A lady, a dress, a portrait, and a stately home. Part I

Here’s a satisfying project I worked on in England, at the National Trust Textile Conservation Studio, where I was fortunate to land a “placement” a while back.

Portrait of Margaret Verney by Richmond

Portrait of Margaret Maria Hay-Williams, Lady Verney, by Richmond, in 1869, at about the time of her marriage. The portrait hangs in Claydon House, Buckinghamshire. Image courtesy of the National Trust.

The lady
The dress in question was made for Margaret Maria Verney, neé Hay-Williams (1844 –1930), a biographer and historian, and a promoter of higher educational institutions in Wales, where she spent some of her youth and a good portion of her adult life.

In January of 1868, at the age of 22, she married Edmund Hope Verney, 3rd Baronet, and moved to Claydon House in Buckinghamshire, the Verney family seat, where shortly thereafter her portrait was painted by Sir William Blake Richmond. Portraits by this artist of other family members and of Florence Nightingale, a relative by marriage and frequent visitor, are displayed at Claydon House. The brown velvet dress worn by Margaret Verney in her portrait was sent to the Textile Conservation Studio for evaluation and conservation. Claydon House staff hoped to create a new display featuring the dress, mounted near this portrait.

The dress
It had been stored away in a box at Claydon, after having been loved and worn over a long period. There are photographs of Lady Verney still wearing it, far into middle age, and it had sustained some damage and plenty of wear. When I explored it carefully a few things became clear. Alterations had been made to the dress, as might be expected from its long period of active use. The train shown in the Richmond portrait was no longer present; the skirt had been cut back to its current circumference and the hem re-bound. The waistband had been altered, and boning had been removed from casings in the bodice, leaving only two seams still supported by strips of whalebone.

Rip in dress bodice

Rip in dress bodice

An unsightly rip had opened up in the fabric of the bodice front, near a sleeve seam.

Several of the dress’ silk-covered metal buttons had lost most of their fabric covering, and the remaining threads on the most damaged buttons had slid off the surface, and were trapped at their backs.

Worn fabric-covered buttons

Metal buttons with remnants of fabric covering

Several of the dress’ silk-covered metal buttons had lost most of their fabric covering, and the remaining threads on the most damaged buttons had slid off the surface, and were trapped at their backs.

Distorted threads trapped behind buttons.

 

 

The first priority was the rip in the bodice front. I inserted a supportive layer of color-matched cotton twill, and used staggered rows of hand-stitched laid couching to repair and support the damaged area. I was able to coax back the distorted silk threads that had been pushed to the back of the dress buttons, using gentle humidification, and encapsulated them with two layers of silk crepeline, dyed to blend with the lost fabric covering. I found that placing and tightening two drawstring threads simultaneously allowed me to get the most even encapsulation of the button surfaces.

Making button covers

Making silk covers for buttons

Encapsulated button

Button during encapsulation.

 

After a few more minor repairs, the dress was ready for display, but this is where the work really began. A custom mannequin was needed to support the dress, and to display it as it might have looked when Lady Verney’s portrait was painted. I’ll show you that in the next blog post.

Until then, you can read more here about Claydon House.

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