Fashion in Paintings: A new perspective

A detail of the sleeves, beads and book

To label, or not to label? That is the question we’re exploring at Upton House this autumn. Prepare to look and think creatively, with a series of innovative picture labels designed to deepen your connection to Upton’s art. We’re interested to understand how labels can colour your experience of paintings. Visit Lord Bearsted’s magnificent collection and share your perspectives: would you label or not?

Is it an art gallery, or is it a private home? When Walter Samuel, 2nd Viscount Bearsted, bought and renovated Upton House in the 1920s he was aiming for a wonderfully unique combination of both these things; his very own art gallery set in a country house.

Family, friends and colleagues from the art world were invited by Lord and Lady Bearsted to enjoy the surrounding Warwickshire countryside, but also to enjoy the privilege of a personal tour of one of the most important art collections created in the twentieth century. 

These days Upton House sees many thousands of visitors pass through its doors. A one to one tour of the painting collection may not possible, but we want to continue this legacy of a home and collection made to enjoy, and to interact with.

The question is: to label, or not to label? Over the coming months Upton will be exploring the use of picture labels to invite visitors to engage with the painting collection in different ways. But, what sort of information should be included? What should the labels look like? Who should write them and whose perspective should they reflect? Should they be serious and scholarly, or can we have some fun?

We’ll be experimenting with all these aspects of labelling our pictures and inviting your feedback. The first set of labels are currently on display and have been written by Jenny Lister, Curator of Fashion and Textiles at the V&A Museum, London. Each of the images selected by Lister are detailed below, or look out for them as you walk around the house and let us know what you think.

A wealthy couple at prayer
A wealthy couple with an open book and rosary beads, praying
A wealthy couple at prayer

A wealthy pair at prayer

A window opens to show a well-dressed couple. The woman’s hair is scraped back under her short ‘steeple’ head-dress, her forehead plucked high to follow the look of the day. Her fashionably pale skin contrasts with her fine gold necklace and tight bodice of her rich red dress. Meanwhile, her husband’s broad-shouldered robe has open sleeves, revealing his skimpy red doublet, in turn showing his white shirt underneath.

The Master of the St Barbara Legend, about 1480

Doublet: A padded jacket fastening with laces or buttons

A young Anna Maria Mockels is holding a carnation, perhaps signifying that her future marriage has already been arranged.
An portrait of a young girl holding flower wearing a voluminous orange dress
A young Anna Maria Mockels is holding a carnation, perhaps signifying that her future marriage has already been arranged.

The girl with pearl earrings

Anna Maria Mockels is about six in this portrait. She wears miniature versions of restrictive but stylish grown-up clothes. Her pearl jewellery and silk, lace-trimmed dress emphasise that she comes from an important family. The carnation in her hand might be a sign that her parents have already arranged her marriage into another wealthy clan.

Cologne School, about 1630

A joyful picture of the three MacDonald boys together
Three young boys in Scottish dress looking playful and happy
A joyful picture of the three MacDonald boys together

Boisterous boys

Donald, Robert and Ranald MacDonald, aged between five and ten, are wearing skinny jackets and trousers which button together. A new fashion specifically for young boys, these were called ‘skeleton suits’. They were probably quite comfortable, reflecting a shift in parenting. Wealthy families began to encourage fun, freedom-filled childhoods at a time when poorer children were being employed in factories. 

Sir Henry Raeburn, about 1799.

Mr and Mrs Van Harthals and their Son, by Arthur Devis
A painting of a woman wearing a very wide silk gown, and a young boy and a man in 18th century men's clothing
Mr and Mrs Van Harthals and their Son, by Arthur Devis

Fine silk by the river

Mrs Van Harthals holds her blue hat and sits in a cloud of pristine silk satin, spread over wide whalebone hoops squashed underneath. More practical plain coats and breeches are worn by her husband, a successful sea-merchant, and their son, who leans casually on a crutch. Their long waistcoats, displaying wealth and importance, add glitzy flashes of expensive silk and gold.

Arthur Devis, 1749

Henry Loftus, 1st Earl of Ely, and his wife Frances Monroe, Countess of Ely, by Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA
A portrait of a Georgian couple dressed up ready for a Royal Party in very fine clothes
Henry Loftus, 1st Earl of Ely, and his wife Frances Monroe, Countess of Ely, by Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA

Dressed up for a Royal party

As Earl and Countess, Henry and Anne Loftus often needed to buy special clothes for royal events. The male dress code was an embroidered silk three-piece suit, over a lace-trimmed shirt. Women had to wear a deeply old-fashioned ‘mantua’ with a stiff bodice and train, and a separate skirt. Anne has the required ostrich feathers in her hair, while her husband wears a formal white-powdered wig.  

Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1775

Mantua: A loose gown or overdress, open at the front to reveal an underskirt or petticoat.

Resplendent in their finest clothes, the Smiths take tea. To the side, a young black man observes, waiting with a grand silver kettle on its stand.
An 18th century painting of a finely dressed family taking tea, being waited upon by a  well-dressed servant of African heritage
Resplendent in their finest clothes, the Smiths take tea. To the side, a young black man observes, waiting with a grand silver kettle on its stand.

Fashion and empire

Three generations of the Smith family drink tea together. Their stunning silk dresses and stylishly cut wool coats signal the family’s material success and power. This is also suggested by the presence of a black servant wearing the family’s livery or uniform. The family’s wealth was built on trade in products grown by enslaved people on their plantations 4000 miles away in Grenada, the West Indies.

Robert West, 1733

William Weddell accompanied by guide Rev. William Palgrave on the Grand Tour
Two finely dressed Englishmen, and once manservant, in front of a rural background
William Weddell accompanied by guide Rev. William Palgrave on the Grand Tour

When in Rome

William Weddell wears a magnificent red and gold suit, a souvenir from Rome, where this portrait was made. Weddell is on his Grand Tour, collecting antiques for his Yorkshire country house. More functional fabrics and colours signpost the identities and occupations of his companions. Clergyman William Palgrave wears black, while Mr Janson, Weddell’s servant, is dressed in various shades of brown.

Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland, 1765

St John the Baptist in plain robe and hair shirt, and St Catherine in a richly jewelled gown
A painting of St John the Baptiste in a hair shirt, and a painting of St Catherine in a richly jewelled gown
St John the Baptist in plain robe and hair shirt, and St Catherine in a richly jewelled gown

St John the Baptist and St Catherine of Alexandria

A studious but regal St Catherine tramples on Maxentius, the Roman Emperor who executed her for being a Christian. In contrast to St John the Baptist’s ragged cloak, she wears the height of late fifteenth-century fashion, with a silk and gold damask cloak and open ‘surcote’, edged with ermine. This was a special royal fur made from the winter skins of hundreds of stoats, dotted with the black tips of their tails. 

The Master of the St Lucy Legend, about 1480

Surcote: An overgarment, sometimes with sleeves, worn by men and women

Queen Charlotte and her dogs, painted by Sir William Beechey
A woman in a flowing white gown and lace mantle with her small dogs
Queen Charlotte and her dogs, painted by Sir William Beechey

Walking the Dogs

Unlike the regal portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria in the Picture Room, Queen Charlotte is shown outside, windswept, walking in a romantic landscape. Her dress follows the new fashion for high-waisted, more natural styles, often made in the plain cotton muslins imported from India. Simpler dresses and later, mass-produced cotton fabrics, would make it easier for people of different social backgrounds to be fashionable.

Sir William Beechey, 1793