Friday, 14 December 2012

An evening dress by Norman Hartnell

Last time I wrote about festive party frocks of early 20th century, and promised to continue on the subject. Recently I came across a lovely evening dress from 1930s, designed by Norman Hartnell, and I just had to write about it.

Norman Hartnell (1901-1979) was one of the most prominent British designers of the 20th century, and also dressmaker for Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, and Queen Elizabeth II. He started his own company in 1923, after leaving Cambridge without a degree and working with other designers, such as Lady Duff-Gordon, better known as Lucile.

Hartnell’s style was opulent and decorative and he specialised in lavish embroideries employing an in-house embroidery workroom. He offered British haute couture for both domestic and foreign clientele, specializing in creating ethereal and alluring evening gowns and afternoon dresses for the elite, but he also produced variety of ready-to-wear, shoe, perfume, jewellery, bridal and menswear collections over the decades.
However, he is best remembered for dressing the royals. Hartnell gained the favour of the court when he designed the wedding dress and trousseau for Lady Alice Montagu-Douglas-Scott, marrying Duke of Gloucester in 1935. After that, both Queen Mary and Duchess of York, future Queen Elizabeth, became clients, and especially following the abdication crisis Hartnell became responsible for Queen Elizabeth’s wardrobe. She was so taken by Hartnell’s designs that she commissioned him to design the wedding and coronation gowns for Queen Elizabeth II and a wedding dress for Princess Margaret. In 1940 Hartnell received a Royal Warrant for his accomplishments and in 1977 he was appointed Knight Commander of the Royal Victoria Order.

The dress in the museum’s collection is from the 1930s when Hartnell was a praised and very sought-after designer. It is a full length silver lame evening dress with a train, and it also has a matching coronet and an underdress that goes with it. We do not know who the dress belonged to, but behind the dress label there is another label saying “Lady M oraan”.

The dress is sleeveless and it has shirring at the bust and an open back with imitation belt on the back side. As is common with dresses of this era, it is bias-cut to accentuate the body lines and drape more softly. The cut of the dress is very interesting in other respects too, since the back side seams are very cleverly cut in zig zag pattern also helping to accentuate the body lines.

The dress closes on the left side seam with hooks and eyes and the side of the hooks changes on the waist seam, creating more secure closure. There is also an egg blue waist tape inside. Narrow straps with press stud closure are sewn inside the shoulders to secure the straps of the underdress in place.

The matching coronet is made of same silver lame as the dress and it has an elastic band sewn on it. Metal wire is twined inside the silver lame braids to form a plait.

The underdress worn with the dress is of egg blue silk with silk chiffon hem and cream shoulder straps. There is a label inside revealing it was bought from Marie Thérèse Gowns, 47 Conduit Street, London. Conduit Street is situated just next to Bruton Street in Mayfair, where Norman Hartnell had his salon throughout his life. The owner of the dress has probably first had the dress done at Hartnell and then bought the underdress from a nearby shop.

For more information on Norman Hartnell, visit

Piia Lempiäinen

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Stichting Ebenist conference, "Reproduction and Reconstruction in Furniture Conservation

The conferences organised by Stichting Ebenist in the Netherlands, in the field of furniture and wooden object conservation, attract an international audience, and the latest conference, 8-9 November 2012, has been the most successful to date, with something like 250 delegates from over 35 countries. In the picture above all the speakers have been gathered at the end of the conference to receive the thanks of the Stichting Ebenist committee, and a small gift, this time a kit with which one can build, in miniature, a famous chair designed by Gerrit Rietveld. Temple Newsam House was well represented with the first two papers of the conference. Retired senior curator Anthony Wells-Cole talked about the research he and I have been doing in respect of the original appearance of the Japanese lacquer columns and mouldings made in the 17th century for a bed chamber in Huis ten Bosch in the Hague. After being broken up and sold in the Napoleonic Wars the columns etc. turn up in the furniture trades in Paris and London and get built into and added to pieces of furniture, including items supplied to Temple Newsam House. I gave the second paper, on the re-construction of the Queen Anne state bed at Temple Newsam. There are previous blogs about this project. It was a great privilege to be invited to stand before my peers, but an even greater privilege to tell everybody what a great museum Temple Newsam is, and support my colleagues, present, retired, moved on, and no more, in particular the late Christopher Gilbert, to whom, along with Anthony Wells-Cole, I owe my career. Christopher was one of the UK's most eminent furniture historians, and also the Director of Leeds City Art Galleries, based at Temple Newsam. There has been a long history of excellence in research, acquisitions, exhibitions and conservation at Temple Newsam, led by knowledgable and dynamic curators. There has been something of an inter-regnum as all the curator posts at Temple Newsam are vacant, but hopefully soon there will be some appointments.

