Exploring transatlantic cultural relationships forged by the Mayflower's historic voyage

Published: 06 September 2019

Last update: 06 September 2019

Blog post
This blog post is written by Alison Cooper, Curator Alison Cooper Curator
The Boston Tea Party Ship and Museum

2020 marks the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower from Plymouth, Devon to Plymouth, Massachusetts. As this anniversary approaches, Curator Alison Cooper takes a deeper look at how this historic voyage and our subsequent transatlantic relationship has shaped, and been shaped by, our places.

It’s a disappointingly soggy June evening for a walk around the harbour. I’m not, however, at home in rainy Plymouth, Devon but – rather excitingly – I’m in Boston, Massachusetts at the site of the Boston Tea Party, about to embark on a 10-day research trip.

As a Curator for the National Trust, I am not based at a single place or even county. I regularly travel between Devon and Cornwall working with varied properties encompassing historic houses, collections, gardens and landscapes. But what reason, I hear you ask, would a National Trust Curator need to go as far afield as Boston?

As I walk around the city, the red brick of the ‘Freedom Trail’ makes obvious the historic and enduring connection between Boston (and indeed the United States) and England, first as colonisers, and then as controllers from whom independence had to be claimed.  

Boston Old State House, Massachusetts, USA

The Old State House, Boston

The Old State House in Boston, built in 1713 to house the government offices of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was the seat of British power until 1798. It is the oldest public building in Boston.

The Boston Freedom trail, a path through downtown Boston that passes locations significant to the history of the United States

The Freedom Trail

The Old State House is one of the landmarks on Boston's Freedom Trail, a 2.5-mile, red-lined route that leads to historically significant sites at the heart of the American Revolution.

Next year, 2020 will mark the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower from Plymouth, Devon to Plymouth, Massachusetts. In relation to the opportunity that this anniversary offers, I’ve been investigating links between the Mayflower voyage and National Trust places surrounding Plymouth (Saltram and Buckland Abbey in Devon and Cotehele in Cornwall).

Thanks to scholarship funding from Historic New England and from the Art Fund’s Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grant, I was able to come to Massachusetts to spend time visiting the museums in Boston, venture south to Plymouth and then undertake a 6-day study course devoted to New England studies, focusing on history, architecture and decorative arts.

In Plymouth, I visited Plimoth plantation, a living history museum that seeks to replicate the original settlement of the Pilgrim’s colony,  as well as Pilgrim Hall Museum, home to some of the original belongings taken from England to Plymouth by the first settlers.

Plimoth plantation with replicas of the Pilgrims' first settlements
Plimoth plantation at Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA
Plimoth plantation with replicas of the Pilgrims' first settlements

I was particularly interested to hear the stories of the Wampanoag, one of the First Nations of Native People whose lives were irrevocably changed as a result of European colonisation. It was a fascinating yet stark reminder that, whilst the Mayflower has become synonymous with the birth of one nation, it is also considered the point of destruction of another. This is importantly why the Mayflower anniversary is a commemoration and not a celebration – and also a reminder about the importance of hearing stories from communities themselves.

Many of our  places are associated with early exploration and colonisation. Buckland Abbey’s Richard Grenville led an unsuccessful expedition to establish a colony on Roanoake Island (present-day Dare County, North Carolina) with disastrous consequences for the Native Americans living there. How then, can we reflect the wider experience of such events, bringing multiple voices and different perspectives to the story? 

Buckland Abbey, Devon was once home to Richard Grenville (1542–1591), sailor, soldier, privateer, explorer and coloniser.
View of Buckland Abbey
Buckland Abbey, Devon was once home to Richard Grenville (1542–1591), sailor, soldier, privateer, explorer and coloniser.

When it came to looking at transatlantic connections in decorative arts, I was spoilt for choice amongst Boston's many museums.  At the Museum of Fine Art, Boston, I sought out the world of 17th-century furniture maker William Searle and pewterer Edmund Dolbeare, from Devon.

