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28 Jun 2024

Curating Ramsay & Edinburgh Fashion

Written by Dr Antonia Laurence Allen PhD, Regional Curator for Edinburgh & East
Four people carefully hang a large portrait of a Georgian girl onto a green wall in an exhibition room.
The portrait of Agnes Dalrymple by Allan Ramsay being installed in the exhibition
In the third in our series of articles on the Ramsay & Edinburgh Fashion exhibition, Curator Dr Antonia Laurence Allen gives us a behind-the-scenes tour, introducing the teams of people involved in bringing Allan Ramsay’s paintings and 18th-century textiles to the Georgian House.

Thanks to the success of Raeburns Edinburgh in 2023, the Georgian House team were keen to help curate another artistic feast for 2024. The idea for the Ramsay exhibition was conceived at the beginning of the Raeburn exhibition – I was standing in the Georgian House’s drawing room on Charlotte Square, the week after the opening in June 2023, and a visitor asked me about the mysterious lady who sits above the mantle.

‘We do not know who she is’, I replied to the visitor, ‘but she was painted by one of Scotland’s most famous artists’. This brought our conversation round to the topic of Allan Ramsay (1713–84) and the Edinburgh before Raeburn’s day, when the New Town was simply a plan sketched on paper. This got me thinking about the idea of showcasing the Georgian House’s mysterious lady, by selecting other women painted by Ramsay who feature in the Trust’s art collection and researching their connections to Edinburgh.

A re-created Georgian drawing room with the fireplace centred in the image. A portrait of a grand Georgian woman hangs above the mantel, with a number of other gilt-framed paintings hanging nearby.
The Georgian House’s Drawing Room with the portrait of ‘A Lady’ by Allan Ramsay, dated 1750, above the fireplace

Connecting fashion and portraits

I soon discovered Ramsay paintings across the country, and one of the biggest collections is held just outside Edinburgh, at Newhailes House near Musselburgh. It dawned on me that Newhailes also has a wonderful historic textile collection and a fine example of a mid-18th-century silk dress. What if we focused on fashion and the clothing worn by the women in Ramsay’s paintings? This would mean I could connect the Trust’s Edinburgh properties together for the first time: the Georgian House, Newhailes, Gladstone’s Land (a tenement on the Lawnmarket that has a re-created 1760s draper’s shop), and even the apartment (currently used as a B&B) at Ramsay Gardens, which was where Ramsay’s father built a house in the 1730s. This is how the idea for Ramsay & Edinburgh Fashion evolved.

A re-created 17th-century draper's shop in a dark room with blue walls and low-beamed ceilings. A wooden bench stands in front of shelves that contain neatly folded cloth. Large rolls of fabric lie under the bench.
Elizabeth Pillans was a merchant in Gladstone’s Land from at least 1755. In 1761, she married William Dawson, and the couple ran a draper’s shop in the building.

Exploring Allan Ramsay’s paintings of women alongside a story of the fashion trade in Edinburgh has allowed me to bring portraits from as far away as Leith Hall, Hill of Tarvit and the House of Dun. The focus for the exhibition was dictated by the final selection of portraits, which date from 1739 to 1769. This allowed for a detailed examination of Ramsay’s early career and his relationship to his home town of Edinburgh, as well as the commission of new research into the city’s clothing and textile businesses during this era.

By July 2023, I had laid out the exhibition on paper and finalised the list of paintings and textiles. This meant liaising with properties, organising loans and visiting sites. At the House of Dun, we examined a group of four paintings, all painted by Ramsay in 1747. As I wanted to focus on female fashion, the father had to stay behind, while the mother and her two young children were checked by our Regional Conservator who gave her approval for their suitability to travel. Their first stop was to a conservation studio in Dundee.

Conservation and research

The House of Dun trio replaced two paintings from Leith Hall that were already at the studio of painting conservators Egan, Matthews & Rose. They had removed decades of dirt that had left the original lustrous white silks with a dull yellow sheen.

An exhibition like this is often the impetus for in-depth conservation. We were fortunate to have raised funds to help us do this work and we are enormously grateful for the support – the results are tremendous!

