Following its successful pilot in 2017, this summer Warwickshire’s Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park is again welcoming six guest curators who have nominated books for its reimagined Women’s Library.

Unsilencing the Library is, in part, a detective story, an installation, and a celebration of what reading can do and what women have achieved.

Succeeding last year’s guest curatorial team - which included actor and UN Women Global Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and cultural critic Margo Jefferson and pupils from the nearby Kineton High School – are Dr Ozak Esu, IET Young Woman Engineer of the Year (based at Cundells in Birmingham), Oxford-based celebrity chef and food activist Sophie Grigson, Professor Fiona Sampson, author of the highly-acclaimed In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein  and local artist Susan Stockwell.

They are joined by members of Compton Verney’s Dementia Café, a groundbreaking initiative which is now being introduced by other cultural institutions across the UK, and servicewomen from the British Army, including members of ‘The Sandhurst Sisterhood’ and the recent ‘Ice Maidens’ expedition to the Antarctic.

“We chose this particular sextet with a mind to celebrating the achievements of women – and, in particular, women in engineering. The inclusion of Fiona Sampson is also a nod to our current, major summer exhibition, The Marvellous Mechanical Museum, and the selection of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ for the original Women’s Library,” says Compton Verney’s Chief Executive, Professor Steven Parissien.

He adds: The Women’s Library is a thrilling development to our existing creative and cultural ‘offer’, which not only takes Compton Verney in an exciting literary direction, but also attracts new audiences and partnerships. Our stellar guest curators show just how important reading is, but their book choices are wonderfully varied and reveal what has inspired them to make their career and life choices.  

As Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Margo Jefferson noted during the inaugural iteration of the reimagined Women’s Library: ‘Reading is a right, a privilege and a pleasure that women have had to fight for. The shared bookshelf reminds us that we still must.’”

The Women’s Library could easily have become little more than a footnote in Compton Verney’s rich history but for a remarkable set of circumstances.

The house, once the seat of the Verney family, was virtually a ruin by 1993. One room, however, retained its historic fittings, and a key decorative feature remained intact:  a set of imitation books framing the room’s doorway.

Professor Parissien picks up the story: “Research suggests that this visionary doorway was probably commissioned by Georgiana Verney, wife of the 17th Lord Willoughby de Broke, in around 1860. It is remarkable, not just for its survival, but for the story it tells us today. An accidental aristocrat, Georgiana found herself becoming a baroness when her husband, Robert, inherited his uncle’s estate. After Robert died in 1862, she spent her remaining years founding schools, supporting the temperance movement, and promoting literacy in the community. Crucially, Georgiana was just one of a long line of readers at Compton Verney who were interested in the question of women’s rights. Her ‘mock’ books are sending a very real message about equality of mind – for all of the authors on the book spines are women.”

Launched in 2017 - as joint project co-created by Dr Sophie Ratcliffe of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and Professor Steven Parissien - Unsilencing the Library is a creative reinterpretation of that room. Using Georgiana’s proto-feminist bookshelf as their inspiration, they asked a series of individuals and communities to choose books to put on the room’s then-empty shelves.

As Dr Ratcliffe explains: “The curators’ task is to ‘unsilence the library’, by highlighting an aspect of our reading life that they feel needs to be heard. Their book choices are freely available in the room itself to browse, read or discuss, or to buy in the shop.”

Since throwing its doors open again last summer, the Women’s Library has fast become a popular venue, for events such as civil partnerships to meetings of local book groups. Grants have also enabled Compton Verney’s team to restore the woodwork and the panels of the Victorian book spines; to purchase appropriate furniture (which cites Georgiana’s championing of the Coventry ribbon industry) and to return to the room paintings of members of the Verney family by Michael Dahl and John Riley– works which originally hung in the house before the family sold the estate in 1921.

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