and make up by Molly Jackson, are taken in the place where the first monument in the UK to be dedicated to a woman for her achievements is sited. You can see the Sun Monument – an obelisk – referenced in another custom print Sophie designed on the pink satin sash across my skirt. In some ways this could be a site for feminist pilgrimage, we should have far more memorials and public statues dedicated to women. 85% of statues in Great Britain celebrate the achievements of men and those that are dedicated to women are often mythical beasts or ideas (such as nymphs or ‘Britannia’). Only 2.7% of civic monuments commemorate named women, a hefty percentage of these are dedicated to Queen Victoria and there are more statues in the UK of men called John than all there are of women. You can see that in context for this obelisk to be the first monument dedicated to a named woman’s achievements is therefore rather significant.

Encounters and Dialogue

I had a brilliant few days in Barnsley with a crew (Filmmaker Joe Patten and Assistant Director David Doust) meeting and interviewing people in order to talk about the modern resonance of Mary Wortley Montagu’s life. They include encounters with a nail technician, travel agents, an inspirational lecturer from Northern College, market stall holders, an immunisation nurse and a very special conversation about cultural exchange with an hugely accomplished Turkish playwright and Television writer who is seeking asylum in the UK. We found so much to talk about in Mary’s life in our sometimes surreal and windswept encounters. There was so much to reflect on and I loved finding these modern resonances – why tell histories when you can’t learn something from them for now? We released these films in a daily social media campaign in the second week of January, reasoning that brilliant images and interesting information on social media in the dull grey part of the year might spark increased interest. And there was consequently a huge response on social media with thousands of engagements in our posts across Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Anecdotally, there is such an appetite for more stories about women and their part in history. I’ve worked in museums where entire floors have had no mention of women’s lives or contributions to history – 50% of the population ignored. I wanted to make something which connected people with Mary’s story beyond the physical site, a sort of artistic marketing campaign about the life of an incredibly interesting person who had a huge impact on our life today.

The dress on display at Wentworth Castle Gardens along with design sketches
Costume in Exhibition at Wentworth Castle Gardens, image credit: Janette Robinson

On Site

In April I stayed on site at Wentworth Castle (in the Old Dairy buildings, now the accommodation block run by Northern College) and over the course of a week met a thousand or so people and told them all about Mary’s life, talking through my outfit, but also having brilliant dialogue with visitors to the gardens, the vast majority of whom had never heard of Mary’s daring life and her part in medical history. I spoke with lecturers, research scientists, a geneticist and many, many families about her life. I chatted with grandparents and children and artists and refugee families and a sewing group all about this amazing life. And through dialogue we found new things and ideas and learnt from each other. One of the overwhelming things was that people wanted to know more about women in history and that there is great appetite for nuance and conversation. The costume too seemed universally enjoyed by the public, provided a perfect talking point and I certainly enjoyed walking around on site feeling extremely glamorous. It’s my great belief that conversation and dialogue change the world – the best of these change both people at the end of them with shared shift in perspective or empathy. And I had many, many profoundly moving conversations with people, about ambition, curiosity, loss and huge hope for the future. My huge thanks to all the garden visitors who I met during this time.

The final part of the project has been a display mounted by Janette Robinson which will be in exhibition at Wentworth Castle Gardens throughout this Summer Season. The costume is displayed in the Victorian Conservatory for people to see alongside information about how and why it was created. There are also some new interpretation panels up at the monument itself in a specially commissioned steel structure inspired by the shape of my petri dish necklace. These circles tell people more about Mary’s life as well as providing QR codes which allow visitors to watch the Encounters Films about the modern resonances of Mary’s life.

Thousands of people are expected to visit the site this summer, and I hope that so many more people will now connect with this fascinating woman at such a timely moment.

Thanks to the amazing team from Barnsley Museums and National Trust Wentworth Castle Gardens, in particular Janette Robinson who led on the project and trusted me enough to go on a new journey with her.

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