As the conservation work progressed, research was in full swing. Freelance historian Rosie Waine spent hours leafing through Edinburgh newspapers from the mid-1700s. She was searching for adverts and stories mentioning the fashion trades, from wigmakers to shoe-makers, milliners and merchants, to track who was selling linen, cotton, silk and satin in the city. My goal was to plot these businesses onto a 1742 map, which could be enlarged and installed in the exhibition. We had done something similar with a later map of Edinburgh for the 2023 Raeburn exhibition, and it was a huge hit. We’d also printed the map in a leaflet so visitors could take it with them as they further explored the city. The Ramsay leaflet is proving equally popular.

Making the film

The research into the fashion trades inspired a film project and a dress-making workshop, both of which were designed to highlight Gladstone’s Land. In the coldest, darkest months of the year, videographer and photographer John Sinclair joined us on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh to film Trust volunteer Emma Harvey, who was dressed in a replica gown of her own making.

Find out more about Emma’s passion for Georgian fashion

With scripts in hand and a shot list to get through before we lost the light of the day, we headed to Mary King’s Close, under the City Chambers, to tell the story of a woman shopping for accessories and textiles. Emma was joined by a group of extras, who generously gave their time before starting their day jobs giving tours of Edinburgh’s hidden closes.

Watch the film

The film will be played at Gladstone’s Land once Ramsay & Edinburgh Fashion closes in November this year.

A sustainable approach

As the Trust is a sustainable charity, it was important to me that our work had a life after the exhibition. This includes ensuring all the research we do – on Ramsay, his paintings, the textiles and the conservation – is logged into the Collections database for future use. It also means we opted for products that can be recycled, like the card used for the interpretation panels and labels, and we offered professional development for staff so skills and learning could be cascaded through the organisation.

In this vein, Lesley Scott, Regional Conservator for Edinburgh & East, organised workshops for staff and volunteers to learn about gilding, repairing and conserving painting frames. In a later article, Lesley will explain this work in more detail but she has also written an interesting article for Icon Scotland. One frame from Newhailes, which displays two paintings, was a particular challenge. It contains portraits of a couple, Janet and James St Clair, who married in the 1740s. Janet commissioned a portrait from Ramsay after her husband returned from working abroad announcing that the French artist Jean-Marc Nattier was painting his likeness.

I could not physically separate these paintings from their frame, which is why a Nattier portrait is in an exhibition that focuses on Ramsay’s paintings of women! However, it does help to highlight that Ramsay was hugely influenced by French painters like Nattier and Chardin, and became well known for spearheading a fresh approach to portraiture in the UK – aiming to replicate the natural beauty of a person, from the luminosity of their skin to the deep concentration in their stare.

Dress and textiles

A star of the exhibition was to be the original mid-1700s dress from Newhailes. However, I knew it would be an irresistibly difficult thing not to touch, and so I wanted to create a replica that visitors could interact with. I contacted textile historian Rebecca Olds, who specialises in the cut and construction of women’s clothing in the 18th century. We discussed how to make a dress – in situ – at the Georgian House, to show visitors just how different the techniques were to the way clothing is made today. Leia, Collections Care Assistant at Gladstone’s Land, was seconded to the exhibition to learn about curatorial work, and she has written an excellent account of both the training in April and the week in June when the volunteers came together in small groups to work with Rebecca and create a sumptuous replica. This dress will also go to Gladstone’s Land after the exhibition closes.

Watch a short film of the dress being made

When at Hill of Tarvit in July 2023, I was looking at the Ramsay portrait of Katherine Mure, and she became my inspiration for the replica dress. It was hard to narrow down the choices to just Ramsay paintings – the larger portrait seen below is by his student David Martin and is an even more glamorous painting showing off the fashions of the mid-18th century. You can see it in the Hill of Tarvit library.

A woman shines a torch up at a portrait of a woman wearing a blue silk dress, displayed on a green wall in an old library. Beside this portrait is a larger painting of another woman, wearing a similar fancy blue silk dress with lace trimmings.
Looking at the Ramsay portrait of Katherine Mure, with a painting by his student David Martin to the left | Hill of Tarvit.

