Mantua of the Month – April 2020

Court Mantua, c. 1760s, National Trust

Each month I will be doing a short feature on a gown that catches my fancy as part of the ‘Mantua of the Month’ feature on my blog page. For April 2020, I have chosen this Court Mantua, which was featured in an exhibition last year entitled ‘A Dress Fit for a King’ at the National Trust’s Berrington Hall. You can read more about the exhibition here: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/berrington-hall/features/a-dress-with-a-tale

Court Mantua, c. 1760s, National Trust

This Court Mantua was owned by a woman named Ann Harley née Bangham. She was the granddaughter of a dyer from Leominster, suggesting that she had family connections to the textiles and clothing trade herself. Ann married Thomas Harley in 1754. By 1767, he was Mayor of London, and he purchased Berrington Hall in the 1770s.

What I particularly liked about this exhibition was the innovative way in which it sought to uncover more about Ann’s life through what she wore. No portrait can now be traced of her, as acknowledged by the display in the photograph below. However, her Court Mantua offers an opportunity to understand her personal sense of taste and style.

The gown was purchased at auction from Christie’s in 2016. It had been dismantled into ten separate pieces for ease of storage, though the stomacher and left sleeve were unfortunately missing. The fabric for the petticoat alone measured four metres long, so it was two metres wide when reassembled. It is thought that the mantua may have been worn only once, perhaps for a special occasion and that this ensured that the silk remained in good condition. In order to reconstruct the mantua, the left sleeve was recreated using digitally printed fabric to reproduce the original pattern. It is not known whether the fabric was woven in Spitalfields, London or in Lyon, France, both key centres of silk manufacturing in eighteenth-century Europe. However, it is certain that this silk would have been extremely costly when purchased from a London mercer.

One of the elements that really stands out is the glittering gold threads woven through the cream ribbed silk brocade. The photograph below shows the design in greater detail.

Court Mantua, c. 1760s, National Trust

I was lucky enough to purchase a small, rather tattered sample of eighteenth-century silk at The Textile Society’s London Antique & Vintage Textile Fair at Chelsea Old Town Hall last year. It is in a very sorry state but reminded me of Ann Bangham’s mantua, and I have really valued being able to view this comparable material up close to understand a little more about how the fabric was made. Below you can see the flattened silver-gilt wire, which has been twisted around silk thread to make ‘slesy’. The wire has also been left flat in certain sections of the design to create a contrasting effect.

Using silver and gilt wire when weaving textiles indicates that these fabrics were particularly costly and would only have been used for wealthy individuals, in search of the most fashionable attire for attending lavish ceremonies in the City or even at court.

By piecing together this gown, the conservators have learned much about the construction of the mantua, bringing their insights to the wider public, and I would very much recommend watching the video below and visiting the National Trust’s website to find out more about the decisions made in reconstructing Ann’s Mantua. They even found handmade eighteenth-century pins in the folds of the fabric!

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