Go back to article: '½ vol. not relevant': The scrapbook of Winifred Penn-Gaskell

The history of the Winifred Penn-Gaskell Collection of Aeronautica

The Winifred Penn-Gaskell Collection of Aeronautica was bequeathed by its owner to the Science Museum in South Kensington and became a part of its collections following her death in November 1949. Penn-Gaskell had been in regular correspondence with the Keeper of Aeronautics, M J B Davy, for a period of ten years prior to this, after her original offer of a donation to the Victoria & Albert Museum had been declined and passed across Exhibition Road to the Science Museum. On the 24 April 1939, Davy visited Penn-Gaskell to view her collection and reported in a memo to the Museum director that he:

spent six hours at her house examining her collection of aeronautical prints, drawings, paintings, books, bric-a-brac, medals, china, etc. and also her unique series of 'flown covers' illustrating the development of air mail from 1870. There is no inventory of the collection (except books and pamphlets, of which we have a copy) and I gathered that Miss Penn-Gaskell does not intend to make one; she is continually adding to the collection. (Davy, 1939)

Penn-Gaskell would continue to acquire new objects (primarily through London-based antiquarian dealers such as Maggs) until her death, and to store them in her remote Devonshire cottage during and after the Second World War. Davy writes that her collecting habit began in 1927, with the acquisition of the aerophilatelic materials – for which she would win prizes across Europe and America – and subsequently ‘extended to everything relevant to aeronautics’. Penn-Gaskell, he remarks, is ‘a collector by nature’ and the Senior Keeper was clearly impressed with the range of objects she had found and bought. His appreciation, however, for her intellectual engagement with the subject of early flight technology is less evident as he denies the likelihood of Penn-Gaskell having made any ‘deep study of the history of flight, or concerned herself at all with the technical aspect'. Colonel Henry Lyons, then-director of the Science Museum, would later write a thank-you letter to Penn-Gaskell for her donation of the ‘delightful collection’, noting ‘[it] will be a most welcome enhancement to the technical objects which we already possess’ (Lyons, 1939).

From the moment that Penn-Gaskell’s collection was offered to the Science Museum, then, it was treated as a decorative display of the social and cultural history of flight. This is an excusable and comprehensible interpretation of the ceramic and pottery items, the pastoral painting collection, as well as the ladies’ fans and gentlemen’s snuffboxes that Penn-Gaskell bequeathed. But these objects and paintings make up less than a third of the Penn-Gaskell collection the rest being a prize-winning array of air-mail paraphernalia, stamps, and a huge collection of rare books on the subject of flight which span early-seventeenth century publications to classified Air Force engine blueprints from 1920. The historical, political and technical elements of flight history were clearly of great importance to Penn-Gaskell, and in this paper I will argue that signs of these interests are embodied within the pages of her scrapbook. 

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140210/003