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Reviving the Art of Letter Writing

Harewood_House_PrincessMary_LettersHow to keep in touch when you can’t physically see each other? In this world of hyperconnectivity, are people picking up their pens again and writing letters?

Rebecca Burton, curator and archivist, looks at a more romantic method of communication: handwritten letters.

Preparing for the new exhibition in the House, Becoming the Yorkshire Princess, I have been incredibly fortunate to work with a series of heartwarming letters written by HRH Princess Mary and some of her closest family members.

Princess Victoria Alexandra Alice Mary of York (1897-1965) was the only daughter of the Duke and Duchess of York, later King George V and Queen Mary. During Mary’s childhood, her parents were often away from home touring what was then the British Empire, in their roles as the Prince and Princess of Wales. They wrote frequently to one another, often enclosing personal mementos with their letters, such as photographs, pressed flowers and postcards (which Mary collected and compiled in large albums, encouraged by her father).

“Many thanks for your dear letter and the nice piece of white heather which I shall keep…..I hope you have put all the postcards I sent you in your book, I thought they were very pretty.”
Prince of Wales (later King George V) to Princess Mary, 1903

Mary’s childhood letters – written in both English and French, give us a window into the daily routine of a royal child (which included lessons, riding and plenty of outdoor activities) and illustrate a rich picture of family life at Sandringham. Whilst Queen Mary’s distinctive joined-up handwriting can at times be hard to decipher, her letters to her daughter offer a personal, vivid and often amusing account of her and her husband’s travels abroad.

“Here we are in Cairo which is a most interesting place with many different things to see….Today we saw the Colossus of Ramesses II, a huge statue which unluckily has been broken and now lies on its back – we also saw some wonderful tombs. Only think, I actually rode a camel and rather liked it.”
Letter from the Princess of Wales (later Queen Mary) to Princess Mary, 1906

Mary’s father’s notes tend to respond more directly to Mary’s own correspondence, reflecting on her hobbies as well as encouraging academic progress. His writing is often succinct but his language personable and cheerful in tone, inscribed in a script that is more cautious and much less conspicuous than his wife’s.

“I was delighted to get your letter this morning…Your French is beautiful and your writing much improved. I am also pleased to hear that Mademoiselle is quite satisfied with you and that you are getting on well with your lessons…I am sure you could easily beat me at golf now as you have been playing so much lately.”
Letter from the Prince of Wales (later King George V) to Princess Mary, 1905

Throughout all the correspondance, there is a real sense of warmth and affection on both sides and we get access to emotion that is rarely observed in Royal sources (or any other kind of object for that matter).

“I hope you are quite well dear Mama, we shall be so pleased when you come home, we are going to hang our flags out of the house windows the day you come home. I send you and Papa a bear hug and a fat kiss.”
Princess Mary to the Duchess of York (later Queen Mary), 1901

Despite this family’s extraordinary position within society, it would be hard to tell that this correspondence was written by a princess and a future king and queen; their words such that could be written by any daughter, mother or father, and their themes universal.

“Thank you very much for the postcards you sent me. I have got a lot now…Georgie sends you and Papa a kiss, we are all quite well, with lots of love and kisses, from Mary.”
Princess Mary to the Princess of Wales (later Queen Mary), 1906

What Mary’s letters offer also is a contrasting perspective to traditional historical narratives. Mary’s father in particular, who has often been described as a strict and undemonstrative parent, is shown in quite a different light.

Irrespective of their authors, handwritten letters are physical remnants of personal relationships and human connections. And as such they are undoubtedly some of the most rewarding historical material that I am lucky enough to work with. Despite the fact that Mary’s letters, both sent and received, were often unceremoniously and incongruously stashed away in old, used envelopes by their recipients, for me they are amongst some of Harewood’s most precious objects. I am reminded often, through a private joke or a doodle in the margin, of their intensely personal nature and the responsibility that comes with caring for and studying them.

Becoming the Yorkshire Princess a new exhibition about Princess Mary, will remain in the House this year and available to view as soon as Harewood is able to open. Read more about the exhibition here.  

A taste of the past – diving into Harewood’s Recipe Book

Simnel Cake and the Harewood Recipe Book
Rebecca Burton, Assistant Curator & Archivist

Over the years, Harewood has celebrated Easter much like we do today – by the making and eating of traditional food. Recently, we have been able to explore Harewood’s food history in more detail than ever before, through the discovery and donation of a Harewood recipe book – prior to which had been completely unknown to us.

The book was published in 1909, presumably by the Harewood parish council, with the hope of using the proceeds to raise funds for a new organ in the parish church. It was printed locally in Leeds and is made up of contributions from various individuals living in the area, from villagers and locals to Lascelles family members. It even includes ‘branded’ offerings – for example how to create Keen, Robinson & Co.’s barley water, a precursor to the famous soft drink produced by Robinsons today.