Eleanor was a postgraduate student on placement with us from the Dress and Textile Histories course at the University of Glasgow. One of her tasks was to add detailed descriptions to our database of the dress and costume found in the Trust’s Ramsay paintings. Eleanor augmented over 30 records, adding detail about undergarments and linen, dyes and silks. While she learnt the art of writing for documentation and interpretation, she also took away with her a new appreciation of her dress-making skills and techniques for constructing 18th-century fashion.

In January 2024, I went to Newhailes to confirm that the 1700s gown and textiles were suitable for display. Conservation work had been completed on the sack gown some years ago, when it was on view in the Best Bedroom at Newhailes. The two textiles needed for the exhibition did require a condition assessment by a specialist conservator.

Tuula Pardoe carefully stitched an extremely fragile textile to a back board, so it could be displayed and re-stored without further damage. The muslin piece was carefully examined and photographed, back and front. We are still debating what this fragment might be. The best guess is that it’s the remnant of a neckerchief (known in French fashion as a fichu). It is not a complete piece, but after being examined by a conservator and a historian it is clear that the embroidered flowers have been re-used, having clearly been cut out from an older textile. Someone has brought these flowers together, maybe as recently as the 1800s, using additional embroidery work to create a new design.

With limited space, we decided to showcase the two textiles at alternate times. Our mystery embroidered piece will be on show later in the year. First on display is a magnificent 1740s apron, which is stitched by the finest of embroiderers. A rare and unique piece, this apron is worth coming to the Georgian House to see in person. This was designed to be a sumptuous addition to a lady’s day dress.

A beautiful cream 17th-century apron, covered in embroidered flowers, is fully laid out against a black background.
The 1740s apron is a magnificent example of the finest embroidery using a mixture of coloured and metallic threads.

Installing the paintings

Having completed the research and started writing panels and labels to tell a story, we gathered the paintings together in May at the Georgian House to begin installation.

One of the most complex portraits to display was an un-framed canvas of Lady Christian Dalrymple – her portrait is inset into the moulding of a wall panel at Newhailes. Art handlers Phillip and Duncan worked out an ingenious method for displaying her without having to impose on the canvas in any way. She is clamped gently in place with wooden clasps, which are attached to a lightweight wooden frame. I also ordered a vinyl to surround the portrait to give Christian more presence in the room, as she is displayed next to the monumental double frame.

Newhailes gown being installed

After the paintings were secured, the 1760s dress was installed. First was the replica hooped petticoat, which supports the skirt. Then the skirt (also called a petticoat), with the most incredibly fresh embroidery on the back, which was never intended to be seen. Finally, the robe was placed over the shoulders, draped over the front of her chest and down to the floor at the back in a distinctive pleat. The dress ensemble also has a stomacher (a triangular piece worn over the chest and stomach), which was traditionally pinned in place. At some point the Newhailes stomacher had been stitched into the robe on one side, and has had hooks and eyes added on the other side. Presumably this was done for ease of use by someone who wore the dress in the 19th or 20th century. The result is a distinctive silhouette, which was highly fashionable in the mid-1700s.

Thanks to support from freelance historian Rosie Waine, and dress and textile historians, I have curated this exhibition on the shoulders of giants. As you can imagine, the work bringing this collection of textiles and paintings together is a team effort, from property managers across the Trust to the Collection Care staff and volunteers at Newhailes, Gladstone’s Land and the Georgian House – my thanks goes to them all.

The exhibition has allowed me to reflect on my own shopping habits. What do I re-use, recycle and how can I reduce waste? I see this dress and think of the care and cost it took to make, and how a new ribbon or bit of lace might have been purchased by women with less means, to try and emulate this kind of luxury.

A beautiful 17th-century gown is displayed on a mannequin in the corner of an exhibition room. It stands beside a gilt-framed mirror, and you can just see a lady taking a photo of it in the reflection.
The Newhailes gown in the Georgian House

Ramsay & Edinburgh Fashion runs until 26 November 2024 and is included with admission to the Georgian House (free for members of the National Trust for Scotland).

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