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Posts Tagged ‘Victoria and Albert Museum’

Among the principle gifts in 1908 may be mentioned: – suit of clothes, &c., formerly belonging to Mr Thomas Coutts, the founder of Coutts Bank, died 1822, given by Francis Coutts, Esq., Announcement for The Victoria & Albert Museum

Shirt. Image @Metropolitan Museum of Art

This cryptic announcement does not tell the whole story of how a number of important museums around the world came into the possession of several portions of Mr. Coutt’s wardrobe. In her excellent book, Four Hundred Years of Fashion, Natalie Rothstein (curator of silks at the Victoria & Albert Museum) recounted how the clothes that had once been worn by Thomas Coutts, successful banker, came to be passed down for several generations in the family and divided among a number of major museums in 1908 and 1912.  The collection was unusual, for it consisted of the entire wardrobe of a gentleman who lived in the early 19th century, that included:

the considerable number of cloth costumes, articles of hosiery and underclothing left by Mr Thomas Coutts at the time of his death, 24th February 1822 . . . The cloth suits are all of a plain black and of precisely the same cut, so that only one is necessary for exhibition.”

One of the ten wigs in the “brutus” style. One wonders if Mr. Coutts is wearing one in the illustration below! Image @The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Top hat

Additional clothes in the collection include: 57 items of underwear made of linen or wool,  46 shirts made of a fine cambric and with and without frills, four spotted nightgowns, several plain nightgowns, 13 pair of leather and wool gloves, ten wigs and three beaver hats. Such a large, intact group of clothes from one source was rare and unique. Ironically for the museums, according to Strandlines, “Thomas Coutts seems to have been an eccentric man, who preferred to dress scruffily and to hide his wealth, rather than display it.”

Thomas Coutts. {From an engraving by R. W. Sievier of an oil painting by Sir W. Beechey, R.A.)

Coutts was not a wit himself or the cause of wit in others. There are, indeed, two or three anecdotes, ” duplications,” in the argot of the Higher Criticism of the same legend, which turn upon the piquant incongruity of his garb with his gear. He is dressed in a threadbare coat, “the costume of a decayed gentleman,” and a benevolent stranger of limited means presses a guinea into his hand, and then to his dismay learns that he has ” pouched ” the wealthiest man in England. It may have been so. A dean once complained to the present writer that he was often mistaken for the verger, and offered a shilling for his services as guide to the Cathedral. It is possible that before the days of Harriot Mellon, Coutts was sometimes ” attired in very faded, worn-out clothes,” but his wardrobe, which his widow preserved in camphor, was, like Alice Fell’s new cloak, as stout and ” warm as man can sell.” A select portion is preserved at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and may be inspected by the curious. He had, too, some five or six ” Brutus ” wigs, which were of the finest make and the costliest description. Even if these legends are founded on fact, they are hardly worth the re-telling.” – The life of Thomas Coutts, bankerErnest Hartley Coleridge (1920).

Harriot Mellon Coutts and the future Duchess of St. Albans, painted by Sir William Beechey in 1817-1818. She preserved her husband’s wardrobe.

It was fortuitous that Coutt’s second wife, Harriot Coutts, nee Mellon, was the daughter of a wardrobe-keeper in a company of strolling players. One can only imagine that when she was made a widow the preservation of her husband’s wardrobe would come naturally to her. The Victoria & Albert Museum eventually acquired three suits, several sets of the underwear, two of the spotted nightgown, and some accessories. The rest of Coutts’s wardrobe was (sadly) divided among a number of museums, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The Royal Ontario Museum, The Royal Scottish Museum, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, and more. All but one of the museums would receive a black suit. With vast understatement, Ms. Rothstein (who laments the break up of such an intact collection) writes:

The clothes worn by Mr Coutts were probably not the height of fashion but rather conservative. There is no mention of any trousers for instance, in the full list of his clothes. All his suits had breeches. The cut of his coats is consistent with the current fashions: his tailor was probably as conservative as his customer. None of his coats had a waist seam. – Four Hundred Years of Fashion, Natalie Rothstein, p. 62

Black wool day suit. Image @ Victoria & Albert Museum

Since the late 16th century, middle-class professionals like doctors, lawyers, clergymen, academics, merchants, and businessmen have worn these stark black suits. This tradition continued through the 19th century and well into the 20th. “The sombre colour of this suit befits the sober profession of its wearer, Thomas Coutts (1735-1822), the founder of Coutts Bank., including the old-fashioned breeches, which suited his age. Top hat made in Great Britain, ca. 1800-1817. Cotton shirt, (1800-1820) made in England. (Text from the V&A.)

Detail of one of Coutts’s nightgowns. Image @Victoria & Albert Museum

Nightgown. Image @V&A

Nightgown. Image @V&A

Nightgowns were worn over shirt and breeches, in the privacy of home before noon or late at night.  The tufts of black wool on the cream wool fabric are meant to imitate ermine. These nightgowns come from the wardrobe of Thomas Coutts (1735-1822), the founder of Coutts Bank. (Text from the V&A.)

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Gentle readers, this YouTube video and these images provide only a sampling of the content of this remarkable book, edited by Natalie Rothstein, who worked in the textile department of the Victoria and Albert Museum before her death. During her lifetime Barbara Johnson (1738-1825) kept a meticulous record of the dresses that were made for her, attaching swatches of fabric and including images from ladies magazines.

Sample pages from the book

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Camden Place, Bath. Sir Walter Elliot and his family reading.

Thomas Hope (1769–1831), the style icon of the Regency interior, would have been happy with these images of Sir Walter Elliot’s interior of Camden Place in Persuasion 1995.  Thomas Hope was known for the “decorative details and ornament based on influences from his nearly ten-year Grand Tour, as well as from motifs from ancient Greece and Egypt.”

Camden Place: A view of the Drawing Room

Hope’s startling juxtaposition of styles included Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Indian elements, as well as his own version of the French Empire style. Classical sculpture and vases were displayed alongside modern paintings and sculpture. Most striking of all was the inventive and exotic furniture that Hope designed specifically for the house. – Exhibition, Thomas Hope, V&A Museum

Camden Place: Dining Room (Anne and Elizabeth Elliot and Mrs. Clay)

From these images it is quite obvious that the set designer of this film chose furniture and draperies that for the Regency era would have been regarded as ultra fashionable. Sir Walter might have moved from Kellynch Hall to reduce his expenses, but his tastes remain expensive and he shows no inclination to follow the rules of economy.

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Thomas Hope: Regency Designer

Like designers of his day, Sir Thomas Hope drew his planned room design ahead of time. Witness the following whole room design:
Design of a room, 1807, by Sir Thomas Hope

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