Step into the year 1730 and explore tales of the Gee family, prominent silk and linen merchants who lived at Fenton House. Wander through abandoned rooms and unpick family secrets and discover the lives, loves and losses of these former inhabitants and their relationships to each other, Georgian London, and the ‘New World’. The story picks up following unexpected family tragedies that create an atmospheric, other-worldly experience far from the London we know today.
Fenton House in Hampstead has been transformed into an immersive, atmospheric experience that delves into the intriguing world of its eighteenth-century residents. The house adds to its existing treasure trove of collections with the work of 80 contemporary artists telling the story of the Gee family for a three-week installation. Here we caught up with the creative director of the Traces project, Donna Walker.
Tell me a little bit about Fenton House and who lived there.
The house was built around 1686 and had 22 owners overall. The Gees were integral to the expansion of the land. When Joshua Gee died in 1730, his son Osgood was passed on the property, later selling it. Bequeathed to the National Trust in 1952, and done up by John Fowler in the seventies it has remained largely unchanged since then.
How did the Gee family become involved in the textile trade?
Joshua Gee's father was firstly involved in the linen trade and he followed in his father's footsteps. He was well connected within the Quaker society and prospered on trust and letters of recommendation. Joshua Gee attracted business due to his diligence, honesty and sobriety.
What was it like to be member of the Gee family? What happened in the house?
When moving into Fenton House, there were essentially three families coming together. The father (Joshua Snr) already had three children - John, Joshua Jnr and Sarah. He later remarried widow Anne Osgood who had two daughters - Rebecca and Ann. In Fenton, Joshua and Anna had three more children - Osgood, Samuel and Elizabeth. Through each of their wills we explored their tensions and bonds.
The exhibition is set in July 1730, when Anna dies and and her husband Joshua quickly rewrites his will, disinheriting his eldest son Joshua Jnr. Daughters Ann and Sarah both married but Elizabeth and Rebecca never did. Rebecca seems to have been a philanthropist and politically active.
Can you tell us more about the exhibition, and some of its textile-related pieces?
The brief was contemporary Georgian. Many artists don't recognise their work as having Georgian influences, but of course we are constantly influenced by the past. We selected work from Gareth Neal, Haidee Drew, Amy Jayne Hughes and David Clarke to name a few.
The exhibition features Helen O'leary's rose embroidered chair, Jackie Langfeld's 'Suffer' Statement listing Quakers persecuted for their religion, Marian Murphy's 'Behind the Scenes' focussing on females in the Gee household and Anita Bruce's Gee Family tree. In the study we wanted to show Joshua Gee's relationship to the silk and linen trade so we worked with fabric and pattern designers Camilla Meijer, Augusta Akerman and Jan Olive who printed on silk and linen for the exhibition.
Are there any particular Gee family stories you'd like to tell us about?
There are so many, of which you can discover at the exhibition itself. One is that the eldest son, John Gee, was killed in a sword dual in a New York bar by a man named Robert Moore. After the arrest he escaped from jail. As far as we know, he never was caught...
Blog guest edited by Niamh McCooey.