A few days ago I popped to Bath for the press view of a fantastic new exhibition at The American Museum in Britain. The museum is housed in the beautiful Claverton Manor a stately home hidden in the hills surrounding the city. The museum celebrates the history of the United States through textiles, artefacts, recreated rooms and art. The items on display are quite astounding and the period rooms were a real highlight for me. I was also impressed with the large collection of american quilts dating over several centuries that were on display.
The new exhibition which launched this weekend explores life from birth to death through textile items. The amusing name refers to the birth, marriage and death announcements in newspapers which are sometimes referred to as hatched, matched and dispatched. I was drawn to the exhibition for many reasons firstly my huge interest in fashion and social history, but also all the lace items on display. My own grandma used to buy and sell antique clothing especially lace items and I’ve grown up with a real appreciation for the history of lace, so the christening gowns and lace trim on the bridal gowns was especially fascinating.
The exhibition features historic quilts the earliest dating back to 1700-10, as well as mementos and garments. These stitched memories and treasures have been passed down through many generations and not only have the items been preserved, but also the stories and memories behind them. Some celebrate happy occasions while other hold sadder tales of mourning and lost love. Through the objects on display we can understand the importance of textile items in celebrating the significant occasions that happen through our lives.
The items on display are both those belonging to the museum and some have been borrowed from further afield including from the collections of the Beamish Museum, Jersey Museum and Art Gallery, the Quilters Guild and the Jen Jones Collection.
The exhibition which is housed in a separate building beside the main house, walks us through the life cycle starting with Hatched which explores items associated with birth. There is an exquisite collection of beautiful christening gowns featuring intricate hand made lace.
Other items on display include elaborate lace baby bonnets and cot quilts. The quilts are all beautifully hand stitched and feature many different techniques and designs.
My favourite piece from this section was a precious little pin cushion. Pincushions carefully decorated with elaborate patterns were a common gift after the birth of a new baby. In Colonial New York births were announced by hanging pin cushions on door knockers. This functional gift became less popular after 1878 when safely pins were invented.
The pin cushion on display dates from 1821 and features a beautiful poem, the decoration is absolutely lovely. This pincushion required lots of conservation work as over time it had become very damaged.
Moving on from birth we look at Matched, this section houses bridal garments, shoes and quilts which were all made to celebrate the happy occasion of marriage. Some of the quilts on display are absolutely exquisite. The log cabin quilt shown behind this lovely wedding dress (top right) was constructed between 1863 and 1886. It features thousands of tiny pieces of fabric and was made by Ellen Bryant in preparation for her marriage in Vermont. The backing was made by her sister and was completed several years later.
The exhibition shows off several significant garments relating to engagement and marriage. One of the most beautiful pieces is the daffodil dress, which although stunningly beautiful conceals a tragic story. The gorgeous silk dress was embroidered by Hennriette Leonard as part of her bridal trousseau. Shortly before her marriage she traveled to Europe and sadly contracted an illness and died. She never got to wear her beautiful dress and it appears to have been packed away by her family and safely stored in her memory.
Another dress was worn by Agnes Lucy Hughs on her wedding. She was Wallace Simpson’s mother in law on her first marriage. Her dress is absolutely beautiful and features beautiful lace and pearl details.
Finally the saddest part of the exhibition is Dispatched. This area explores the process of grief and morning through clothing, jewellery and quilts. One of the most interesting things on display are the burial skirts. Some women would make these quilted skirts to be buried in. They are very rare as most examples would have made it to the grave. However one of the skirts on display was made by two sisters who left it behind when they moved.
There is also a considerable amount of jet jewellery and beading on display. Jet is a common embellishment of mourning clothing because of it’s colour. I have a beautiful piece of Whitby Jet in my collection which was passed down to me from my grandmother.
One of the finest quilts on display is the Album Top Quilt which dates from 1862. It features several quotations from psalms which are commonly read at funerals indication that is was made to commemorate a death. It is likely that the deceased was a victim of the American Civil War due to several appearances of Lady Liberty holding the Union Flag.
A final very sad piece is an embroidered table cloth dating from 1944. This was embroidered by the British fiancé of an American soldier. It was embroidered in the months leading up to D-Day and features the names of several British women and American soldiers. Helen Slater embroidered the signatures of her friends onto the plain linen tablecloth. The tablecloth remains eternally unfinished and the threaded needle left halfway through embroidering a name. She abandoned the project after hearing that her beloved fiancé had been killed. She shut it away in a drawer with a book he had given her and kept it safely hidden for 70 years until her own death. A poignant reminder of the heartbreaking stories that these moments of the past can represent.
I absolutely loved this exhibition, as well as being fascinating it also touched me on a personal level and gave a tantalising glimpse into the lives of the long gone owners of the items and their personal histories. The pieces on display were exquisite and from a historical point of view they are all real treasures. I would highly recommend making the trip to see the exhibition which runs until 1st November 2015.
Find out more on The American Museum Website.