Posted 2nd May 2020
Curatorial Team in Conversation: Virginia Dalrymple's Dress
On today's blog, Stacey Clapperton, Curatorial Trainee, and Emma Coburn, Collections Manager, discuss one of the more unusual objects in the historic collection at Watts Gallery - Artists' Village: Virginia Dalrymple's emerald green dress.
Stacey Clapperton: Emma, as Collections Manager, you are responsible for the care of all the wonderful artworks and some of the more unusual objects that we have in the collection. Aside from paintings, sculpture and works on paper, what other items do we have here at Watts Gallery?
Emma Coburn: We have everything from diaries and personal letters to some beautiful Compton pottery in all shapes and sizes, paint palettes, photographs and negatives, medals and we also have a luxurious velvet green dress.
SC: Yes, the dress is really intriguing. It came up in my research into the gallery's portraiture collection because it is the actual dress that Virginia Dalrymple was wearing when Watts painted her in the early 1870s, and later her family very kindly gifted to the gallery.
EC: But who was Virginia Dalrymple?
SC: So, Watts came to know Dalrymple through her parents. Her mother Sophia Pattle was the youngest of the seven Pattle sisters and she married Sir John Warrender Dalrymple in 1847. He was then posted overseas with the Bengal civil service, and so Sophia and her daughter Virginia spent most of their time at Little Holland House where Watts lived as an artist in residence for almost 20 years.
EC: So, Watts must have known her quite well?
SC: Oh yes. He wasn't known for using artists' models and so he often depicted the family who stayed in the house and friends who came to visit. This portrait is interesting though as it is considered to be experimental for Watts. He debuted it at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in London in 1872 and it comes at a time when he was painting women in bright, boldly coloured dresses. He even nicknamed Dalrymple the 'Lady in Green' afterwards. But what can you tell me about the dress itself, where is it at the moment?
EC: The dress, which is actually made of both velvet and silk, is comprised of a bodice, skirt and overskirt. It is currently packed away in storage.
SC: And compared with other objects we have in the stores, does the dress need to be stored in a particular way or under specific conditions?
EC: Well, textiles and especially silk, are extremely sensitive to light and are particularly susceptible to insect damage. Creasing and crushing can also cause physical damage, so the dress is packed in two large conservation grade material boxes and is well padded using acid-free tissue paper. We closely control the temperature and humidity in our stores to ensure that the risk of any damaging chemical reactions is also kept to a minimum.
SC: And what condition is it in?
EC: For being nearly 150 years old, the dress is in generally good condition! There are some small stains, particularly on the bodice. We know from the portrait that Virginia did actually wear the dress so signs of use are to be expected.
SC: And can you tell us anything about how it was made? It was surely made for Dalrymple herself?
EC: When you look closely at the dress you can see the detail of how it was made and the different elements and materials that are present. There is a black silk fringe, yellow silk cord, black bows, and metal fastenings. The stitching, however, suggests that it was not a finely made gown, but rather more costume like.
SC: According to the family, Watts gave Dalrymple the dress as a wedding gift, which is a lovely sentiment. How could the dress be displayed in the future? It would be great to exhibit it alongside the portrait and enable visitors to see the two objects together. I think it would give a real sense of Virginia Dalrymple as a living, breathing person.
EC: Exactly, and each element of the dress builds up our understanding of it as a physical object, it is an artwork in its own right. It could be displayed on a padded mannequin, to support the form and prevent any strain on seams or stitching. Additional bespoke underskirts would have to be made to let the skirts 'fall' properly, in the way in which it was originally designed. It would need to be covered with a showcase to protect it from dust and insects, and also to enable the environmental conditions to be controlled whilst on display. However, the biggest risk would be light damage. So, I would recommend a short display period as any light damage is irreversible.
SC: But when it's not on display, how can visitors see the dress?
EC: Well, like all of our objects, they are here for the public to enjoy and engage with, so visitors can make a research appointment to see this item or indeed any other items that we have in our stores, archive and library as soon as we reopen!