She Noted: Tabletop Talks – The Victorian Country House

When delivering a talk, my preparation varies depending on the topic. In this instance, I had made a last minute decision to switch the theme from the Elizabethan Prodigy House to the Victorian Country House as I’d been struggling to condense so sprawling a topic as the prodigy house and cult of sovereignty. It’s always important to consider your audience and, on this occasion, the Downton Abbey film had just been released – something that I’d very much enjoyed watching and, something that in conversation was relatable and relevant, providing a very good point of reference indeed for illustrating certain points.

My blog either posts come from the essays that I’ve written for my degree/masters or, I’ll build them up from scratch when exploring something I find particularly interesting. I’d written on the Victorian Country House for my masters, so, I had plenty of notes and a broken down blog post to consult when forming the order of my talk. I tend to take each paragraph, give it a title and find imagery that relates to each section of the talk – which gives everything a nice skeleton. Of course, every talk needs to begin with a broad overview and I’m of the persuasion to give this thematically, rather than getting too bogged down in dates and chronology. That way, you’re telling a story rather than just giving a standard ‘history lesson’. I never plan my introductions, I’ll just briefly give me notes a scan and see what comes out! Usually, I will discuss the titles or ‘chapters’ of our story and find a way to tie it in to the history of the audience, which, in this case was the WI.

Each of my talks hasn’t relied on a powerpoint, rather, I’m a bit more old fashioned. I find it a lot more intimate producing handouts that we all read through together. I prepare these pamphlets ahead of time and, let the guests go home with them so that they can refer back if they fancy digging a little deeper themselves into the topic. Instead of slides, I relate my chapters to pages in the handout, which then include a series of illustrative photos – these may be photographs or visual sources like contemporary prints, illustrations and works of art. Again, I like to keep these as thematic as possible, so if I’m speaking about Pugin and the Gothic I might include a photo of a country house like Scarisbrick Hall, an interior shot of the room, some architectural detail and a Victorian print including furniture design by Pugin, as it would have been shown in plates, catalogues and books on architecture of the period. Each page is accompanied with brief discussion of the particular theme we’re focusing on, with room for input and questions if the mood takes us there!

Ahead of time, I’ll arrive early to set up and prepare – about a half hour in advance of the group’s arrival. The format is simple: two tables and a miniature exhibit that I’ll curate myself with objects and books from my own collection. The books may be old or rare editions with illustrated plates, or, they might be paperbacks and source books that I’d highly recommend to fellow readers. The objects are to give a diorama (if you will) of the topic, whether it’s pieces of porcelain, old postcards, antiques, collectables or even contemporary pieces that remind me of the subject – anything to spark conversation really! At the end of each talk, I’ll invite the group to browse and peruse at their leisure, packing up my little travelling show after when refreshments are being served.

Every speaker will have their own particular technique – to calm my own nerves, I prefer to present sitting atop my table display, so that I’m more at a level (slightly elevated) to my guests. It always starts with a little about myself – how I got into studying art history, my passion for the decorative arts, my masters in the country house and my own collecting habits (vintage and antiques). Off the cuff, it’s always lovely to throw in an anecdote. My close is an invitation for questions, comments and I’m always on hand to give advice – for example, one particular lady told me that had studied a unit in the history of art with the Open University and that she wanted to extend her engagement with the topic. I was able to recommend courses, resources and online communities for those who, like myself, always want to be learning! The best part of giving a talk? I must say, it’s the little write-up that I receive in the local chronicle, penned by a member of the WI.

For this particular talk, I was able to invite and bring along my ever-supportive fiancé and truly, I couldn’t wish for a more marvellous husband-to-be. Not only was he able to capture me in historian mode, but, he was also good enough as to bring me a cup of tea at the end of the talk. I must say, it was wonderful having Darren there as he’s never actually seen me in action before. Yes, he’s seen me pouring over books and tapping away at my computer keys but, to date, he hasn’t ever seen me present. He’s actually a teacher by day, so, very much the one performing for an audience on a daily basis. My career as a copywriter and content creator is a lot more behind the scenes and it’s very rare that I’ll be using my vocal chords beyond the office or over the phone. Darren sat with the ladies of Drayton WI whilst I sat atop my table and delivered my oration, as ever, with much whirring gesticulation and facial expression. It must have been a very curious sight indeed for him! At the end of the talk, he told me that he found my portion of the talk on Cruickshank’s ‘British Bee Hive’ (1840, reprinted 1867) especially illuminating, noting that we’d have been on the rather respectable level that included ‘Schools’ and ‘Literature’, which were, in fact, side by side.

Here’s a snippet of me discussing Lady Bountiful with the ladies (you’ll have to forgive me for the number of times I give my nose a little rub, it must have been for luck – if not from the nerves!): –

For my full post on The Victorian Country House – Morality, Organisation & Domesticity
Discover chapters on different historical eras and themes here

You can tweet me @she_noted, gain little insights in pictures from @she.noted or find my blog’s facebook page @shenoted – it’s always so lovely to hear from you!

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