Mrs Delany’s Petticoat

Firescreen with embroidery design attributed to Mary Delany [then Mary Pendarves] c.1740

I write about all sorts of strange things on this blog but can’t think of much more obscure than this week’s starting point which is a Georgian firescreen which turns out not to be just a firescreen but part of a  panel for a dress.   If you’re wondering why then take a careful  look at the workmanship.  It was so fine that when the owner died her heirs took the dress apart, divided it up and framed the best sections.

But what’s that got to do with garden history?  Quite simply the dress was designed by Mary Pendarves [later Mrs Delany], the heroine of a recent post about her botanical art in cut paper form, and the dress – strictly speaking a petticoat  for a court mantua – shows that her botanical knowledge and craft skills were immense, so the dress has, according to garden historian Mark Laird,  “the most accurate horticultural detailing of any work I’ve seen from this period.”

Images are, unless otherwise stated, taken from Mrs Delany and Her Circle, the catalogue of an exhibition of the same name, edited by Mark Laird and Alicia Weisberg-Roberts, Yale Centre for British Art, 2009

In fashion terms it’s also quite unusual, since most historical textiles that survive, particularly clothing, are anonymous so no-one knows who made it or usually who owned and wore it. But bits of the petticoat,which dates from about 1739/1740, have been preserved in an almost pristine state and been passed down the generations. Clothes defined status and social standing, and in this case, in conjunction with Mary’s many letters, give an insight into not only how fashions change but importantly how flowers and plants were perceived and appreciated.

The back panel of the petticoat

Anyone who knows me  will know I’m not a fashion guru [how’s that for understatement]  and I know very little about the intricacies of women’s clothing, especially from the 18thc, but as far as I understand it  the petticoat was part of a formal Court dress and worn with a mantua or loose robe.

The  style was introduced at the Restoration and gradually became the accepted  formal wear for court and high-status formal occasions.

stomacher, c.1700-1720
 © Manchester City Galleries

The mantua was made almost ludicrously wide – up to 2 metres – by being stretched over with whalebone hoops. The ensemble had a fitted bodice, that was closed  at the front by a stomacher – usually a highly decorated v-shaped panel,  and extended at the back into a train which was sometimes worn hitched up.

[For more images of embroidered stomachers see this page at 18th Century Notebook]

A View of the Court at St James’s with the Ceremony of Introducing a Lady to her Majesty, anon 1766, Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

The whole thing was highly contrived and required practice to put on, wear and certainly to manoeuvre elegantly or even sit down let alone dance in, yet that was what was expected. Perhaps as a result by the 1740s, the mantua was worn only at court, although as a gown style it continued to evolve slowly  through the rest of the 18th century. Although totally impractical, one of the reasons it was fashionable was because it ostentatiously displayed  the enormous quantity of rich and expensive cloth that was needed to create it.

Research undertaken for an exhibition about Mrs Delany and her network of friends at the Yale Center for British Art and the Sir John Soane Museum in 2010 suggests that she probably wore  this particular dress at a grand birthday ball given by Frederick Prince of Wales in 1741.  The fabric is satin with the embroidery of naturalistic flowers worked in coloured silk thread.

Detail from the front panel of the petticoat c.1740

Black was an unusual colour choice, because the fashion was definitely for pale coloured fabrics which were thought to allow for greater contrasts between light and shadow in the fabric’s drapery as it moved.   Although it’s usually associated with mourning, in Mary’s case her unlamented husband had been dead for about 15 years so its much more likely wearing something this ornate, probably with a lighter coloured gown on top was simply a bold fashion statement.  She adopted the same technique when in later life she created her botanical collages, laying them out on a black background.

Part of an apron designed by Mrs Delany c.1740

There’s no doubt that Mrs Delany was  interested in fashion, and her correspondence includes many comments on what people wore, and sometimes includes a description of what she herself wore, and there are often floral elements included.  In 1734, for example, she wrote an account of her outfit for the wedding of Princess Ann  to the Prince of Orange: ” Tis a  brocaded lutestring, white ground with great ramping flowers in shades of purples, reds and greens… it looks better than it describes, and will make a show.”

