The Fabric of Their Lives

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on September 22, 2010

I’m delighted to welcome Courtney Barnes of Style Court as a guest contributor to Enfilade. With a B.A. in art history and an M.A. in education, Courtney has worked as a docent at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and has contributed to Southern Accents, among other publications. Established in 2006, Style Court has won praise from Time, Elle Decor, Domino, Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles, 1stdibs, Country Living, and Apartment Therapy L.A. Courtney’s site does a particularly good job of bringing together a wide variety of people interested in design and the arts. While Enfilade has previously included postings that were sparked by coverage at Style Court, it’s a treat to hear from Courtney directly – and on textiles, a topic that’s of special interest to her. As a HECAA member, Courtney (I hope) will have more postings to share from time to time in the future. -CH

◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊

Threads of Feeling
The Foundling Museum, London, 14 October 2010 — 6 March 2011

B y   C O U R T N E Y   B A R N E S

In 2003 I ventured down into the densely packed textile and costume archives of the Atlanta History Center to meet with curator Susan Neill. At the time, she was preparing for the opening of Gone With the Girdle: Freedom, Restraint and Power in Women’s Dress, an exhibition that used the familiarity and allure of fashion to engage a general audience in the social, economic, and political history of women living in the southeastern United States from the nineteenth century up to the present.

In addition to the always crowd-pleasing couture, Neill brought into the galleries more common garments including a restrictive maternity corset, a domestic worker’s evening uniform, the first pantsuit designed for Delta Airlines flight attendants, a mini skirt half slip, and jeans — all to tell a story of radical change. Not surprisingly, such everyday articles of clothing worn on the job by waitresses and domestic workers were harder for Neill to obtain since they were typically discarded due to wear and tear or lack of interest. And examples of clothing worn by slaves during the antebellum era eluded Neill completely.

"Sleeves red and white speckl’d linen turn’d up red spotted with white." A baby’s sleeve made from linen © Coram

This simple but profoundly ironic rule of material culture — that the most common and mundane traces of the past, especially when associated with the working classes and the poor — are the least likely to survive makes an upcoming exhibition at The Foundling Museum in London all the more remarkable. Threads of Feeling showcases women’s and children’s textile tokens from the middle of the eighteenth century. The exhibition curator, John Styles, a specialist in the material culture of eighteenth-century Britain, has assembled a selection of fabric tokens that have survived some 250 years in the archives of The Foundling Hospital. Beginning in the 1740s, the institution served as a last resort for many of London’s impoverished, unmarried women who found themselves unable to care for their infants. A single identifying record, usually a clipping of fabric, was typically left at the
Foundling when the child was accepted.

"A bunch of 4 ribbons narrow – Yellow, Blue, Green, & Pink." Silk ribbons tied in a bunch with a knot © Coram

As noted at the Museum’s website:

In the cases of more than 4,000 babies left between 1741 and 1760, a small object or token, usually a piece of fabric, was kept as an identifying record. The fabric was either provided by the mother or cut from the child’s clothing by the hospital’s nurses. Attached to registration forms and bound up into ledgers, these pieces of fabric form the largest collection of everyday textiles surviving in Britain from the 18th Century.

Because the babies were essentially adopted by an institution (rather than a particular family) and were rarely reclaimed, Threads of Feeling provides both a material and emotional window into the past. Styles comments on his own website:

"Flowered lawn." Lawn printed with flowers © Coram

The textiles are tangible evidence of babies abandoned, many destined to die within a few days or weeks. To see them is a poignant, emotional experience. But the textiles are also beautiful objects in their own right. Most are colourful, patterned fabrics that served as tokens precisely because they were visually arresting. At the same time, they witness a rich social history. They show how ordinary people conducted their romances, clothed their babies, and engaged with fashion, providing a market for the cotton fabrics that were fundamental to the Industrial Revolution of the later 18th century.

For anyone who would like to learn more about the antique textile tokens, the September-October 2010 issue of the British-based textile magazine, Selvedge, features a terrific, in-depth cover story on the exhibition written by Shelly
Goldsmith. Selvedge is available at select bookshops in the
U.S. and by subscription, in digital or traditional paper formats.

A Christamas Toast: To Handel

Posted in books, exhibitions by Editor on December 22, 2009

Ed. by Donald Burrows and Rosemary Dunhill (Oxford University Press, 2002)

‘I was much pleased this year with our exhibitions, and though I fear we shall never overtake Italy, ‘tis some praise that we begin to think, that, both in painting and in music, tis worth following’.
–James Harris in Salisbury to William Hamilton in Naples, 15 September 1774 (BL Add MS 42069, folios 94-5)

I’m not sure about the specific items included in the exhibition now on display at the Handel House Museum in London, but the book detailing the Harris collection of manuscripts is certainly fascinating. In assessing the volume for the English Historical Review 118 (April 2003): 446-48, William Weber suggests that

the letters and diaries of James Harris, his family and friends, between 1732 and 1780 take us close into the life of England’s elites, from theatres and assembly rooms in Salisbury, to concerts at Almack’s or the King’s Theatre in Westminster, and to court life in Spain, Germany, and Poland as seen through a diplomat’s eyes. Browsing through the 1068 pages of carefully annotated documents instils a highly nuanced sense of how such
people lived, and what music meant to them.

Handel House Museum, 25 Brook Street (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊

From the museum’s website:

Mr Handel’s Friends
Handel House Museum, London, 10 November 2009 — 28 February 2010

Curated by Donald Burrows and Rosemary Dunhill

Handel had many friends and admirers in London who collected, played and promoted his music, entertained him in their homes, and supported him in difficult times. Through the private letters and diaries of the Harris family this exhibition explores these relationships and shows the many sides of the famous composer’s character and fortunes.

◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊

And if the holiday season has the Messiah running through your head, then you might enjoy Jonathan Kandell’s profile in The Smithsonian Magazine. In
the eighteenth century, the oratorio wasn’t tied to Christmas but was a feature
of the annual concerts held to benefit the Foundling Hospital (another
outstanding small museum in London). 2009 marks the 250th anniversary of
Handel’s death.

–Craig Hanson

%d bloggers like this: