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22 Oct 2020

The tale of a silk dress: part 2

Written by Vikki Duncan, Curator North
An old gold and cream silk dress is displayed on a mannequin against a plain grey background. It has a tight bodice section, with a long full skirt. Red flowers decorate the silk at the back.
Robe a l’Anglaise c1780 – this antique silk brocade dress gown is similar to the one in the story. Image: Met Museum
Our imagined diary, written by the dress itself, continues with an entry exploring how the dress made its way to Scotland.

Today, I want to tell you of my journey from distant shores to Scotland, how I travelled to the busy port of Leith and why I was then sent to London.

It was dark, I remember that, my journey across both land and seas from China. I travelled in a packing chest with other bolts of cloth, destined for some wealthy merchant to sell me to the highest bidder. Sometimes, when these chests were opened, the cloth inside was spoiled if it was dirtied, muddied or damp. Sometimes, too, a large lump of salt was placed inside the chest to absorb both moisture and odour during the voyage. The salt served a double purpose, since it could also be used to give a false idea of the weight of silk inside the chest.

I did not travel direct to Scotland but to Amsterdam. I felt the air become cooler as we travelled further west and the language spoken changed yet again. Amsterdam was the capital of the Dutch maritime empire, which had trading posts in all the most strategic points across the continents. This lively port was a hub of commercial and financial activity, and I saw people of all nations and races thronging the walkways.

A map of Asia showing trade routes marked in different coloured lines. There is an inset box in the bottom left, which expands the map to include Europe as well.
A map of the Dutch East India Company trade network in the 18th century

Here, I was unloaded again and put onto a much smaller ship destined for the cold eastern shores of Schotland. Whilst it smelled strongly of herring and cheese, I travelled alongside delicate china and coarse cloth.

When we came to the port of Leith, I was rudely jarred and jolted in my chest but then I remember I was taken to a warehouse full of people. Unlike some of the baser fabrics, we were not thrown onto a table or unrolled in front of others. Instead, we were taken to a much smaller room that was quieter and dimly lit. There were a few men there, no women, and they appeared to be well-bred if I judged correctly by their manners and dress. One gentleman looked at me for a long time and touched me gently, appraising my texture and beautiful sheen. He held me towards the light and smiled. His name was Patrick Orr of Brigton (or Bridgeton), co. Forfar, Esq. and he was the father of the girl I was destined to adorn.

Mr Orr paid £45 to the merchant who had arranged my travel across the world. He must have been an extremely wealthy man to pay such a sum since I am told that the sum is worth over £7,000 to you today. This amount was only for me as a bolt of valuable cloth; it would cost even more to have me made up into a gown for his daughter.

His seat was Brigton House, which was ‘forming two sides of a square, a partly ancient and partly modern, capacious mansion, pleasantly situated on the north side of the turnpike road, amid finely wooded rising grounds, about four hundred yards northeast of the ivy-clad bridge, and gushing waterfall of the deep romantic wooded “witch” ravine of Den-Finella’ [taken from The baronage of Angus and Mearns, by David MacGregor Peter].

He was a gentleman for certain, described as ‘one of only eleven heritors of the parish in 1792’. A heritor was a privileged person in a parish in Scots law. This term was used to denote the feudal landholders of a parish until the early 20th century.

A black and white photograph of a large white house, seen almost in the distance. A still river is in the foreground, with wintery trees reflected in the water.
A photograph of Brigton House, taken around 1920, the home of Patrick Orr

When I was taken there to be seen by his daughter, I found her to be a rather handsome young girl of middling height. Her name was Janet, although her father called her Jessie, and I learned that she had a long-standing engagement to a gentleman in Ayrshire called Mr William Gordon. Janet delighted in the luminosity of my pale blue colour and marvelled at the manner in which the flowers and stems had been artfully painted. She and her father discussed my necessary onward travel to London: such a fine bolt of cloth, as I was, deserved to be finished by the finest of mantua-makers. I was to be transformed into a gown!

“Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
The liquefaction of her clothes”
‘Upon Julia’s clothes’
Robert Herrick (1591–1674), poet
An elabroate silk gown is modelled on a mannequin. Red flowers and vines are painted on the fabric of the full skirt. The model has a loose net scarf around the neck.

Next time, I shall tell you more about that transformation as well as a little more about the family with whom I came to reside.

The conservation of the dress has been made possible through the generous support of the Cedar Trust.

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