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I’ve known about this for some time, but I can now tell you that the fantastic Threads of Feeling exhibit, which I saw in 2010 at the Foundling Hospital Museum in London and reported on here, is going to be on show at the De Witt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, Colonial Williamsburg, throughout 2013.
This was, as you will no doubt remember, a fantastic exhibit, detailing the range of 18th century fabric samples given as tokens by mothers and sometimes fathers of foundling children when they were accepted into the Foundling Hospital’s care. These tokens were kept and preserved in the Hospital’s “Billet Books”. By examining them carefully it can be deduced what type of clothing would be worn by ordinary people in 18th century England. The archive of these tokens is a veritable treasure trove, as few clothes worn by ordinary people from this era survive, as, naturally, they would have been reused in various ways until they disintegrated.
The exhibit was curated by Professor John Styles, who will also curate the Colonial Williamsburg exhibition. I understand there will also be a symposium.
Professor Styles has, of course, made a special study of these fabrics in his fantastic book, The Dress of the People, which I reviewed here. He writes:
Threads of Feeling is an exhibition of the mid-eighteenth century textiles preserved in the records of London’s Foundling Hospital. The exhibition was first displayed at the Foundling Museum in London in 2010-11. It will open for a year at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum at Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, USA in 2013. Meanwhile, it continues as an online exhibition at:http://www.threadsoffeeling.com/
So..if you live in North America and were frustrated by the exhibit being only in London you will now have your chance to see this thought-provoking exhibit. When I have more details of dates etc I will, of course, let you know.
The Threads of Feeling exhibiton which has been so deservedly successful and which is nearing the end ff its run at the Foundling Hospital, is now available to view online. My review of the exhibit can be accessed here.
If you go here you will be taken to a slide show, accompanied by a soundtrack of 18th century ballads which helps put the contents of the slides into context. Each slide shows in great detail a piece of ribbon or fabric, one of the tokens which were kept in the Billet Books of the Foundling Museum and which were deposited by the mothers of the babies, just in case they were ever in a position to be able to return to retrieve their child and needed to identify it. Details of the fabric are also listed.
The quality of the photographs is stunning and every detail of the fabric can be seen. Do access it, especially if you have no hope of going to see the exhibit before it closes on the 6th March
John Styles the Curator of the wonderful Threads of Feeling exhibition currently to be seen at the Foundling Museum, and which I reviewed here, is going to give a talk about the exhibit, together with a questions and answer session at the Foundling Musuem, on Wednesday 2nd February from 7.30p.m till 8p.m.
This promises to be a fabulous event, as John is not only the curator of the exhibit but the author of the magnificent book, The Dress of the People which I reviewed here and which, in part, examined in detail the tokens of fabrics left in the billet books of the Foundling Hospital by the poor and disadvantaged of the 18th century. You can see an example of one above. The collection of fabrics is therefore the most complete collection of 18th century working class fabrics in the UK. Examining the collection gives amazing insights into how the poor actually dressed. So, if you have ever wondered how Jane Austen’s characters such as Fanny’s Prices morther and her servant Rebecca from Mansfield Park dressed in Portsmouth , or how Nurse Rooke in Persuasion was attitred, then this is the talk (and book) for you.
I am hoping to go to this (she said frantically re-arranging dates in her diary) and of course if I do get there I will report back to you in full. But I do hope others of you can go: if you go here you can access all the booking details .
BBC World News has produced a beautiful and moving film of the exhibit, which I wrote about here . The film included footage of the remains of teh hospital in Brunswick Square and details the history of the Foundling Hospital.
Interviews with Professor John Styles and Lars Tharpp are inlcuded and there is the very moving and sad story of a recent inmate.
Go here to acess it ( hopefully all over the world).And above are some photographs of the exhibition that I’ve not published here before.
