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Le Strange Fruit

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Back arrow23/01/2006      Back to blog      26/01/2006Forward arrow


Met Clare Browne, curator, specialising in 18th Century Textiles, who specialises in the bizarre silks collection. Taken to a rather strange room, the first proper archive in my adventure so far: exactly the type of room one would imagine - apparently used whenever filmmakers want a taste of the ‘real’ museum archive - wonderful wooden cupboards packed full of exciting objects. Firstly was shown amazing 18th century garments in a wardrobe, several dresses in immaculate condition. Baroque gowns: well engineered brocaded and back draped; dresses for a young lady in acid yellow, amazingly finished internally with pinking shears, wonderful colours in a rather distinctive but decidedly odd colour palette. What wonderful history these garments must hold.
Bizarre silks
In a series of drawers, I was shown fabrics, which are the precursors to the bizarre silks (the main reason for this particular visit.) IN the 50’s a book was written about silks in a bizarre style by a Swedish author/curator called Sloman, forever naming them ‘Bizarre silks’. After some consideration and investigation, I discovered that word ‘bizarre’ was used in the 18th Century but never meant as a descriptive term to give its current understanding. The word actually appears in English in 1648 (borrowed from French meaning handsome or brave which in turn took its meaning from the Italian ‘bizarro’ meaning angry, irascible.) These fabrics epitomise all these original meanings and the subsequent meaning, unusual, unconventional, far-fetched and fantastical. I was able to view and handle fabrics dating back to the late 17th century, ranging from the amazingly well kept to the more threadbare. How amazing to touch these fabrics. These are apparently requested for viewing only occasionally by other historians, curators or researchers, rarely by designers. What a wealth of influences these fabrics portray. We looked primarily at 17th century French silks called the “proto-bizarre”: All by unknown artists and in intense colours: acid yellows, the palest of blues, viridians, apricot, red, woven with metallic thread. Some of the fabrics have had many end uses in their lifetimes: wall hangings to garments, and, once their fashion wore off, donated to churches for conversion to ecclesiastical garb, now museum pieces. Often influences are apparent and sometimes they become more and more strange: things begin to emerge like tropical fruit, fungi, in strange conjunction with buildings, urns, trellises, odd graphics, etc against very normal floral motifs. These French silks have been curated to communicate direct influences on the “bizarre silks” proper. The styles of the proto selection have fairly rigid layouts, mainly right angles, fairly organised regiments of objects, but as these develop, one begins to see the more organic, far more diagonal placement of objects within the fabrics, shapes which pierce one another, curvaceous unidentifiable uncanny shapes, and occasional architectural feature.

Putting this into an English context, I was also shown a 1744 sketchbook by Anna Maria Garthwaite, an English female fabric designer (we would probably call her a ‘freelance’ fabric designer) who was commissioned by weavers and private mercers to develop fabric designs during this period. Her work is rather intriguing since nothing is known about her training, in the then male dominated industry, yet her work is key to the work of that period. She was raised in rural England as the daughter of a vicar. Though not ‘bizarre’ in their content, the influence of the bizarre silks is evident, and her influence on Leman, the prevalent fabric designer of the time, is very clear. Her pattern books were bought from a mill in Huddersfield in 1971, apparently found in a cupboard. (Museum number T391-1972). What is also interesting is that there are early signs of the ‘engineered’ design to pattern piece in some of Garthwaite’s waistcoat designs. Never quite got round to looking at the proper bizarre silks, but will continue with Clare and be investigating that further on the 9th of February.
Bizarre silks
Another interesting subject came up, that of the origin of symbols contained within the fabrics, that of the tropical fruit etc. Influences seem to come from everywhere and what is even more interesting is that influences seem to cross over to porcelain of the time. The fabrics apparently were influenced by porcelain and in turn influenced porcelain painters, and many artists apparently crossed over into both disciplines working for both porcelain and fabric manufacturers as freelancers of the time. The emergence of these strange objects on cloth (we can see this also on porcelain of that time) was a response to the public demand for things tropical, unique and strange.

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