Petworth House exhibition celebrates remarkable scientist who was ahead of her time

Elizabeth Ilive, Countess of Egremont by Thomas Philips, 1797 National Trust Images
Elizabeth Ilive, Countess of Egremont by Thomas Philips, 1797 National Trust Images

As part of the National Trust’s Women and Power programme marking the centenary of the 1918 Parliamentary Act that gave the first voting rights to women, a new exhibition at Petworth House shines a light on the Georgian pioneering scientist and inventor Elizabeth Ilive (1769-1822).

Elizabeth Ilive: A Woman Ahead of Her Time runs until December 31.

Spokesman Henry Jarvis said: “Displaying personal belongings, replica letters and scientific equipment from the Petworth House archives, this exhibition is the first to explore the remarkable life and achievements of Elizabeth Ilive, who lived at Petworth House from the 1780s and pursued her interests in art, science and inventing. Born in 1769, the daughter of an Oxford printer, Ilive came from humble beginnings. Around 1785 at the age of 15 she became the principal mistress of George O’Brien Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont and owner of the Petworth estates, before marrying him in 1801, after which time she was styled the Countess of Egremont. Reputed to have been beautiful and fiercely intelligent, she was an award-winning inventor and conducted innovative agricultural and scientific experiments.

“The exhibition showcases Ilive’s pursuits in these fields and includes a representation of the design for the cross-bar lever that she submitted to the Royal Society of Arts in 1798.

“Also featured is the silver medal she was awarded for this invention under the section of Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, a category that a woman had never won before.

“Of particular focus in this exhibition is the immersive reimagining of the laboratory Ilive established at Petworth House in 1797. Although no records detail precisely where the laboratory was installed, part of the exhibition reimagines what it might have looked like using detailed notes and bills from the Petworth House archives and descriptions of other late eighteenth-century laboratories.”

Against a backdrop of Faraday’s laboratory, the exhibition will provide an atmospheric experience that evokes the new zeal in chemical experimentation during the period. Surrounded by a display of a selection of the 120 pieces of scientific equipment that remain at Petworth House, visitors can discover some of the types of tools that would be have been used in Ilive’s laboratory and create their own scientific experiments and write equations on the blackboard.

Also on display will be copies of Ilive’s personal letters, correspondence and published work. Fascinated by agriculture, Ilive began to study of potatoes in 1796 at a time when bad harvests, increased prices in grain and riots over bread necessitated research into other forms of food for the labourers whose staple diet was bread.

“Her research was subsequently printed in the Annals of Agriculture but the 3rd Earl forbade Ilive’s name to be credited and instead the article was anonymously entitled Planting Potato Shoots by a Lady. This reaction by the Earl prompted a spirited letter from the publisher who wrote “...of what consequence to a careful reader, the age, sex or beauty of a writer, provided he or she makes good sense.”

To coincide with the exhibition, Petworth House will also display pieces in the North Gallery that illuminate Ilive’s interest in art. The only country house to have paintings by the artist William Blake, two of these works were directly commissioned by Ilive, with one in particular, A Vision of the Last Judgement, completed explicitly “for the Countess of Egremont”’

“Set against a background of her husband’s continued philandering –Blake’s work glorifies family life with mothers, fathers and children ascending to Heaven.

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