Good news for fans of the Foundling Hospital tokens in the US. The wonderful Threads of Feeling exhibition catalogue written by the curator of the exhibit, John Styles, is now available to purchase in the US direct from Burnley and Trowbridge, making considerable savings on mail order costs. . Go here to order it: you won’t regret it ;0
I visited this exhibit on Wednesday, which is being held at the Foundling Museum in Brunswick Square until the 6th March, 2011. Brunswick Square was the home of the original London Foundling Hospital, a ground- breakingly original institution which cared for abandoned and illegitimate children who would otherwise have been left in the gutters to die. Founded in 1739, though the original building no longer exists in Brunswick Square, the foundation still performs sterling work in the form of the charity Coram,named after the Hospital’s founder, Thomas Coram.(More on the museum and the Hospital when I next post)
The children were deposited at the hospital by their desperate mothers (and,in an echo of Harriet Smith’s experience at Mrs Goddard’s school in Emma, sometimes by their fathers). Their parents knew that their child, once accepted, would have been given the best possible start in life (though the infant mortality rates were still alarmingly high even for this section of society).
The Hospital tried, ab initio, to keep the most detailed records of the babies in its care. The billets, or registration documents which recorded the admission of a child to the hospital, often contained a token left with the hospital by the mother as a meansof identifying her child should her circumstances improve and she could attempt to reclaim her child. In reality few managed to do this: between 1741 and 1760 only 152 children were reclaimed out of the 16,282 admitted to the institution’s care.
The tokens were sometimes tiny items of little worth:
But they could also take the form of a piece of fabric-a cap, or sleeve of a babies dress, or a piece of fabric from a gown owned by the mother. And it was the discovery of these fabric token which intrigued Professor John Styles. He realised that it was an invaluable archive of working class fabrics and clothes, from which it was possible to make deductions about the type of clothing worn by the poor of the mid 18th century. Clothing of the poorest in society, is rarely, if ever, preserved. Worn till threadbare then used as rags, very little survives in clothing collections. So the archive of swatches of fabric collected in the ledgers of the Foundling Hospital Museum was in fact a mine of information awaiting discovery and interpretation. And this is what the exhibition, Threads of Feeling, curated by Professor Styles sets out to do.
Housed in the basement exhibition area of the Museum, the billet ledgers are displayed in block display cases, the reverse sides of which are decorated with large-scale reproductions of some of the pages of the ledgers…
together with comprehensive explanatory notes…whilst the other side of the cases
provides detailed note on all the fabric tokens in the exhibit ( there are over 6o tokens on display)
The billets and tokens are divided into different sections: ribbons- the love token of many a girl who had been taken “advantage of” and succumbed to the charms of some swain at a fair. This flowered silver ribbon had attached to it a slip of paper with the inscription”This Silver Ribbon is desired to be preserved as the child’s mark for distinction”
Baby clothes-here is an example of a cockade made from silvered cotton dating from 1751. Emma Woodhouse, you will recall drew her nephew George wearing such an ornament(more on this in a later post) in Chapter 6 of Emma;
Here is my sketch of the fourth, who was a baby. I took him, as he was sleeping on the sofa, and it is as strong a likeness of his cockade as you would wish to see. He had nestled down his head most conveniently. That’s very like. I am rather proud of little George. The corner of the sofa is very good….
And this is a baby’s cap made of the linen material traditionally used for diapers, dating from 1753,a quite pathetically moving piece of clothing.
Some mothers left scraps of needlework-some fine, some basic,but all most probably worked by themselves. Above is a piece of a sampler-that piece of work undertaken to prove above all that the child who had worked it was a “good”, industrious,religious soul- dating from 1759 which accompanied a boy into the care of the hospital.
A lot of mothers donated tiny scraps of fabric printed with buds, birds, acorns or other symbols of new life. This tny scrap shows a multicoloured flower. The scrap of paper accompanying it reads:
Florella Burney Born June 19th 1758. In the Parish of St Anns SoHo.Not Baptiz’d, pray Let particulare Care be taken’en off this Child As it will be called for again…
This tiny but colourful piece of fabric was used as a template for a piece of clothing inspired by the exhibit. On the First Floor of the Museum, this outfit was on show:
It, in its turn, was inspired by the print The Female Orators by John Collet of 1768, showing street sellers in action.
The main character wears a short bedgown made of material with a sprigged pattern, possibly printed onto a cream or yellow linen ground.
Close-up of the spotted fabric…..