Initially, all belongings were imported from England to the new colonies but eventually, domestic items began to be produced on a small scale and craftsmen were able to make a living. Dolbeare and Searle were amongst the craftspeople that emigrated but were able to continue to make a living. The collection at Cotehele, Cornwall includes items by these makers from their time in Devon so I was interested to see and compare their work after emigrating – the Devon influence still clearly recognisable particularly in the furniture. 

Chest at Cotehele

Furniture by William Searle (d. 1667)

This oak chest, from the collection at Cotehele in Cornwall, was probably made by William Searle. Originally from Devon, Searle emigrated to New England by 1663 where he helped transmit the English tradition of ornate carving that had flourished in the England since the early 17th century.

pewter dish

Metalwork by Edmund Dolbeare (1644 – circa 1711)

This pewter plate, also in the collection at Cotehele, bears the hallmarks of Edmund Dolbeare of Ashburton, Devon. He emigrated to Boston by 1671 where he was among the earliest pewterers in America and believed to be the first in Boston.

Conversely, the Museum of Fine Arts also had plenty of examples of artists (principally painters) who emigrated the other way – from Boston to England. Amongst them was Gilbert Stuart who moved to London and soon became a popular painter in society; he was commissioned by the Parkers of Saltram and his portraits are on display at Saltram to this day.

Portraits by Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828) depicting members of the Parker family are on display in the Library at Saltram, Devon
The Library at Saltram, Devon
Portraits by Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828) depicting members of the Parker family are on display in the Library at Saltram, Devon

You may well be aware of Stuart’s work without even knowing it.  His most famous portrait – of George Washington - has been variously reproduced and is iconic for appearing on the US dollar bill.

Portraits of George Washington on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Portraits of George Washington on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Portraits of George Washington on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Finally, I attended a 6-day course of intensive study of Colonial American design and crafts and how they developed under the strong influence of England. As well as lectures, we had the opportunity to travel out of Boston, to Quincy, Massachussets, where I visited the house built by Revolutionary leader Josiah Quincy in 1770.

Quincy House in Massachusetts was built by Revolutionary leader Josiah Quincy in 1770.
Quincy House, in Quincy Massachusetts, b
Quincy House in Massachusetts was built by Revolutionary leader Josiah Quincy in 1770.

I have a specialist interest in ceramics so I was fascinated to find out more about the export of English ceramics, such as the transfer-printed Sadler and Wells tiles from Liverpool  surrounding the fireplace at Quincy House, evidently considered as part of a luxury interior. 

Transfer-printed Sadler and Wells tiles from Liverpool surround a fireplace at Quincy House, 1770
Fireplace inside Quincy House, Masachusetts
Transfer-printed Sadler and Wells tiles from Liverpool surround a fireplace at Quincy House, 1770


In England, transfer printing on ceramics enabled quicker and cheaper production. Examples of transfer-printed items at Cotehele, for instance, were considered as domestic and even rather ordinary wares. Because the English control of trade of such items to the colonies was so tightly controlled, they maintained a monopoly, suppressing local competition. This continued to have an impact on the ability to develop industry in America, even post-Independence.

This wonderful example of an English teapot in the Historic New England collections, exported despite the fact that the transfer print has been applied upside down, is a reminder of this.

Transfer-printed teapot, from the collections of Historic New England, with the print having been applied upside down
Transfer-printed teapot
Transfer-printed teapot, from the collections of Historic New England, with the print having been applied upside down

Altogether, the research trip was not only a great opportunity to meet and learn from curators and historic house managers in the United States, it was also a fascinating opportunity to think about the role that National Trust places and collections can play in the Mayflower anniversary.

The wider context of the Mayflower voyage speaks to emigration, immigration, colonisation, trade, discovery, religion, democracy and international politics – all big themes that have had an impact on shaping and developing the history of our places – and that in many ways continue to shape contemporary society and our experiences today. I look forward to developing my research further and hopefully sharing more throughout 2020.  

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