Saturday, September 30, 2023

Glorious Georgian Gowns...

In the summer, I eagerly queued up to visit the exhibition at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace; Style and Society: Dressing the Georgians. Looking at the exhibition poster (sadly not on sale), I thought how well the painting by the British School - St James's Park and the Mall - seemed to capture my perception of this period of history. In this work, an animated, joyous throng of individuals of all class and character goes about its social business in this grand setting, unperturbed by the presence of those from wildly different circles with whom they rub shoulders, almost literally. On the contrary, each being, however humble or illustrious their origin and demeanor, wishes to take part in this extraordinary living fresco, to exchange words, parade, preen, pose in public. Meantime, rather lacking in deference to the human counterparts they somehow seem to mirror are the dogs and cows that likewise occupy themselves and the centre stage with a certain insouciance. This strange combination of extremes, contrasts and likenesses is fascinating.
As I gazed at the exquisite clothing, jewellery and elegant footwear of the exhibition, I wondered how articles and artifacts of such intricate beauty and craftsmanship were made (and indeed worn) when the means to do so were limited, relatively speaking, and lives were hard, with or without affluence to ease hardship. Supply was naturally buoyed up on a regiment of ill-paid and poorly-treated workers with deft fingers and so I suppose that the real question that I actually asked myself is what happened to our demand or desire for goods of comparable elegance and originality today, means permitting? I am frequently left choking in dismay and disbelief at the sight of today's vulgar, limited vestimentary selections, all variations of the same trends, coveted by all, regardless of status or wealth. Most of these seem to me dull and unoriginal and I am sadly unable to unsee the very worst modern-day monstrosities, visually fatigued by the sight of all these logos that are branded onto each individual to form a globalized uniform mass. Anyway, an antidote to all that dross clothing and footware were above all these incredible gowns.
Having already seen samples of silk designed and woven in the silk-weavers’ district in Spitalfields, East London, it was marvelous to see more types of garment this was used for in the 18th century. Created at a time when precious fabrics were more valuable than finished gowns, sadly few of these gowns have survived to the present day in their initial state. Many were indeed taken apart, the silk recovered to create further dresses in line with changing fashions over the decades, whilst others with their brocade, taffeta, glossy lustring and damask were used in home furnishing and upholstering. Peering through the display cabinet, I had the impression that the decoration of the fabric was due to embroidered motifs but in fact it was simply down to the rich working of the silk. The delicate botanical patterns and floral details, so characteristic of Spitalfields work, were one of the specialities of Anna Maria Garthwaite, who was a pioneering female textile designer, producing silks from the 1720s. until her death in 1763.
By their very composition and design, these grand ‘statement’ clothes were a powerful reflection of the wearer’s social status, affluence and aesthetic taste. They were worn to enable the privileged woman in question to set herself apart from the others, all likewise vying for the centre stage through the sheer size and splendour of their attire. The stunning piece in the Queen’s Gallery was the magnificent Mantua dress with its intricate floral details displayed across the vast dimensions of this dress unlike any other! With its incredible volume and the perfection of its details, down to the dainty silk slipper shoes that accompany it, this gown is simply spectacular. Possibly named after the Italian city of Mantova, renowned for its silk production, or in reference to the French manteau, the mantua gown represented a significant move away from the restrictive bodice that was a key element in the grands habits in court until around 1670. Indeed, this new form of dress towards the end of the 17th century was in fact more like a coat with its fabric draped and pleated to display the silk and numerous trimmings to their full advantage. Unlike typical formal garments that required careful structuring, the mantua, with its loose coat-like form was cut from one piece of fabric alone with a visible separate petticoat.
In many respects, the mantua was a variation of the banyan worn by men as a form of 'undress'; casual wear. Pleats hung from the shoulders and draped material was bundled up to form a bustle at the back of the gown. Initially, the informal nature of such garments met with disapproval; they could not be worn in the royal courts. Gradually, however, the mantua gown came to be accepted as its style evolved. Indeed, the pleated material at the front of the gown was decreased in size to form robings, and the bodice was opened to insert a stomacher – a richly decorated panel in an inverted triangular shape that gave a more elegant form to the whole. The stomacher was pinned onto the stays beneath the bodice and the robings on each side. The considerable size of the dresses and the fact that the stomacher was not sewn in but merely secured by pins meant that achieving unhampered, pain-free movement must have been quite a feat for the wearer! Not only was the unstructured mantua gown revolutionary for such women, it also radically changed the lot of many female seamstresses (known as mantua-makers) who were able to undertake the sewing of such garments, at a time when tailoring was the domain of men alone. It should perhaps be remembered that all sewing (and indeed tailoring) was performed by hand since no sewing machine would exist until the end of the 18th century..
With time, the mantua gave way to the sack-back gown that was imported from France. Although not as wide as the mantua, this robe à la française was initally voluminous with long box pleats on the back of the neck that led to a train which was obligatory in court. These were famously captured in the paintings of Watteau, hence the name commonly applied to refer to them; Watteau pleats. Gradually these pleats grew narrower and tighter whilst great importance was attached to the trimmings and embellishments of the robe.
Flounces, falbellas or furbelows and fly braiding– were sewn on the front of the dress, and likewise lace, bows and embroidery would decorate the robe or the visible petticoat below. To the long robings at the front of the robe were attached ornate quilles. Similarly, to the elbow-length sleeves would be sewn 3 tiers of scalloped ruffles and separate frills with separate lace cuff details – known as engageantes. Naturally, a pannier or hoops would be worn below the robe to provide characteristic form and volume. Of course, as with the mantua, the effect was stunning but as the Neo-classical movement began to take precedence in the latter part of the 18th century, the sack-back went out of fashion as waistlines grew higher, hoops and stays were discarded and therefore the full, highly decorated robes lost their popularity.

