Thursday, July 28, 2016

When a Victorian Painting Isn't What It Seems

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Isabella reporting,

Some of the most popular 19thc painters were storytellers as well as artists, filling their realistic canvases with characters and symbolism that gallery-goers of the time could "read" as clearly as if the paintings were books. Poignant farewells, heroic soldiers, thwarted lovers, fallen women, scenes from history and from current events all found their place in these often-oversized, detailed paintings.

When I recently came across the painting, above, on Twitter, I was sure I understood the story it told. Even the title with its Biblical quotation seemed filled with obvious meaning: Nameless and Friendless: "The rich man's wealth is his strong city" - Proverbs X, 15. (As always, please click on the image to enlarge it.) Painted by Emily Mary Osborn in 1857, I thought it must be a poignant representation of a young widow forced to sell her belongings to survive. Her somber clothes must be a stage of mourning, and her melancholy expression hints at painful memories of happier times. Perhaps the painting that the gallery owner is appraising was even a favorite of her late husband.

And wow, was I ever wrong.

To learn the real subject of this painting, go to this page on the site of the Tate museum, who owns it. A hint: the female artist of the work drew from her own personal experiences for her subject.

But before you go over there - what do you see in this painting?

Above: Nameless and Friendless: "The rich man's wealth is his strong city" - Proverbs X, 15 by Emily Mary Osborn, 1857, The Tate.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Traveling Advice & Expenses 1828

Tuesday, July 26, 2016
Alken, Bath Coach 1820
Loretta reports:

Traveling in the early 1800s was complicated to a degree we can scarcely fathom. The Traveller's Oracle, by William Kitchiner, M.D., deals with what seems to be every last, daunting detail of the process, like what sort of servant(s) to take, what medicines to pack, how to sleep safely at an inn, and so on.

I could have picked any of dozens of excerpts, but decided matters of the horse would offer a good clue to the kinds of things one had to consider. This is from the third (1828) edition:
Travel expenses 

Travel expenses

Travel Expenses
When you wish to travel forty or fifty miles in a day expeditiously, if you have Horses of of your own—it is the most advisable plan to send them on the day before about twenty or twenty-five miles, desiring they may go not more than five miles in an hour.
If you start from home with post Horses, your own will be fresh to carry you on briskly to the termination of your Journey.
Image: Henry Alken, Bath Coach (1820) courtesy Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Clicking on the image will enlarge it.  Clicking on the caption will take you to the source, where you can learn more and enlarge images as needed.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

A Close Encounter with Silk Embroidery for an 18thc Gentleman's Suit

Sunday, July 24, 2016
Isabella reporting,

One of my favorite textile/costume exhibitions was last summer's Elaborate Embroidery: Fabrics for Menswear before 1815 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (you can read my post about it here.)

But as wonderful as the exhibition was, I longed to see the richly embroidered samples more closely than the display cases permitted. Last week, I finally returned to the Met for a research appointment at the Antonio Ratti Textile Center and Reference Library - the keepers of all those embroidery samples and much, much more besides.

The sample here (click on the images to enlarge) was one of the ones that I requested to view. It's not large: 12-1/2" x 7-3/4". The black fabric is faintly dotted silk velvet, and the embroidery threads are silk and metallic. There are also dozens of tiny sequins as well as paste jewels worked into the design. It might have been a sample of an embroidery pattern that was shown to gentlemen considering new suits, or it could also have been a experiment with a new pattern. The sample eventually became part of the textile design archives of The United Piece Dye Works, who gave the collection to the museum in 1936.

This sample was stitched in France around 1800-1815, long past the time when Louis XVI's court and their legendary excess had been displaced by the Revolution. But Napoleon Bonaparte liked those same sartorial trappings as much as his royal predecessors had, and gentlemen appearing at the imperial court were expected to appear in suits of luxurious fabrics embellished with embroidery like this. Of course, this kind of elaborate formal dress had never stopped being worn at the English court and others like it across Europe, but these suits were to be the last gasp of the glittering male peacock. Within a generation, formal wear for gentleman became dark and subdued, and has remained so to the present day.

