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Colonial Williamsburg, and the 74th annual Antiques Forum

The theme for this year’s forum has been Virtue and Vice – and I have been fortunate enough to be invited to Colonial Williamsburg to talk about vice – especially in context of the Royal Family 250 years ago. No, nothing at all about the present lot, but never-the-less encompassing the odd murder, a bit of incest, torture, false imprisonment and an awful lot of adultery. And that was before I got started on the Randy Regent….

The theme was represented by these two Robert Dighton prints from 1785 showing how a prudent man or woman should ‘keep within compass’ ie by living a quiet, decent life, avoiding strong drink and card games – and abstaining from promiscuous behaviour. Given that it is an antiques conference I wasn’t quite sure how my talk, described as being “A romp through the 18th Century, from kings to courtesans and from playboy princes to shady ladies.. ”  would fit in with all these earnest folk wanting to learn about 18th century wallpaper, or card tables from New England, or  silver punch bowls (or whatever). But it was wonderfully received and  great fun to do. There are around 250 attendees (in person) and another one hundred following events ‘virtually’.

Williamsburg is a remarkable project recreating what life was like  300 years ago – but it is no Walt Disney mash-up. The cobblers shop really does make leather shoes; the wig maker is working on real wigs using historically appropriate materials and ingredients; the blacksmith is really making things in an 18th century forge. And there is a magnificent, newly-extended museum, with some fascinating displays. Behind the scenes there is an army of restorers, students doing research and so on – I dread to think how much it costs to run. Let’s just say that last year, during lock-down, they still  managed to raise 100 million dollars in funding …. impressive.

The attendees for the Antiques Forum clearly come here year after year. A show of hands at the start showed dozens and dozens who had been coming regularly for a quarter of a century. There were even some for whom it was their 45th year of coming to the conference, which lasts a whole week. What I like is the atmosphere of old friends getting together again – and we met many people who we recognized from our last visit, in 2019.

The range of talks is staggering. There are four talks in the morning and the same again in the afternoon, covering the whole spectrum of collecting, conserving and learning about the historical background to everything – from silverware to carved wooden pipes, from  drinking cups to paintings, from musical instruments to the development of the billiard hall. You look at the programme and think “Nah, that will be too esoteric or boring” – and then find that it is actually fascinating. And all of the talks have a link, however tenuous, with either vice or virtue. Quite a nice ‘hook’ to hang things on, even if just about every speaker (by pure chance) used Hogarth’s “Modern Midnight Conversation” as their  main starting point!


The Forum ends with a formal dinner tonight, and then it is time to head for home. It’s been a great experience – and I might just try and see if I can wrangle another visit another year!

Oh, and yes, it was a chance to plug my books!!!

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