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Irish Arts Review

Textiles and Costumes in the Ulster Museum

Author(s): Elizabeth McCrum
Source: Irish Arts Review (1984-1987), Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring, 1984), pp. 36-38
Published by: Irish Arts Review
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Accessed: 18-01-2018 17:33 UTC

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Arts Review (1984-1987)

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By Autumn 1976 the Ulster The fine collection of costumes collection also contained every type
Museum's entire costume andbelonging
tex to the Ulster Museum of work from a stumpwork box of
tile collection had been moved from its sturdy charm, dating from c. 1660, well
was destroyed by terrorists in
cramped conditions in the museum to preserved and well fitted, complete with
Belfast in 1976. Elizabeth
Malone House, a large house in a public secret drawer, to the amazingly fine
McCrum, Assistant Keeper in
park on the outskirts of Belfast which white Ayrshire work on 19th century
was the headquarters of the National
the Museum's Department of Art christening robes.
Trust in Northern Ireland. The museum
writes of this deplorable loss and The only objects to survive were our
held the top floor which hadof been
the efforts that have been made
tapestries, still stored in the museum
converted into costume and textile building (the Pilgrimage to Mecca set by
to form the new collection of
storage areas and a textile conservation Paul Saunders, a Flemish 17th century
workshop. There was room to accom costumes and textiles. verdure tapestry, an arabesque pro
modate school parties, etc. and it was bably by Joshua Morris and a le
felt that the new space gave
indication of the quality and Brocquy), our large new jewellery
accessibility to the collection which
importance of what was destroyed, collection, the Lennox Quilt - a
would enable it to be properly appre
hence a few random examples will be beautifully embroidered signed and
ciated for the first time. described in more detail. Our earliest dated quilt of 1713 on show in the
specimen was a magnificent lady's
On I lth November, gunmen man museum (see illustration) and four
linen jacket of c.1610 embroidered in
aged to pass the security system, planted 1950s and 1960s cocktail and evening
two bombs in the house and inpolychrome
the silks and silver thread (see dresses which were also on display.
illustration). Among our numerous and
ensuing fire the collection was totally The Ulster Museum's declared aim
destroyed. splendid 18th century costumes was a immediately after the bombing was to
A brief list can give an idea of the beautiful Spitalfields silk robe and try to replace the lost collection as soon
range of specimens lost - women's petticoat with a nice Ulster connection as possible. The aim, naturally, was and
costume of at least every 10 years from -its linen lining was stamped Sam is subject to practicalities. One cannot,
1730 to the present day, men's and Holmes - Co. Down. The linen damask after all, replace an object which was
children's costume, Irish, English and collection was reckoned to be the best in unique. Neither can one easily replace a
continental lace and embroidery, linen the world after those of the Rijks particular collection which historical
damask, domestic textiles, fans, acces museum and the Victoria and Albert accident created, such as our large
sories of all kinds, quilts, oriental Museum. There were examples of all oriental costume and textile collection.
costume, foreign textiles, toys and dolls, important varieties of lace from the 17th This was brought back from Imperial
fashion plates and photographs. Such a century, with particularly good repre China by the surprisingly many Ulster
bald account, however, does not give sentations of Irish lace. The embroidery men and women who went there as civil

The Lennox Quilt. Polychrome silks on quilted linen. Made in Detailfrom the Lennox Quilt.
1712 by Martha Lennox, daughter of John Hamilton, sovereign of
Belfast, Signed and dated.


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Lady's linen jacket embroidered with polychrome silks and silver thread, c. 1600.

