The life of one of Tudor England’s most remarkable women, Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury, aka Bess of Hardwick, will be seen through the eyes of modern women – including historian Professor Dame Mary Beard, period poverty teenage activist Amika George, and broadcaster Cathy Newman in a new exhibition at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire.
In the late sixteenth century, Bess became the second richest woman in the country after Elizabeth I. Along the way she experienced great loss and hardship – two children and four husbands died. At times, she had massive debts and lawsuits against her, while her last, broken marriage became a national scandal.
Throughout history, Bess has been portrayed as greedy, overbearing, and controlling, a view that derives largely from comments made by the disinherited family of her third husband and those of her estranged fourth husband.
For the exhibition, ‘We are Bess’, 16 women have been invited to respond to Bess’s story and consider the similarities between the challenges she faced in the sixteenth century and their own experiences.
Within the Hall’s Long Gallery, the responses and portraits of each of the participating women, taken by award-winning photographer Rachel Adams, will hang alongside original Tudor portraits.
‘We are Bess’ is part of the National Trust’s year-long programme of events called Women and Power, which marks the 100th anniversary of some women securing the right to vote. The exhibition has been curated in collaboration with historian, author and broadcaster, Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, reader in history at the University of Roehampton, and the exhibition’s Creative Director.
Dr Lipscomb said: “Bess was an extraordinary woman in her age, but 400 years on we imagine the world to be a very different place. However the experiences highlighted by the women in our exhibition are remarkably similar to Bess’s. Modern women are encountering the same prejudices and challenges as she did.These modern perspectives on an old tale awake us to both the troubling and the comforting parallels between the present and the past.”
The responses from the women within the exhibition range from Claire Cadman who, like Bess, suffered the loss of a child, to the Church of England’s first female Bishop, the Right Reverend Libby Lane, who has been accused of being ‘unwomanly’ and ‘manipulative, scheming, self-serving, ambitious’.
‘We are Bess’ opens to the public on 3 October and runs to 4 November 2018. The exhibition will then re-open on 16 February until 2 June 2019, featuring several additional modern-day women.
Harwick Hall, Doe Lea, Chesterfield S44 5QJ