Stichting Ebenist

Posted by Ian Fraser

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Re-upholstery of a Regency day-bed

A very fine early 19th century daybed, supplied to Newby Hall, North Yorkshire, probably by Thomas Chippendale the Younger, was acquired by my retired colleague James Lomax, in the early 1980s, when he was working for Manchester Art Galleries, at Heaton Hall. The upholstery was mostly missing, and no work had been done on the daybed since its acquisition for Heaton Hall. Recently Manchester City Council took the decision to close Heaton Hall and dispose of its furniture collection and the daybed was offered for display at Temple Newsam House. Its reupholstery is underway, duplicating the techniques and materials of early 19th century upholstery. Further updates in due course.

Finished! And on display in the Terrace Room.

Posted by Ian Fraser

John Harrison display at Leeds City Museum

Picture by Jeff Darken

The incalculable contribution John Harrison made to navigation science, by proving that precision timekeeping was the most practical method of determining longitude, has been written about in earlier blogs, under History of Science. The plans to display the John Harrison clock in the Leeds collections, the clock on which Harrison began his precision timekeeping research in response to the Longitude Act of 1714, are moving forward. Appropriately this new permanent display will be adjacent to the World View gallery. One of the features of the display, recently commissioned, and its manufacture under way, is a circular tablet, one metre in diameter that will be let flush into the floor adjacent to the showcase. It has been designed by the project team and it is being made in the marquetry technique by Jack Metcalfe. It will mark the longitude and latitude of its location, and the points of the compass. The line of longitude, or meridian, will be formed of a bar of brass and steel, like a bimetallic strip, one of Harrison's most significant inventions.
The grain of the oak veneer is aligned radially, like the oak cogs of Harrison's early clocks. The centre will be a disc of lignum vitae, a wood he used for friction reduction. The points of the compass will be formed in a black-coloured wood, as will be the longitude and latitude numbers. The font is called Caslon and was in common usage during the 18th century. The meridian line and line of latitude will, of course, run through the centre of the disc. The entire disc will be protected by toughed glass, and be flush to the floor.
Floor tablet completed, awaiting the stage of display development
when it can be installed.


Floor tablet installation

Showcase installation

Installations continue, LMG's Harrison precision pendulum
clock No. 2 due for installation shortly, to the left of copy movement
borrowed from the National Maritime Museum.
Leeds Harrison clock to be installed shortly,
watch this space!

Posted by Ian Fraser

Temple Newsam House, Old Testament Prophets from the Jacobean Chapel

Display development in the Red Corridor at Temple Newsam House is about displaying artefacts and features of the very old house, Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. In the 17th century there was a chapel in the basement featuring a pulpit made by Thomas Ventris of York, and several larger-than-life depictions of Old Testament prophets, painted on wood, by John Carleton, in 1636. Incredibly much of this material survived despite the room's being turned into kitchens in the late 18th century. Six of these Old Testament prophets will be going on display soon in the Red Corridor. Remedial works to the wood and painted surfaces have been underway. A framing and mounting system is being devised in the woodwork studio, something that will give a sense of how they were displayed in the first place. Further update after final installations! A little more history about the chapel and Carleton panels via the link below:

Posted by Ian Fraser

Moa Lisa going on display at Leeds City Museum

The skills set within the conservation team also includes design and sometimes manufacture of specialist mounts. These sorts of projects can present interesting technical challenges, designing a mount that will support the object correctly, for long term display. In addition to being well made, a mount should also look good, but not so much that it draws the eye from the centrepiece of the display itself. The big-footed moa is an extinct, large, flightless bird from New Zealand. There are not many specimens of their remains in existence, and we have in the collections at Leeds a pretty much intact specimen. The mount is in two parts. The armatures holding the skeleton were made by a specialist contractor, someone who specialises in mounts for natural history specimens. The elliptical base from which the metal armatures emerge was designed and made by the conservation service. The timber used is North American cherry.

Posted by Ian Fraser

The Temple Newsam Christmas Tree Star

Temple Newsam House is a bit special, so accordingly it has a special star for its Christmas Tree. The link with collections objects, is that the same decorative technique seen on many kinds of object around the house, picture frames, furniture etc. was used to gild this star. The technique is called water gilding, and the link takes you to a video about water gilding, on the website of the Victoria and Albert Museum. This star is a recent creation provided by Temple Newsam's conservation staff, not an historic object, though I guess in time it will be.

Technique of water gilding video

Posted by Ian Fraser