In terms of the recipes themselves, there’s a surprisingly varied assortment: soups, meat and fish dishes (as well specifically labelled vegetarian ones), savouries, puddings, sauces and sweets, cakes and pastries, jams, wines, ales, pickles, as well as ‘sick-room cookery’ and ‘household remedies and hints’. The book also contains some ‘joke’ entries too – such as recipes for a ‘scripture cake’ and ‘how to cook a husband’.

One of the recipes included in the book is for Simnel Cake – a light fruit cake with a marzipan-like topping. It is traditionally baked and eaten during the Easter period and decorated with 11 balls (or “eggs”), symbolising Jesus’ 12 disciples, minus Judas. Harewood’s recipe was provided by ‘O. Ranson’, most likely Olive Ranson, who served as a VAD nurse at Harewood during the First World War.

Her recipe is, by today’s standards, lacking in instruction – offering little more than a list of ingredients (all provided, of course, in imperial measurements). Whilst frustrating for the novice baker (like myself!), it is perhaps illustrative of the fact that the method for making traditional and basic cakes would already have been well understood and practiced within the community. The lack of oven temperature and cooking times is demonstrative of the fact that cooking equipment at the time did not come fitted with thermostats; instead, measuring baking times and temperatures would have been done by hand (literally – to feel the temperature of an oven), as well as by eye and instinct.

For those of you that might want to try Harewood’s historic Simnel Cake recipe, a transcription is provided below. For ease, I have adjusted the amount of ingredients to make one cake (as opposed to two, as suggested in the original recipe) and added metric conversions in brackets. I have also supplied a basic method for baking, though again, this was not part of the original recipe.

Harewood_House_Simnel Cake Recipe

Follow Harewood on social media @HarewoodHouse to have a slice of #HarewoodatHome this Lockdown.

Menagerie – new contemporary sculpture in the House

Harewood_House_Kate_MccGwireInstalled behind currently closed doors, waiting to be revealed in the beautiful 18th century rooms of Harewood House is a new exhibition by Kate MccGwire, an artist who makes sculptural works and installation from feathers.

Due to open on 21st March, we will now have to wait until later this year to present it.

As a country house with a 30 year history of working with great contemporary artists, Kate MccGwire is someone we had wanted to work with for a long time. 2020 offered the perfect opportunity as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Harewood’s Bird Garden and collection. It wasn’t an ornithological exhibition about the bird collection that we wanted. It was an exhibition that reflected something of the unique ‘otherness` of a bird and would cause our visitors to reflect, stop and wonder at the micro beauty of a…feather, that remarkable, protective, resilient but fragile material that forms the basis of all of MccGwire’s sculptures, transformed by her into extraordinary, sometimes, disturbing objects.

While the Harewood bird collection is set up to protect rare and exotic birds and endangered species, this artist turns the spotlight on the common bird questioning commonplace perceptions and prejudices. A pigeon may not be our favourite bird, even invoking disgust in some people, but MccGwire’s sculptures strips that away revealing their inherent beauty.

Kate_MccGwire_Harewood_HouseThe feathers here come not from rare or exotic species, but from pheasants, pigeons and magpies, harvested or donated by farmers, gamekeepers and pigeon fanciers. Transformed into works of art, their particular qualities are revealed and celebrated; iridescent colours and incredibly detailed markings – each one unique like a human thumb print, giving new insights on both the source material and the way the artist uses that to explore more abstract concepts.

Follow us on instagram and facebook to keep up to date with stories and the latest news relating to the closure. You can find out more about Menagerie 

Princess Mary: A re-imagined Wedding Dress

Over the past few months, our Collections & Engagement teams have been working on something very special, to bring a little piece of Harewood’s Royal history to life.

HRH Princess Mary was the only daughter of King George V and Queen Mary. She lived at Harewood House from 1930 – 1965, following her marriage into the Lascelles family in 1922. Princess Mary sparks much interest with our visitors; commonly known as the ‘Yorkshire Princess’, she was a much loved royal figure both locally and nationally.

Today, Harewood House Trust cares for her archive, which includes a lifetime’s worth of letters, diaries and personal papers, as well as some of her outfits, including her beautiful wedding dress. Whilst the dress is now too fragile to be put out on display, the Harewood team has been working over the last few months to find a new way for the dress to be seen.