Strange Fruit and Faces...

Autumn again, not that you would truly notice that the seasons had changed if you based your impressions solely on the astoundingly high temperatures that are actually quite alarming. Nevertheless, the leaves are slowly starting to turn and will surely begin to fall in the days to come.
Meanwhile, with a more predictable and reassuring regularity, the ornamental gourds have made their appearance. Known as coloquintes here, these are striking for their vivid, contrasting colours but above all their curiously textured forms and extraordinary shapes. Almost as if Nature were amusing itself, strange horned growths, speckled ridges and weirdly irregular blisters emerge from otherwise smooth surfaces.
Wondering if these could be described as beautiful or somewhat ugly, or rather a mixture of the two, I remembered the unsettling, unparalleled portraits of Italian artist, Guiseppe Arcimboldo (1526 – 1593).
Known for his symbolical paintings of heads, composed largely of flora, flauna and of course vegetables, he created work that specialized in the grotesque presented with great beauty and detail; the inversion of aesthetic norms.
It seems odd that he should have been court portraitist under the Habsburgs but his ability to link nature and mankind, whilst highlighting the emperor’s power over all, surely gained him respect and a unique reputation. Naturally, this same obsessive fascination with the human form composed of elements from the natural world has also led to questions over his sanity ever since, but ultimately that makes his art even more enigmatic.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Pansies, Pensées; A Penny for Your Thoughts...

The jaunty pansies are out for the harvest season and their strangely cheerful faces never fail to brighten up any mood, chasing away shadows and troublesome thoughts with their delicate simplicity...
The warm, sugary colours here look like something from a pâtisserie window, gently guiding us away from the overbearing (and unbearable) heat and blazing sunshine over the last weeks towards a more autumnal period.
The rounded flowers, gently ruffled, offer up their petals with veins leading to the mysterious depth of the head, or perhaps on the contrary these etched lines burst out from the golden centre, like ink bleeding across wet paper...
Peering up close, a white fringed border is visible just above the heart of each head - the stamen - like a whiskery moustache... Although the pansy does not strike us as a highly-scented flower, its perfume is discrete yet evident when the plants are grouped together and the scent of violet can clearly be picked up.
In French, the pansy is la pensée, and so what are my thoughts on this Sunday evening? My penny's worth; if only the weekend could stretch itself out longer and the working week postponed, but that's life, I suppose!
And finally, one of my favourite pansy paintings; part of one of Louis Wain's cat portraits...