Court mantua at Springhill House

Court mantua dress

Part of the collection of historic dress and textiles at Springhill House, this magnificent silk gown, or ‘mantua’ features in our 125 Treasures book. Made in the 1740s, a hundred years later, the dress made another special royal appearance, at Queen Victoria’s 18th-century costume ball at Buckingham Palace.

Dressing for the King

This court mantua was created for Lady Ann Bligh, probably shortly after her marriage in November 1748 to Bernard Ward of Castle Ward, County Down.  The gown conforms to a very particular style, which would only ever be worn at events in the regular court calendar, when the Wards were in London.

In its original form, the skirt, or ‘petticoat,’ would have been worn over a wide, narrow hoop, extending almost three feet on either side of the waist.  Moving with stately elegance in such a dress was a considerable challenge, especially as, having greeted the monarch, one was expected to walk backwards when leaving the royal presence.

It is possible that Lady Ann ordered the mantua for attending the King’s birthday.  Gold brocaded silks were de rigueur for this annual event in November, one of the most important court celebrations of the year.

A glittering harvest

The broad sweep of the original petticoat showed the pattern of the fabric to its best advantage.  Hand-woven in Spitalfields, London – a hub of 18th-century textile manufacture – it was probably specially commissioned for Lady Ann’s dress.  The mantua-maker took particular care with the placement of the floral motifs when sewing the back of the bodice, making the most of the design.

Scattered with golden wheatsheaves, blue flax flowers and poppies with gold buds, the brocaded silk reflects the British passion for botanical design.  But this bountiful harvest may also have conveyed a political message, suggesting the prosperity and well-being of the nation under the rule of its landed classes.

Lady Ann’s court mantua was passed down through generations of her descendants, the family of the Earls of Clanwilliam.  The almost perfect preservation of the silk, entirely unfaded, suggests it spent most of its life safely stored in a chest.  But it was to have one last, glorious outing.

Dancing with the Queen

On a summer evening in 1845, Queen Victoria hosted one of the greatest social events of the year – a costume ball at Buckingham Palace.  Themed around the period 1740-50, the ball was intended to boost the British textile industry, so Victoria and Prince Albert had their costumes specially-made.  However, most of the guests rather defeated the purpose, simply raiding their attics for their ancestors’ clothing.

Lady Clanwilliam lent the court mantua to her sister, Lady Mary Herbert, Countess Bruce, for the occasion.  Despite dating to the exact period of the costume ball, it was substantially altered to conform both to the fashionable body shape of the mid 19th century, and to what people of the time thought 18th-century garments should look like – something more akin to French aristocratic clothing of the 1770s-80s.

Lady Mary’s modifications resulted in a more sinuous, small-waisted shape, with shorter, figure-hugging sleeves and a softer neckline.  The enormous expanse of the petticoat was gathered in to form a bell-shaped skirt, which was probably open at the front and draped in flounces over a specially-made, highly decorative underskirt. 

The mantua had become a highly feminine confection – which was also much easier to dance in.  With Viscount Sidney as her partner, Countess Bruce danced in the royal set for the Queen’s third minuet of the evening.

Lady Ann’s dress lives on

Today, the court mantua is in a hybrid state: most of the Victorian modifications have been reversed, except for the petticoat, which is still more redolent of the 1840s.  This will give National Trust historic dress specialists and conservators much food for thought as we continue to care for this important item in the Springhill House collection.  One thing is certain – there is a long life ahead for Lady Ann Bligh’s spectacular gown.