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Our Private Pinterest Board: The best of our rejected contextual images

First I’d like to thank the wonderful guest bloggers we had over the past few months who have done a fantastic job of sharing their expertise and insight with us. We hope you’ve been enjoying these blogs posts as well. If so, you’ll be happy to hear we’ve enlisted even more amazing people to post in the next few months, on everything from heavy Portuguese quilts to transparent muslin dresses. Keep an eye out for them!

This week though I’d like to focus on a research aspect of the show; namely, the hunt for ‘contextual images’. Contextual images are images of photographs, paintings, drawings, or anything else that gives context to the objects you are looking at. They often appear on object labels, and tell you something about how that object was made or used.

We have dozens of contextual images in The Fabric of India, from miniature paintings to catwalk photography, and we hope they’ll make the objects even more intriguing for you. But the images you can expect to see in the show are only a very, very small selection of all the ones we found and considered.

Over the past year, I’ve been trying to track down any and all images related to the objects in the show – whether royal crowns or gamcha cloths. The result is a massive folder of images which, if nothing else, has the makings of a spectacular Pinterest board. In the course of this research, I came across some amazing things, not all of which ended up being chosen. So today I’d like to share some of my favourite rejects with you.

 Kashmir Shawls

The-Cashmere-Shawl - Singer Sargent 1911

‘The Cashmere Shawl’, by John Singer Sargent, 1911. Museum of Fine Arts Boston

For the objects in the exhibition that represent the relationship between Indian textiles and European fashion, I searched for clear depictions of Coromandel Coast chintzes, Kashmir shawls and Bengali muslins in European paintings and prints from the 1600s through 1900s.

In particular, I spent perhaps rather more time than strictly necessary looking through early-19th century French fashion plates. Officially, I was looking for a muslin dress paired with a Kashmir shawl. With the invaluable aid of Jenny Lister, the V&A’s curator of 19th century fashion, I did indeed find plenty of examples of both muslins and shawls. Surprisingly, however, they were not always used in quite the ways I had expected to find them.


‘Costume Parisien’ 1812 fashion plate. Amsterdam Museum

For instance, the 1812 Costume Parisien plate above shows how the fashionable early-19th century woman could creatively adapt a Kashmir shawl into a dress, a style likely popularized by Empress Josephine’s pioneering fashion prowess. Of course, one would need twice the number of shawls – and have to be sure they complimented one another other – but no one ever said fashion is easy (or cheap!).

In fact, it can be downright dangerous. The poor woman in the 1812 fashion plate below is quite literally up to her ears in frills. One worries about her suffocating, never mind crossing the road safely. Thankfully, she has a lovely Kashmir shawl to give her ensemble that perfect finishing touch.


‘Le Bon Genre / Les garnitures’ 1812 fashion plate © The Trustees of the British Museum

Later in the autumn, look out for a guest post from Jenny Lister giving you more insight into these fabulous (and sometimes frilly) early-19th century fashions and their reliance on Indian textiles.


The Kashmir craze continues… Fashion plate 1873. Victoria and Albert Museum

Bandannas Abound

Another aspect of Indian trade textiles I found particularly interesting to research was the once roaring Indian bandannas industry (from the Hindi bandhana, to tie). Handkerchiefs from India once reached every corner of the world, and we have a whole case devoted to the varieties of, and markets for, these handkerchiefs in the exhibition. I found that once I started looking for contextual images for these objects they seemed to suddenly be popping up everywhere. For example, here is one dropping from the famous hand of Timothy Matlack, the American revolutionary who engrossed the Declaration of Independence.   


‘Timothy Matlack’, by Charles Willson Peale, about 1790. Museum of Fine Arts Boston

One hundred and thirteen years later, a probably industrially-printed descendant of the handmade Indian bandanna can be seen wrapped around the head of a Cree man from Saskatchewan.


‘Cree Indian’ photographed by G. E. Fleming, 1903. The British Library

The story of the Indian handkerchief and how it evolved into the bandannas we know today is an amazing one, touching cultures around the world. Beyond the exhibition, you can read more about the story in an upcoming issue of Selvedge  or, of course, in the wonderful Tie-Dyed Textiles of India.

Portraits and Processes

Of course, I have spent most of my image-researching time looking for images from India, specifically for pictures showing how textiles were used. For these I scoured the British Library’s catalogue of late 19th century photographs. I love the ones below not only for the textiles they show off – like the shawl and the brocade coat in the picture below – but also for the personalities that shine through.

Delhi bankers(1863)

‘Delhi bankers’ photographed by Shepherd and Robertson, 1863. The British Library

KAGAL Jay Singh Rao, Raja of Kagal (1857-1886) (1870)

‘H.H. Jay Singh Rao, Raja of Kagal’ photographed by Bourne and Shepherd, 1870. The British Library

Group of women from Madras, showing way in which jewellery is worn (ASI 1870)

‘Group of women from Madras, showing way in which jewellery is worn’ photographed by the Madras School of Industrial Arts, 1870. The British Library

Finally though, it is pictures of processes that can sometimes be most valuable when studying textiles. There are many textile techniques that were practiced in India which we still don’t know the whole making processes of, never mind the identities of the people who practiced them. Pictures like the ones below are like flashes of insight into these past industries and the people who participated in them.

