Monday, February 28, 2022

From the Spitalfields Silkweavers to the Silk Snippets of Beatrix Potter...

Returning to Spitalfields in the Spring break, I wanted to wander around the old streets again, in the district where the 18th century silk weavers worked from the grand townhouses that still stand, despite the encroaching ugliness of 21st century ‘development’ schemes. I noticed that some of these projects, whose progression I have observed with dismay over the last 3 years, were nearing completion having successfully wiped out yet another swathe of collective history and culture…
I particularly wanted to gaze up at the house from which Anna Maria Garthwaite (1688 – 1763) had worked. Although not of Huguenot extraction herself, she set up home within the community largely composed of French Protestant refugee silk weavers and merchants to practice a trade for which she in turn would be renowned as silk designer.
The house is situated in what is now known as Princelet Street (formerly Princes Street) and Anna Maria would have been able to see the steeple of Hawksmoor’s Christchurch from her attic workshop, as would many of the other silkworker households. She was buried in that same imposing church on her death in 1763. Today, the ominous sight of developer’s cranes spoil the skyline.
What I wouldn’t do to look around her home today ! As that isn’t possible, on a quiet, cold Sunday morning I was able to look around the streets that she had once inhabited.
Whilst there, I did speak to a home builder/decorator who has been doing restoration work on the townhouses for the last few decades, having initially just come to the area ‘for a week’ ; such is the magnetic pull in this incredible setting.
Creating intricate floral woven designs that combined a rich Roccoco style with a more typically English penchant for intricate flowered clusters, Anna Maria Garthwaite responded to the fashion for beautiful gowns, accessories and even furnishings in lavish silks, featuring damasks and brocade, often using silver thread for greater effect.
This time I made sure that I saw some of her work on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum and I was not disappointed. Lavish garments and dainty, decorative footwear that were assembled using the delicate silks from 18th century Spitalfields were shown in their own section of the museum as well as part of a clothing-over-the-centuries exhibition.
Several of the pieces were by Anna Maria – with swatches of silk and the final exquisite gowns and ‘sacks’ (loose, tent-like robes), all carefully sewn. Not only could you see what the 18th century lady wore on her feet – with elegant slippers that were worthy of a fairytale - you also got a naughty glimpse of what she wore beneath all that material ! More precisely, how the more extravagant dresses maintained their desired shape whilst worn…
Panniers or side-hooped undergarments of impressive width were exposed, revealing how robes such as the Mantua were carried, rather than worn. Gentlemen were no means less soigné in their dress code and beautiful waistcoats and jackets were equally as stunning as the ladies’ gowns.
The delicate embroidery and buttonwork put me in mind of The Tailor of Gloucestor by Beatrix Potter, with the missing cherry-coloured skein of silk for the Mayor’s garments of silk ‘embroidered with pansies and roses’. Having failed to get an online ticket to the Drawn to Nature exhibition, I was thrilled to get to visit all the same!
And so it was, to my great pleasure, that I saw similar garments that had inspired Beatrix Potter in the watercolour illustrations that I had loved so much as a child – with the mice discretely collecting the snippets of fabric under the watchful guard of Simpkin the cat, and finally completing the tailor’s order with skill.
After all these exquisite pieces from the past, I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to our desire to wear beautiful, carefully crafted garments and shoes, apart from the obvious and real limitations imposed by financial considerations. But why is it that a large majority of the population, regardless of age or situation, opt for the same kinds of clothing and foot attire that have become a virtual uniform ? How would Anna Maria Garthwaite regard today's staple ensemble of sneakers and jeans ?

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