Worked in shades of silver with gold accents on that inky velvet, a suit enhanced with the design in this sample would have sparkled and gleamed in an elegant, refined show of wealth and taste. Equipped with a magnifying glass, I was able to see the exquisite delicacy of the stitches, and the extremely fine silk and metallic threads used to create them, threads that would likely be impossible to find today.

I was especially interested in the tiny sequins, held in place by even smaller beads. The sequins that were stitched directly onto the velvet had tarnished over time, probably from a dye in the velvet, giving them an unintentional ombre effect. The small paste (glass) "jewels" near the edge were secured in in metal collars, which in turn were hidden by a loop of wrapped metallic thread. These details are visible where some of the loops has slipped away from the jewel.

I also loved being able to see the back side of the embroidery. Without the pile of the velvet and the glitter of the sequins and jewels, the design becomes more linear with the transition stitches criss-crossing over the flowers and leaves. In a way, it's equally beautiful, like the finest of silk spiderwebs.

Most of all, seeing this sample in such detail left me in awe of those now-forgotten designers, embroiderers, thread-spinners, sequin-and paste-jewel makers, velvet-weavers, and needle-makers who would have each contributed to its creation, and the skill, artistry, and accomplishment that this small bit of two-hundred-year-old fabric represents.

Many thanks to Melinda Watt, Associate Curator, European Sculpture & Decorate Arts, and Supervising Curator, Antonio Ratti Textile Center, and the staff of the Antonio Ratti Textile Center for their assistance, knowledge, and patience - as you can tell, I had a wonderful Nerdy-History-Girl time!

Above: Embroidery sample for a man's suit, French, 1800-1815, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Photographs ©2016 by Susan Holloway Scott.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Breakfast Links: Week of July 18, 2016

Saturday, July 23, 2016
Breakfast Links are served - our weekly round-up of fav links to other web sites, articles, blogs, and images via Twitter.
• How the corset turned into a girdle, 1900-1919.
• The now-forgotten "girl mayors" of the 1920s became the first face of feminism.
• Keeping khaki-kool during World War One.
• Baunscheidt's Lebenswecker: the 19thc "life-awakener" (and now considered fraudlent.)
• The peculiar history of cows in the OED.
Video: Short video of magnificently embroidered early 20thc evening dress.
• The (almost lost) art of handwriting.
• How and when did the thirteen colonies learn of the Declaration of Independence?
Image: 19thc purse made from hundreds of melon seeds.
• Magical photographs of fireflies in Japan.
• The rich and fascinating history of dhaka muslin.
• Ten strangest deaths of Roman emperors.
Descendants of a South Carolina plantation owner and slaves unite to have dinner together 181 years later.
• The 18thc anatomist who celebrated life with dioramas of death.
Image: Photographer Margaret Bourke-White sets up camera on a gargoyle on the 61st floor of the Chrysler Building, 1934.
Cleopatra's Needle: how an Egyptian obelisk ended up by the Thames.
• "An extraordinary delivery of rabbits": how Mary Tofts convinced doctors she'd given birth to rabbits, 1726.
• Creating La Dolce Vita in post-war Italy.
• The surprisingly raucous home life of James and Dolley Madison.
• Why women led anti-suffrage movements against themselves.
Silk-dyers in 18thc London.
Image: Women's day at the free public bathing house in the East River, NYC, 1876.
Hungry for more? Follow us on Twitter @2nerdyhistgirls for fresh updates daily.
Above: At Breakfast by Laurits Andersen Ring. Private collection.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Friday Video from the Archives: Dance Crazes of the Roaring Twenties

Friday, July 22, 2016

Isabella reporting,

Because I'm in New York today on a museum-and-research junket, I'm dipping back into our archives for some summertime dancing.

The 1920s may have been a decade of great change and historical significance, but on film, the '20s sure look like a whole lot of fun. This clip is a compilation of popular dances and general shenanigans from the time, matched to the appropriate music that's guaranteed to make you want to jump up for a quick Charleston or Foxtrot. Ain't we got fun!
 
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