Unbound Exhibition at Two Temple Place

* This review was written before Unbound was closed due to recent events. I have decided to publish it to celebrate the work that went into the exhibition.

Two Temple Place is an imposing building, and it has the added advantages of being free to visit, with a great shop and cafe. Their exhibition Unbound: Visionary Women Collecting Textiles brought a diverse array of textiles and clothing together from regional museums and galleries to celebrate the collecting practice of seven women. These women – Edith Durham (1863-1944), Louisa Pesel (1870-1947), Olive Matthews (1887-1979), Enid Marx (1902-1998), Muriel Rose (1897-1986), Jennifer Harris (who worked at the Whitworth, University of Manchester until 2016), and Nima Poovaya-Smith (Senior Keeper International Arts at Cartwright Hall Art Gallery in Bradford from 1985-1998) – collected either for themselves or for particular institutions. The items on display comprised examples of embroidery (including The Subversive Stitch Sampler by Lyn Malcom dated 1988, which subsequently featured on the cover of Rozsika Parker’s book of the same name), Yinka Shonibare’s moving piece Wanderer (2007), lace, shoes, and clothing from England, the Balkans, and South Asia.

Lyn Malcom, The Subversive Stitch Sampler, 1988

Numerous items caught my eye when I visited a few weeks ago but one gown from the Olive Matthews Collection at Chertsey Museum directly relates to my research. Olive Matthews began collecting from a young age and initially acquired examples of antique furniture until her father complained about the lack of storage space in their house! She then moved onto historic costumes and accessories, noting ‘I am interested in costumes up to about early Victoria’, and her collection included garments and accessories dating from 1600 onwards. She initially purchased items from Caledonian Road Market (noting that she never paid more than £5 per item), and later from auctions, maintaining a regular correspondence with curators at the V&A, and developing her own extensive knowledge of historic dress.[1] The gown below is made from hand woven Spitalfields silk brocade dated to around 1734. I was struck by the seashell design on the front robings, and what appears to be a nautilus shell and a conical shell, surrounded by leaves and flowers on the skirt of the gown. Collecting natural specimens from overseas to inspire woven silk designs was popular in the eighteenth century and in that respect, this gown represents a history of collecting in more ways than one.[2] Moreover, it provides insights into the manufacture of clothing by mantua-makers. This dress was altered in the mid eighteenth century and is formed of three different silks, which was a way of keeping costs down as continuous lengths of fabric were more expensive. The construction is also reminiscent of a mantua in the V&A’s collection, showing that gowns were often remade into new styles, thus re-using costly fabrics.

Open robe, 1750-60, Spitalfields cream silk brocade, Olive Matthews Collection, Chertsey Museum.
Open robe, 1750-60, Spitalfields cream silk brocade, Olive Matthews Collection, Chertsey Museum.

The exhibition continued up a grand staircase, and as I got to the second floor, the sun was just emerging from behind a cloud, sending a rainbow of lights onto the wooden panelling. This used to be the study of William Waldorf Astor, the owner of Two Temple Place but it has now been claimed as an exhibition space.

One of the items on display in this room was the linen handkerchief pictured below, of the kind that would have been stocked by seventeenth and eighteenth century seamstresses and milliners. It dates from the seventeenth century and is edged with reticella (a form of needle lace), and bobbin lace.

Reticella and bobbin lace edged handkerchief, linen, 17th century, The Whitworth, The University of Manchester.

It is clear that the women celebrated in this exhibition have contributed much to our knowledge – and the preservation – of textiles and clothing through their collections. We have a lot to thank them for. Yet, their passion for collecting was often also integral to their wider work as designers and writers, helping them to build expertise, ensuring that their personal stories are as fascinating as the objects on display.

The exhibition was due to run until 19 April 2020 but is now understandably closed.

For more information, visit: https://twotempleplace.org/exhibitions/unbound/


Footnotes

[1] G. Evans, Fashion in Focus 1600-2009: Treasures from the Olive Matthews Collection (Chertsey Museum, 2011), pp. 9-17.

[2] T. Kinukawa, ‘Learned vs. Commercial? The Commodification of Nature in Early Modern Natural History Specimen Exchanges in England, Germany, and the Netherlands’, Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 43:5 (2013), pp. 589-618; Z. Anishanslin, Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World (London, 2016), pp. 54-55.

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