servants, doctors and, most numerously, been lost was more than a collection of 'clean slate' situation. It is rare for a
missionaries. Again, one would not pretty dresses but was part of Ireland's museum to start a collection from
particularly want to replace isolated heritage and history. nothing. We were forced to re-examine
items which came into the museum long Another and crucial advantage was our collecting policy, and having done
years before collecting policies were our right to government compensation so we knew exactly what we did and did
thought of, and which had neither to indemnify our losses. In the late '70s not want so could set about acquiring
context nor provenance - a museum's the price of costume and textiles began only the most appropriate specimens.
collections must be representative to shoot up, and their sale is now a We could also ensure that our collection
enough to give each item an extra weekly event in the auction houses in remained distinctly different from other
relevance in being part of a general London, which has become probably Irish collections.
picture allowing developments and the main world market for historical Our main criterion is that we collect
trends to be traced. The chief re costume. It was clear that where we costume as an applied art, i.e. it must
straining practicality, of course, is that could have expected to be given reflect the tastes and cultural interests
the availability of replacement objects, important early specimens twenty years and aspirations of the time it was made.
especially early ones, is very limited. ago we would now have to buy them on It is impossible to ignore completely the
We did, however, start off our new the open market. This development social historical importance of a gar
collection helped by several advantages. occurred at a time of recession when ment, but what we are primarily
During the past fifteen to twenty years museum funds were generally becoming interested in is its appearance rather
the study of costume and textiles has much more limited. What might seem a than who wore it. It must reflect a
become academically more sound and vulgar consideration therefore has mainstream taste rather than a
more completely integrated with the enabled the Ulster Museum, almost peculiarly individual taste. Before we
study of fine and applied art and of alone in Great Britain, to be able to accept any garment we try first to put it
social history. There has been a parallel compete with American and continental on a human or mannequin figure
growth in general and informed interest dealers on equal terms for items which because it is only then that it becomes
in costume. We consequently received are particularly appropriate to our apparent that the proportion and line is
great sympathy and support from both collection. right and unaltered. By experience we
the general public and from institutions. A third advantage, or rather virtue have discovered that without this
It was generally realized that what had made of necessity could be called the seemingly frivolous test it is impossible


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to judge a garment's virtue. Many an The Limerick Q

apparently exciting specimen has worked as the
turned out to have a basic design flaw or from Clorane i
hem which has been altered beyond 18th century
recall, and equally many seemingly dull piece of whitew
dresses have emerged as perfect and Costume and
pleasing examples of their period. Ulster Museu
Because it was relatively easy to sources. Don
acquire a coherent collection quite members of
quickly, and because it was an emphasis always very w
unstressed in other Irish museums we operation bet
made a particular effort to develop a various agenc
strong 20th century costume collection. deal in secon
The Ulster Museum now holds work by tume and text
most important 20th century Paris Want organizat
designers and very many post-war refusal on any
English and Irish designers. High Street item which c
labels such as Wallis and Etam are also purchases are
represented. Magazines and contem London or ho
porary photographs are systematically 18th century
kept to complement actual specimens. acquired in the
We do, of course, collect old costume as Mullingar.
we can, and we have small and The public's contribution to the new
frequently changing displays of cos costume and textile collection has been
tumes and textiles from 18th century to mentioned. It is vital and much
the present. However, the large touring appreciated. Now that we have newly
exhibitions with which we have been constructed storage and display areas
involved have been of contemporary within the main museum building, we
fashion, such as the Jean Muir ex Day dress of pink silk trimmed with braid can offer, in return, constant and
hibition, the David Shilling exhibition, and lace, Peter Robinson label, c. 1905. frequently changing costume, textile
the Design Council Courtelle Awards and jewellery displays, an identification
exhibition and our projected show of service, periodic lectures in the museum,
Irish fashion since 1950. and access to any item for students and
As far as textiles are concerned, for researchers, given reasonable notice.
major acquisitions we have again The collection is emphatically a public
concentrated on areas where we have 'I collection and each item is researched,
the nucleus of a collection and where we catalogued, conserved and displayed so
are not duplicating the work of other that its significance may be better
Irish museums. For example, the Ulster understood by professional scholar and
Folk Museum has a very comprehensive layman alike.
holding of 19th and 20th century Irish Academia apart, one of the pleasures
patchwork quilts. We therefore only of working in this collection is the
have a few representative examples of sudden jolt of closeness of feeling to
the main types of these quilts for student people whose lives were lived many
reference, and instead concentrate on years ago, through their belongings
18th century bed furniture, mostly by which have survived. We have lost the
named Irish embroideresses. The beautiful workbox of a Victorian lady
Lennox Quilt, already mentioned, was which contained diaries of the late 1 840s
joined first by the Delany Quilt, one of with poignant descriptions of her
the few complete embroideries by Mrs. children's births and deaths. In part
Delany, the well connected 18th century recompense, we now have an em
lady, famous for her cut paper flower broidered wallet made for a relative by
pictures and her correspondence which Maria Edgeworth just before her death,
gives a most vivid depiction of life, which is interesting in itself, but made
manners and dress of her time. The much more so by her enclosed note I
magnificent Antrim bed furniture, a wish this little case was full of bank notes for
complete set worked by or under the you - the best billets-doux after 20 or 29,
supervision of Lady Helena McDonnell, what age.
Black mini dress of 'wet look'
1705-83, daughter of the 4th Earl of with high black plastic boots,
Antrim was purchased two years ago. belt, c. 1 968. Elizabeth McCrum


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