Q&A: Zara Anishanslin, Portrait of a Woman in Silk

zaraheadshotToday at The Junto, Michael Blaakman interviews Zara Anishanslin about her new book, Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World, which Alyssa Zuercher Reichardt reviewed yesterday. Anishanslin is an Assistant Professor of History and Art History at the University of Delaware—where she completed a prize-winning dissertation in 2009. In between earning her Ph.D. and returning to Delaware this fall, Anishanslin has been an Assistant Professor of History at CUNY’s College of Staten Island, as well as a postdoctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins University and the New-York Historical Society. 

THE JUNTO: Congratulations on your new book, Zara, and thank you for agreeing to answer our questions about it! One of the things I find most dazzling about Portrait of a Woman in Silk is its breadth. The topics you explore range from transatlantic networks of Enlightenment botanists to the political significance of female producers and weavers’ riots, from the domestic architecture of Philadelphia townhouses to the lifecycle of a silkworm—and much, much more. It reads like a total immersion in the culture of the eighteenth-century Atlantic World. But all projects have to start somewhere. What sort of questions inspired this book?

ZARA ANISHANSLIN: Thanks, Michael, both for the interview and the kind words! I’ve been a big fan of The Junto/Yunto/Hunto from its inception, and so I’m particularly pleased to discuss my book here.

Portrait of a Woman in Silk was first inspired by questions that arose from looking at things. While looking through silks in the Textile Study Room of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, I was struck by similarities between those mid-eighteenth century English silks and the dress in a Robert Feke portrait I remembered hanging at the Winterthur Museum. Admittedly, I partly recalled the portrait—not a famous one, by any means—because of jokes commonly made about its subject’s ample bosom. But it also stuck in my visual memory because of the flamboyant botanical design of its dress. Had Feke copied one of those English silks for his colonial American portrait? As it turned out, the dress in this 1746 portrait was one of those silks. And because the original watercolor design for the silk also survived at the V & A, we knew an unusual amount about this portrait and its silk. We had evidence of the identity of the London silk designer (Anna Maria Garthwaite), Spitalfields weaver (Simon Julins), Philadelphia wearer (Anne Shippen Willing), and New England painter (Feke). Very unusual for a colonial American portrait, to have this much information.

So then I really got intrigued. Here were four identifiable people—all literate, all financially solvent, and all connected to this silk and this portrait. And yet each was essentially unexplored by historians. Most likely this was in part because each left a very sparse trail in archival documents like letters, diaries, and probate inventories. But what each did leave behind was a trove of material and visual culture. What, I wondered, would happen if I used the things they created and used to bring their lives out of the historical shadows? What if I wrote a history that made a single object—and the lives embedded within it—the question? What if I looked at the histories of this object across space and time, from its stages of production to its distribution and consumption, and its use and display? How might a history of these luxurious commodities that encompassed production, consumption, and use complicate the traditional narrative of emulative refinement as driving force in transatlantic trade and colonial identity?

JUNTO: Besides the portrait of a woman in silk itself, of all the objects you analyze in this book, if you could choose only one for teachers of the American history survey to feature in their course, which would it be and what would you want them to say about it?

ANISHANSLIN: This might sound strange, but I would ask them to feature an object that no longer exists: the Willing’s Philadelphia townhouse. Partly this is a methodological choice. It’s important to remember and learn from objects that no longer exist as well as those that are extant. To use a simple example: if an archaeologist digs up an eighteenth-century latrine, she’ll find a lot of ceramics and little to no textiles. But obviously the people who used that latrine owned and used textiles as well as ceramics, and spent a lot more money on the fabric. If we only considered what’s physically there in the latrine, we miss a lot of history. So I think it’s important to remember to think about what’s absent as well as what’s present when we think about material culture.

The Willing’s Third Street townhouse served as a place of business as well as a family home. Charles Willing ran his mercantile business from one of its front rooms, and sold goods—including enslaved people—from it. Willing imported fine textiles like that his wife wore in her portrait (and I argue that the painting was meant to advertise his trade). But he also was one of Philadelphia’s most active slave traders, and the house was home to at least four enslaved people, one of them a boy called Litchfield, as well as the white family. Along with Feke’s portrait, a portrait of Willing’s mother—a woman from Lichfield, the town that gave the slave Litchfield his name—hung on its walls. What was it like for Litchfield the enslaved boy to labor under the painted gaze of an elite woman from Lichfield? Thinking about the townhouse, a commercial as well as domestic space, occupied by a household of both enslaved and free people, allows us to place the things found in it—the luxury goods like portraits and silks—in their proper social context. Refined consumption is not the only story these objects tell.

JUNTO: Much of this book is about eighteenth-century people at work: the mental and material labor of producing stuff. We don’t have many labor historians nowadays. Do you consider yourself one?