Mary was clearly a gifted craftswoman and her hands were “ever busy”, even “between the coolings of her tea”, according to Dr Patrick Delany, her second husband.  Apart from embroidery she took up many of the newly fashionable activities for educated women:  writing and illustrating a novel, designing furniture, painting, making shellwork and featherwork, drawing silhouettes, as well as inventing the  art of paper collage. Underlying all of it was an interest in the botany and the mania for order and classification. As Amanda Vicary commented in a review of the exhibition: “Delany offers a distaff version of gentlemanly virtuosity. She was a quintessential Enlightenment woman.”

It was once  thought that she did the embroidery on the petticoat herself, and she writes of creating cross-stitch pieces for furnishings such as screens and chair seats.  But, apart from the time involved in something so complex there are several reasons why this is now thought unlikely. Many of the flowers are raised up with padding, which enhances their realism by giving them a 3-dimensional effect. However to do this well is  a highly skilled  technique   thought only to have been in the repertoire of a experienced and professional embroiderer and probably outside the range of skills of even a gifted amateur. Indeed Mary names several such talented professional needlewomen admiringly in correspondence. There are also several references which suggest that she did indeed employ skilled craftswomen for dress making and furnishing work, and, if she is honest in  her letters, she  rarely showed the same enthusiasm for needlecraft as for the many other crafts she did practice.

Outline drawings of sprigs of flowers for embroidery, which correspond to the motifs in the petticoat

 Nevertheless Mrs Delany did have a lot of experience of designing embroidery motifs especially ones including botanical subjects, so it’s very likely that she did the drawings for the flowers and plants displayed on the petticoat. They anticipate her collages’ delicacy and botanical accuracy and include poppies, roses, auricula, honeysuckle, jasmine, and  lily of the valley as well as thistles and other wild flowers.

We can get an idea of how these drawings were translated for the embroiderer from Godfrey Smith’s Laboratory or School of Arts published in 1756. “The designs for this work are commonly drawn only with an outline, shadowed with indian ink, then pricked with a needle, and pounced with charcoal dust on white, or powdered chalk upon dark or coloured ground, and then drawn with a pen. The embroiders being guided by the shadowing of the pattern how to proceed, pitch upon colours suitable to each flower or leaf, and work their shades accordingly.” One has to assume that given the accuracy of the flowers on Mary’s work that not only must they have been drawn from life but she must have supplied coloured sketches of the flowers to the needlewomen who worked the piece.

Stomacher to a design attribueted to Mary Delany c.1740

There are other surviving pieces of clothing, accessories and furnishings known to have been designed by Mary. They also used strong coloured colour contrasts and naturalistic flowers. And others were to do so too. As Godfrey Smith described the fashion in design: “What is done in that way is commonly in imitation of natural flowers, as nothing else else can exceed it, on account of beauty and colours.”

So apart from the obvious imagery is there anything else at this time which links fashion to gardens and gardening?

That might seem a bit of an odd question but it is worth remembering that women spent more time at home and in the garden generally than did men and that gardening in the early/mid 18thc was  seen as a female accomplishment.

In the exhibition Mark Laird posed a chicken and egg question: “Did Mrs Delany and her circle draw upon embroidery in dress as a source of horticultural effect? Or were their textiles influenced by changes in professional garden design, including the so-called enamelling of carpet.”   In other words which came first: was it the use of more naturalistic botanical designs in embroidery which influenced  gardening style or did changes in garden styles influenced motifs for costume?

Parterre a broderie from Le Spectacle de la Nature, vol.2, Abbe Pluche, 1737

There’s obviously a very long history of connections between garden design and textile design.  The late 17thc French fashion for the parterre de broderie – elaborate patterning in box or other plants – being the most obvious contemporary reference – designs for which are completely interchangeable with embroidery patterns.

