Posted by: ellenlarson | September 12, 2010

The Portraits at the Treasurer’s House

Our in-class discussion about the importance of family portraits to the aristocracy, in regards to the ownership of images, reminded me of the Treasurer’s House in York, England. This building was a private residence for the city’s treasurers for many years until sold to outside families. The last family to own the house did so during the end of Victorian era, but they were a family recently made rich from the Industrial Revolution. In 1930 the house and all its contents were donated to the National Trust.

Available to the public  for viewing is a large collection of portraits. I asked on my tour if all of the portraits depicted family members, as I had no idea who anyone was or what was the point of them all. I was told that the portraits did not show anyone of any relation to the former inhabitants and had, in fact, been purchased for the very reason that this family had no portraits of their own to show off. They had essentially fabricated the sort of genealogical history the portraits were meant to form for their original families.

These portraits, spanning hundreds of years, had apparently been sold when the descendants were hard up for money. The idealized images of their ancestors were sold off to provide a different strand idealized images for people who had none of their own. The intention here is clearly to provide for the audience an idea that this family had a far grander origin than being “new money.” The audience for this purchased heritage was by no means a small one. Royalty were known to visit the house and would have seen them. Now they are easily accessible to the general public and serve well their intended purpose of fooling the viewer into believing a more exceptional family history. After all, I wouldn’t have known that they were not actually members of the family had I not asked.

National Trust:



  1. That’s really interesting, Ellen. Thanks for the links!

    It’s always interesting to trace how art “moves” from place to place and how their original purposes are sometimes lost as a result.

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