From the Archive I: Cataloguing the Yates Family Archive

In her “Autobiographical Fragments”, written in the year of her death, Frances Yates (1899-1981) refers to a photograph from her childhood. It relates to a period in 1912, when her family was briefly living on a farm in Ingleton in North Yorkshire. The twelve-year old Frances had been told by her family to work through the books for the Junior Cambridge examination as to supplement her irregular teaching: 

“I think that this is why I was making an elaborate study of Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, …. or passionately declaiming ‘Lars Porsena of Clusium By the nine gods he swore’ to the lamb in the field opposite. I have a snapshot of that lamb standing quite alone in the distance … and looking slightly worried.”

Unknown photographer: Frances Yates signing copies of Astraea 1975; photo: Warburg Institute

I read this passage during lockdown in preparation for this blog on my recent work cataloguing the Yates Family Archive in the Warburg Institute. I remember handling a number of small, indifferent looking photographs of gardens and the countryside. If I were able to look through them now and actually found the photograph of a sheep in a field, I would catalogue it  with reference to Yates’s published recollections. It is a wonderful idea, the little girl that uses the sheep as her audience and nearly seventy years later the historian and author of “The Art of Memory”, who recognizes the role of the sheep, while at the same time possibly remembering the event through the photograph. This blog is not about Frances Yates or her family (for that readers may want to turn, e.g., to Marjorie Jones’ biography of 2008), but rather about who and what may have shaped the Yates Family Archive and how it in turn shapes our view of those who collected these items, why they kept them, what they may have seen in them and what they may have thrown away. These questions are unanswerable, but are raised by the material itself. 

Going through the family papers with the aim of tracing and enforcing a pre-existing structure, it soon became  apparent that the archive separates broadly  into three sections relating to Frances Yates’ older siblings, Hannah (b.1885), Ruby (b. 1887) and James (b. 1889). Only a small section relates directly to their father, the naval engineer James Alfred Yates, and mother, Hannah E. Yates, née Malpas. Among the objects in this section are a family scrap book with newspaper cuttings, one or two lectures on naval topics, invitations to gala dinners of naval societies and writings, mainly by him, on their children. This dearth, which may reflect the priorities of the surviving family members over the next forty years could also owe to the fact that James senior retired already in 1911 after which the family were frequently moving. 

The house in Claygate near London from where the archive came to the Warburg Institute was acquired in 1925, and, writing in 1981, Frances underlined her own role in its purchase: “It was Father and I who visited it and Father took it in agreement with me. Mother did not see it until we moved in, …”. Hannah, the oldest of the siblings was then a classics teacher at Ware, while Ruby who had been trained as an artist, had been living since 1920 as a missionary in South Africa. Frances recalls that her mother named the building “New House” not, because it was recently built, but to mark 26 year-old Frances’ first scholarly publication “English Actors in Paris during the Lifetime of Shakespeare”, an article that had been described by a reviewer as throwing “new and lively light” on the subject. For Frances, the house was “a Yates house” and she states twice within the space of three pages that she had written all her books in it. The family’s name for the house may also have been in response to the desire for a new start. Seven years earlier in 1915, James, the only son, had died in the First World War. 

Frances’ father died in his late eighties in 1942, after which, in 1948, Ruby re-joined the household. She had worked in the South African Province of Natal at S. Monica, a Church of England home for girls of mixed ethnic origins. There she had founded and run a new school, providing personally funds for the acquisition of new grounds. When she left all of this after 28 years of work, she did so expressly to look after her mother. A newspaper note after Hannah’s death in 1951 states that she, too, had sacrificed her career, in her case that of a literary author of promise, to this purpose, something, the younger, academically minded, Frances apparently was not expected to do. 

Hannah’s death was soon followed by that of the mother, after which Frances and Ruby continued to live in New House, with Ruby running the household while also working on book projects of some kind. The first, published in 1968 under the name “Ashes to Garlands”, told the story of S. Monica. The  second was a family history with a focus on ancestors who had been actors. It never came to fruition. Ruby became infirm latterly and died in May 1980, followed in September 1981 by her sister Frances who was without immediate heirs.  

It was during the last months of her life that Frances Yates wrote her autobiographical fragments. At this time she seems to have looked through her family’s papers, leaving one or two descriptive notes to individual sections. After her death, she left all her papers to the Warburg Institute. The Institute accepted the Family Archive as an adjunct to these, presumably out of a sense of dedication and friendship towards a brillant member of staff for whom the Institute had been a second family.

To be continued


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