A life of flowers, embroidery, letters, gossip, frocks and fashion? A major new international exhibition at Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, seeks to challenge our stereotypes of leisured ladies’ lives in Georgian Britain.
Co-organised by the Yale Centre for British Art and the Sir John Soane’s Museum and curated by Mark Laird (Harvard) and Alicia Weisberg-Roberts (Walters Art Museum), the exhibition draws on the expertise of an international advisory team of scholars, including York’s Dr Hannah Greig, to reveal the remarkable artistic productions of Georgian gentlewoman Mary Delany. The exhibits show how eighteenth-century female accomplishments, so often dismissed as the work of amateurs, in fact skillfully integrated scientific and botanical learning within artistic production.
Mary Delany is best known for the vast number of intricate cut-paper botanical collages she created from the ripe age of 72, now held at the British Museum. However, her botanical knowledge and artistic skill also came together in drawings, painting, paper silhouettes, shell work and, not least, embroidery. The exhibition examines all of these categories and reunites several examples of Delany’s textiles, including pieces of a striking black satin court dress embroidered with naturalistic flowers (c.1739-40, detail below). Despite their high cost and extravagant appearance, such examples of court dress have rarely survived intact to the present day.
Dr Greig has been conducting new research on the significance of court clothing in eighteenth-century Britain and her work for the Delany project focused specifically on this: the centrepiece of the exhibition. Using contemporary letters and news reports, Dr Greig’s research uncovers the range of meanings ascribed to court clothing.
“Eighteenth-century court dress, particularly women’s court dress, can appear ridiculously ostentatious and extravagant, especially to the modern eye”, admits Dr Greig. “Even in its own time, it was out of line with current fashions. The extremely wide-hooped skirt worn to court was a relic of a former age and rarely worn outside the palace walls after the mid 1700s.”
Still, outrageous regalia represented more than a peculiar fashion anomaly. Clothing provided a means through which contemporaries could advertise political sentiments. Dress was used to communicate party affiliation and loyalty or antipathy towards the crown. “Surviving pieces,” says Dr. Greig, “are on the one hand remarkable works of art, testifying to intelligent design, highly skilled craftsmanship and material elegance. They were also, however, carefully crafted and often strategic statements of a person’s social, cultural and political position and can be used by historians to recover a history of eighteenth-century politics as well as a history of fashion and art.”
The exhibition runs from 19 February to 1 May 2010. For more information, please visit the website of Sir John Soane's Museum.
Dr Greig’s research is published in the collection of essays accompanying the exhibition: H Greig, ‘Dressing for Court: Sartorial Politics and Fashion News in the Age of Mary Delany’ in M. Laird and A. Weisberg-Roberts, Mrs Delany and Her Circle (Yale University Press, 2009).