Princess Mary’s Wedding Dress: An Introduction

Princess Mary’s wedding dress was made by the English fashion house, Reville of London. It consisted of an underdress woven with silver thread that was covered by a sheer silk marquisette embellished with a rose-trellis design in crystal beads and seed pearls. The long silk train was woven using white and silver thread at Braintree silk mills, Essex. It was embroidered with a pattern of emblematic flowers of the British Empire, including the English rose, the Welsh daffodil, the Canadian maple and the New Zealand fern, enhanced by Indian lotus flowers embroidered in silver and gold metal thread.

The train was originally edged with Honiton lace, a gift from Queen Mary that was later removed for use by other royal brides.

Due to the fragile condition of the fabric, it is sadly now no longer possible to keep the wedding dress on display. So instead, we have brought the dress back to life, through the art of costume design, working with TV and film costume designer Rosalind Ebbutt, who has worked on productions such as Victoria and Downton Abbey.

A re-imagined dress

Approaching the project in much the same way that she would produce period costume for TV or film, Rosalind began the process of creating her interpretation of Mary’s dress with research. Working alongside the Collections Team, Rosalind looked in great detail at its original design, inspecting both the real dress as well as reviewing photographs and historic descriptions; it was important to determine the original cut, size and the types of fabrics used, in addition to their original colours.

Rosalind then worked with dressmaker Amanda Brennan to finalise a design that incorporated her research, as well as source appropriate fabric and embellishments. Once found, the dress was then assembled, with Amanda working straight onto a mannequin.

The fabric hunt commences

Rosalind and Amanda worked together to match the patterns and fabric to the real wedding dress

The dress design is sketched out

The dress begins to take shape

Great attention to detail was taken throughout project

Careful consideration was given to sourcing intricate pieces to create the headdress and jewellery

The finished gown captures the elegant design and visual splendour of the historic original, offering a glimpse into what Mary’s dress might have looked like in 1922.

The completed dress: re-imagined from the original wedding dress worn by Princess Mary in 1922.

You will be able to see this beautiful recreation in the Servant’s Hall, Below Stairs at Harewood, just as soon as we are re-opened to the public.

With special thanks to:

Rosalind Ebbutt, Costume Designer
Amanda Brennan, Dressmaker
James Hare, for the provision of the satin to create the train for this dress


Princess Mary-A fictional interview for International Women’s Day

Harewood House was home to Princess MaryHarewood’s women, past and present, have played an important role in shaping the Harewood enjoyed by many today, either through the telling of stories, or the impact they have had the House and its surroundings.

International Women’s Day is an opportunity to reflect on the many Harewood women, here we re-imagined a conversation with Princess Mary based on information we know about her from the archive.

Q – What are you most known for?
A – I am known for my position as a Princess of the United Kingdom – my parents were King George V and Queen Mary. My great-grandmother was Queen Victoria.

Q – What’s the most extraordinary thing you have done? (at work or in personal life)
A – I am most proud of the ‘Sailors and Soldiers Christmas Fund’ appeal of 1914, that was created shortly after the outbreak of WWI. I made a public appeal to raise money in order to send a Christmas gift to every man and woman serving in a King’s uniform. After having visited various hospitals for injured soldiers, I felt it was important for the nation to send a token of love and sympathy to those fighting our battles overseas, at a time when their thoughts would turn to home.

The fund was a huge success, raising over £31,000 during its first week, and rising up to £160,000 by the time the fund was shut down. We distributed over 2.5 million Christmas gift boxes, which comprised of a small brass box that contained a Christmas card and either a pipe and tobacco, cigarettes, chocolate, sweets or spices.

Q – Which females, past or present, inspire you?
A – I am inspired by the work of my colleagues Agnes and Olave Baden-Powell, who together developed the Girl Guide Movement. It was created in response to the growing enthusiasm and pressure from young girls who wanted to take part in Scouting, originally designed for boys. As a young girl, I remember hearing about a Boy Scout Rally when hundreds of girls turned up in uniform ready to take part – it wasn’t long before the Girl Guides was created.

I have always admired the values and spirit of the Girl Guides Association, and became Norfolk’s County Commissioner in 1917. Later, I was made the organisation’s President. In 1937, the 1st Buckingham Palace Guide Company was formed when I enrolled my nieces, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, as a Guide and a Brownie.

Q – How do you challenge stereotypes?
A – As a Princess, people may be surprised to know that I am also a trained nurse. After visiting France during WWI and seeing the remarkable work of the VADs in field hospitals, I asked my parents’ permission to attend training at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, where I learned about every aspect of nursing care as well as how to assist during surgery.

I later became Patron of Great Ormond Street Hospital, as well as Commandant-in-Chief of the British Red Cross Detachments, and in 1923 I lent my name to the nursing branch of the Royal Air Force, which became known as ‘Princess Mary’s Royal Air Force Nursing Service’.

You can discover many more of Princess Mary’s stories in a new exhibition Becoming the Yorkshire Princess from 21 March.