Parterre a l’anglois and Parterre melange [or mixed style] , from Le spectacle de la nature, vol.2, Abbe Pluche, 1737

By the early 18thc this was giving way to parterre a l’angloise – or parterre a gazon [or lawn] which was much simpler patterns cut in plain grass.  It was one of the first steps in the general slow but steady switch away from geometric formal gardens to more “irregular” styles.

Inside the garden formal flower beds had long been “enamelled” with flowers, [to see an example of this look at the Stoke Edith hangings] but a certain wildness was slowly creeping up there too. Mrs Delaney wrote of her garden at Delville near Dublin in 1748:  “my flower-garden…is a wilderness of flowers, the beds are overpowered with them and although the enamelled look they have is rich and pretty, I belive it will be advisable to have the different sort of flowers appear rather more distinct.”   Elsewhere she described it as “now a wilderness of sweets.”

A similar trend can be seen in the use of  more naturalistic floral depictions in fabric designs as the stylized crewel-work of the 17thc gave way, post-Restoration to more accurate and realistic representations of plants. This  trend reached its height in the 1740s, as is shown in a current exhibition at the V&A: Fashioned from Nature.

This does not mean it was universal. Some surviving fabric and dress designs from the early 18thc, especially woven fabrics where realism is obviously much more difficult to achieve, were even in the 1730s and 1740s still highly contrived in their portrayals of plants.


Rococo style court mantua, c.1740-45 V&A                                                                                                        Shells with  naturalistic  flowers, including jasmine, morning glory and honeysuckle, peonies, roses, poppies, anemones, auriculas, hyacinths, carnations, cornflowers, tulips and daffodils.


In some hand-embroidered pieces there coud also be a tendency to over-elaborate so the natural form of the flower was maintained in some ways but lost in others.  For example in the court dress above different kinds of flowers are naturaistically depicted [amidst the silver thread]  but shown growing on the same stem.  Mary’s petticoat shows the opposite end of the design range: the  flowers, apparently freshly picked, just artlessly scattered over the background. She captures nature rather than merely deriving her subjects from it.

She describes some of the other dresses at the Norfolk House ball. “My lady Scarborough was in violet satin, the petticoat embroidered with clumsy festoons of nothing at all’s, supported by pillars no better than posts…”  Clearly Lady Scarborough’s flowery dress did not reflect Mrs Delany’s idea of botanical accuracy.

Meanwhile “Lady M Tufton [was] in white embroidered with garlands and flowerpots of flowers mixt with a great deal of silver.” Both costumes seem architecturally  as well as horticulturally  inspired.

Now read her description of another gown this time belonging to the Duchess of Queensbury. It was  “white satin embroidered, the bottom of the petticoat brown hills covered with all sorts of weeds and every breadth had an old stump of a tree that run up almost to the top of the petticoat… worked with brown chenille, round with twined nasturtiums, ivy, honeysuckles, periwinkles, convolvuluses, and all sorts of twining flowers… Many of the leaves were finished with gold and part of the stumps of the tress looked like the gilding of the sun. I never saw a piece of work so prettily fancied.”

So the wilderness had reached the duchess’s clothes – but did it reflect what was going on in her garden – or did she like the dress design so much she went off and added rustic features to her garden…or did she consciously choose the design because of what William Kent had just done at Kensington palace and install dead trees to more accurately imitate nature.

The dress pictured in the images above dates from exactly the same period but was restyled in the 1750s before being turned into a fancy dress costume in the late 19thc. [Sic transit gloria mundi]  It uses floral and architectural motifs on a grand scale, ruins, castles, and charming cottages, with exotic flowers such as peonies,  and all with a touch of  Chinoiserie… just like the new fashionable gardens of the day. So it wasn’t just Mrs Delany who was dressing to match her horticultural estate.

It all goes to show that the anonymous poet praising the changes to the landscape at Castle Howard was right when he said:

“O’er all design Nature should still preside

She is the cheapest and most perfect guide.”


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