ANISHANSLIN: I am so glad you asked this question! You’re right to point out that this book is fundamentally about labor, both mental and material. Although I doubt many librarians would put it on the labor history bookshelf, to my mind this book is as much a labor history as it is a cultural one. It’s a history of the creative intellect and skilled manual production of things on both sides of the Atlantic. One reason thinking of this book as a labor history is important is that doing so highlights how women and men like Anna Maria Garthwaite and Robert Feke used their minds and hands to build the eighteenth-century material world. Garthwaite and Feke are both fascinating individuals in their own right. But if we think of their two lives as labor histories, their microhistories also lead us to the macrohistory of thousands of other laboring people. Thinking of this book as a labor history also highlights what I hope are two simple but big takeaways. First, that the eighteenth-century British Atlantic was a world and an economy created as much by women’s labor as by men’s. And second, that to understand colonial and revolutionary era American colonists—and their shifting place in the British Empire—we need to see them as sophisticated producers as well as avid consumers.

JUNTO: Let me ask a bit about how you work. You describe Portrait of a Woman in Silk as “a methodological celebration of the unexpected illuminations and countless possibilities—the hidden histories—that object-centered scholarship yields” (21). For scholars who’ve only ever worked with text-based sources before, what’s your process when you sit down to analyze a portrait, or a stack of watercolor silk designs, or a lost or extant building?

ANISHANSLIN: Nice segue. And you might guess from my thoughts on absent things that I’m very glad you brought up both lost and extant buildings. Whether or not the thing under study is still physically present does dictate the approach at a certain point. In many ways the approach is similar: I start by “reading” what I’m seeing, which often is as basic an exercise as describing the thing. If it’s still around, it’s crucial to see it physically, even if it’s a digitized image, for example. You always see something new when you actually see a thing. It’s crucial to measure it, to think about its physical attributes, and how it was made and used. If it’s something no longer present, of course, you rely on textual evidence and bless the people who bothered to list or describe things in account books or letters. With a single object like a portrait, you need to dig deep, following up on every possible bit of evidence about what’s in the portrait, and what you can learn about its sitter, its maker, and its display. With a whole typology of objects like a stack of watercolor silk designs, the approach is more one of breadth. Much the way you come to conclusions about someone’s personality after you read years of their correspondence, you can reach conclusions about someone’s inner workings by looking at years of their designs.

JUNTO: Each part of Portrait of a Woman in Silk opens with a microhistorical chapter, followed by thematic chapters that simultaneously dig deeper and expand to a macro level of analysis. The structure is intricate yet elegant; it feels effortless, but I’m sure it wasn’t. Can you pull back the curtain a bit and tell us about how you revised the dissertation into a book? What advice would you offer to early-career scholars who are currently engaged in that process?

ANISHANSLIN: Actually, it was an entirely effortless process, written largely over the course of a two week vacation at the beach. So get on it, early-career scholars!

Obviously, far from true. I’m delighted to hear that the book’s structure works for readers, as the actual writing of the book—its structure and its style—mattered to me almost as much as its histories. If we historians want to knock the Glenn Becks of the world off the best-selling history book lists and see PhD-trained historians on there instead, we need to pay attention to how we write as well as to what we write. I tried to write something that is at least moderately enjoyable to read. But it was a long, hard slog!

In terms of diss-to-book and early career advice: one of the best bits of advice my advisor gave me was that “a dissertation is not a book.” How very true. This book began as a dissertation of four chapters sandwiched between the typical intro and conclusion. It is now a book in five parts, with a prologue and coda, and many smallish chapters (see long, hard slog above). This reorganization leads me to my second bit of advice: when you first submit your book for a contract, don’t worry too much about making it “perfect.” Readers will ask you to change it, anyway. Finally, the best advice I can give is to find a writing partner. Find someone you’re close to, who studies something similar but not exactly what you do, and get on a regular program of exchange and editing with him or her. Trust me, this is a life changing decision.

JUNTO: Tell us about the poem that opens your book.

ANISHANSLIN: The poem was written by my father, Paul Anishanslin, to celebrate me getting my PhD back in 2009. A sentimental graduation gift. But when I restructured the book (see long, hard slog above), I decided that it would strike exactly the right evocative opening tone. A poem owes part of its beauty to its fragmentary nature, and this fragmentary beauty reminded me in many ways of the nature of material culture specifically, and of history more generally. Plus, it’s just a really lovely poem.

JUNTO: What are you working on now?

ANISHANSLIN: I’m working on a few projects related to the American Revolution. In the short term, this involves a few articles on the material and visual culture of the Revolution, which are at various stages of publication readiness. Eventually I plan to string these together into a synthetic history of the period from 1763-83. More immediately, I’ve started working on a book project that I’m very excited about. It’s the history of an enslaved man who painted portraits in Massachusetts and the London artist (likely also of partial African descent) he studied with around the time of the Somerset case. It follows their intertwined lives back and forth across the Atlantic, as the enslaved man—who was the property of Loyalists who fled to Britain—enlisted to fight for the Patriots, while the London artist moved to Philadelphia to paint the luminaries of the early republic. It’s a history of what it meant to be African and an artist in the eighteenth-century British Atlantic, and a history of slavery and freedom in the revolutionary era told through art and war. I’m calling it “The Prince and the Pines.”


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