As any girl knows, when you have found the perfect dress you simply must have, if someone whips it off the shop rail when it is so nearly in your grasp it is bitterly disappointing! And when the dress in question is a rare and exquisite 18th century silver brocade court mantua to which no other dress could ever compare the disappointment could be devastating….
This was exactly the situation curators from Historic Royal Palaces were faced with when they found themselves out-bid on the dress at auction by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in a recent sale of works of art and costume at Bonhams, London. But, following a temporary export bar by Culture Minister David Lammy there was a second chance to acquire the dress.
The Art Fund, keen to see the mantua secured for public enjoyment in Britain, decided to step in and purchase the mantua outright for £80,275. The charity has presented it to Historic Royal Palaces where it will be displayed at Kensington Palace.
David Barrie, Director of The Art Fund, said ‘It would have been very sad indeed if Historic Royal Palaces’ had been unable to secure this dramatic piece of courtly dress. It will be a jewel in the crown of the collection at Kensington Palace. We are delighted to have been able to give it to them as an outright gift.”
The dress at the centre of this exciting drama is a stunning court mantua made from French silk brocade, an enormously expensive fabric dated to the early 1760s. Woven with a design of stripes and scrolling garlands in silver and trimmed with sparkling silver lace, the dress would have left onlookers gazing in awe and wonder at its unparalleled beauty and splendour.
So who was the belle of the ball who wore this gorgeous creation? It is believed to have belonged to Mary, Marchioness of Rockingham, who was married to Charles, 2nd Marquis of Rockingham. They were a stylish couple, cutting a dash around town, with plenty of opportunities for attending lavish court occasions such as the wedding and coronation of George III and Queen Charlotte in 1761. However, perhaps the occasion when Lady Mary was most concerned to look her most splendid was when her husband was sworn in as Prime Minister in 1765, leading curators to conclude that this was the historic event for which the dress was made.
Since its arrival at Kensington Palace conservators have undertaken some simple conservation work on the mantua in preparation for its display and to ensure it is preserved for many more generations to enjoy in the future. Their work has also revealed some minor alterations dating to the 19th century when the waist was ‘nipped’ in, possibly for a fancy dress party.
Joanna Marschner, Senior Curator, Historic Royal Palaces said “This is an extraordinary survival of court dress from the 18th century. The mantua is in near perfect condition and will be displayed to show our visitors just how magical the state apartments at Kensington Palace may have looked when they were all a-bustle with courtiers and Royal guests in their heyday.”
The court mantua will be on permanent display at Kensington Palace from Saturday 3 March 2007. For further information about visiting Kensington Palace please visit www.hrp.org.uk