Close-up of Florella….and below, a close up of the bright red underskirt…which all goes to prove, as Professor Styles assets here and in his book, The Dress of the People that clothes for the poor of the 18th century were not monochrome and dull. They were as vibrant as any high street copy of couture clothes we see/buy today.
An installation by Annabel Lewis of the ribbon suppliers V V Rouleaux was also on display.
It began in the roof space of the stairwell of the museum just behind the bust of Handel,an original patron of the Foundling Hospital.
and hung down the stairwell…
right down to the ground floor….
….where it surrounded the statue of a foundling.
The Florella fabric is on sale in the Museum shop
I bought some as a memento….
A wonderful way to remember this fine exhibit.
If you can’t make it to the exhibit then I recommend you buy the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition which is available by mail order from Paul Holberton Publishing, all the details here. And if you want to read more on the subject then I can highly recommend Professor Styles’ book, The Dress of the People.
I should like to express my sincere thanks to professor John Styles for all his help in arranging for me to take photographs of the exhibition to share with you, and also to the Staff of the Foundling Museum for all their kindness.
This is a marvellous, thought provoking, once in a lifetime exhibit and experience. I can’t praise it highly enough. Go and see it: you will not regret it.
And a note to all frontier type re-enactors reading this post: thanks for visiting. Your comments have been very educational ;)
Yesterday, I had great fun at Kelmarsh Hall’s second annual Country House Book Day.
Kelmarsh Hall, in Northamptonshire, is a beautiful, small Georgian house,designed by Gibbs and Smith of Warwick, and has much in common stylistically and in size with its near neighbour Cottesbrooke Hall.
It is surrounded by parkland
the parish church
and a walled kitchen garden in the process of being restored.
In addition to the fine surroundings yesterdays Book Day provided entertainment about houses and gardens with lectures being given by leading garden writers and historians to small but rapt audiences.
Amid these beautiful and fitting surroundings I went to listen to Amanda Vickery give her talk Out of the Closet: Love Power and Houses in the Eighteenth Century. It was as ever a virtuoso performance from Professor Vickery, author of the very interesting and rightly lauded book, BehindClosed Doors, and The Gentleman’s Daughter. She gave a talk full of riveting information and good humour. She told us about the universal need for a home,and what this need says about us and about those who lived in the past ; how difficult it is to write about the home of the poor or even the middling sort for unlike the homes of the elite, few homes or artefacts from these classes survive into the 21st century; how responsibility for the different areas of a home were delegated between the sexes and how lack of a home was considered degrading for both spinsters and bachelors, those poor unmarried souls who had failed to achieve that most desirable consumer object-a home of one’s own. She also discussed the concept of taste as defined in the 18th century and how this was viewed by the differing classes, ranging from the elite to the shopkeepers who supplied consumer goods to all classes. In all it was a marvellous bravura performance, totally enjoyable and very informative. If only all history lecturers were like this as my teenage daughter wistfully remarked at the conclusion to Professor Vickery’s talk. Ah yes…if only….
If you go here you can downlad a podcast of a similar lecture Professor Vickery gave, the 2008 HarperCollins History lecture: I don’t think you need ITunes in order to play it, so I do hope many of you who cannot physically get to hear Professor Vickery talk will do this as it will give you a very good idea of her good humoured and intensely interesting style.
After the lecture I had the opportunity to take tea with Professor Vickery and amongst other matters of important Austen-related gossip, she told me that she had been commissioned by the BBC to make a three-part television series based on Behind Closed Doors .I won’t give away details here but you can be assured that when more information is available I will pass it on.
Quit unexpectedly, I also met Professor Vickery’s husband, John Styles,Research Professor of History at the University of Hertfordshire and author of one of my favourite books, The Dress of the People.
If you go here (and scroll almost to the bottom of the page)you can listen to a short podcast by Professor Styles about the Foundling Hospital and its collection of textiles which formed a great part of the evidence he used in his book to decode the types of fabrics worn by the ordinary and the poor in the eighteenthcentury. I understand that he is going to be curating an exhibition of these textiles soon,which will be held in Bloomsbury Square, London at the Corum Foundation’s Founding Hospital Museum. I will of course let you know more details about this exhibit when they become available.
In all it was a wonderful day (and the English summer weather was kind for once!) and I am glad for this opportunity to share it with you.