Carpet designers (1895)

‘Carpet designers’, photographer unknown, 1895. The British Library

Cloth stamper, Western India (ASI 1873)

‘Cloth Stamper, Western India’ photographed by Shivashanker Narayen, 1873. The British Library

Bhattia turban folders at work (ASI 1873)

‘Bhattia turban folders at work’ photographed by Shivashanker Narayen, 1873. The British Library

I’ll leave you with one more, this time a little more recent. A beautiful and creative way of displaying sarees, from Raw Mango. If only there was room in my flat for such a set-up…


Raw Mango Barsana sari © Raw Mango

There’s a small peek into our research files – let us know if you want more, and I’ll scrounge up a part two. In the meantime, happy weekend!



The Private Life of Gabrielle Enthoven

In February 1931, the sculptor Una Troubridge wrote an entry in her diary about a dinner party she had hosted that evening with her partner, the novelist Radclyffe Hall. Over drinks and dinner, the guests began to talk about a woman called Gabrielle Enthoven. Enthoven, an obsessive collector and lover of the theatre, had donated her huge collection of theatrical memorabilia to the V&A seven years before, in 1924. The discussion about her was neither very pleasant nor complementary. It focused on Enthoven’s sexuality. The couple called Enthoven a rat. They used to be friends with her, they said, but now they would have nothing more to do with her. They had no further use for her. They said that she had disguised her sexuality and had urged others to do the same. To put it mildly, Enthoven was, in this period, rather unpopular with the pair.

Enthoven at home with cabinets holding her collected materials, about 1909.

Enthoven at home with cabinets holding her collected materials, about 1909. Theatre and Performance Archives, PN 1620.L7 Folio. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Eve Smith

Over the past couple of years, I have been looking through the collections at the Museum to discover more about the private and personal life of Enthoven. I’ve been looking into her friendships, her relationships, and the people she associated with. Her obsession with collecting theatrical material and her encyclopaedic knowledge of the theatre in London is fairly well documented. In an earlier blog post, Introducing Enthoven, Kate Dorney reveals how Enthoven’s impressive collection was formed and the cataloguing and indexing techniques she used to make her material accessible to researchers, students and theatre enthusiasts. I want to delve deeper into the life of the woman behind the collection. Who were her friends, or, indeed, her enemies? How can an understanding of a collector’s private life influence our understanding of their public collection? My research has taken me as far away as an archive in Austin, Texas. It was here in the Harry Ransom Center that I came across the diaries of Una Troubridge, with their cruel (albeit entertaining) snippets about her dislike of Enthoven. Although Enthoven is regularly described as being a generous and kind woman by other contemporaries who wrote about her, Troubridge’s opinion is obviously marred by Enthoven’s apparently public denial of her sexuality. Enthoven is often called a lesbian when she appears in various biographies of Troubridge and Radclyffe Hall. However, nothing I had previously read or seen within the collections confirmed this in any way. Reading these diary entries showed me that the couple understood Enthoven to be a lesbian, and that they were angered by her attempts to hide and conceal this element of her private life. ‘Mischief and misunderstanding invariably follow in the wake of Gabrielle Enthoven’ scrawls Troubridge in 1931. ((Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge Papers, Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin)


Enthoven as a young woman.

Enthoven as a young woman. Theatre and Performance Archives, THM/114. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Eve Smith

Returning to the collections at the V&A, the Museum has a number of Enthoven’s personal papers which include her holiday snapshots, correspondence and scrapbooks. Aside from the thousands of playbills and posters she collected, it is within these materials that the woman behind the collection is revealed. There is an intricately carved wooden bookplate given to Enthoven by the theatre practitioner Edward Gordon Craig: it bears her initials alongside a basket of flowers. In one of her photograph albums there is a tiny black and white photograph of an Italian street captioned ‘road leading to Duse’s house’. This appears to confirm Enthoven’s friendship with the celebrated Italian actress, Eleonora Duse. What particularly excited me in the collections was an exquisite 1898 first edition of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Happy Prince’. Enthoven’s distinctive handwriting is written along the first page. It reads: ‘given me by Oscar Wilde.’ This small and eclectic group of materials gives a glimpse into a remarkable life spent in the company of celebrated and high-profile theatrical and literary figures.

Opening page of a first edition of Wilde’s ‘The Happy Prince’ with the bookplate given to Enthoven by Edward Gordon Craig..

Opening page of a first edition of Wilde’s ‘The Happy Prince’ with the bookplate given to Enthoven by Edward Gordon Craig. Theatre and Performance Archives, PR5818.H2. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Eve Smith

There are also a number of letters in the Theatre and Performance Archives at the V&A addressed to and from Enthoven. This correspondence reveals that Enthoven enjoyed friendships with many gay and lesbian members of theatrical society including Sir Noël Coward, Sir John Gielgud and Edith Craig. Una Troubridge’s diaries in Texas appear to confirm Enthoven’s sexuality; or at least how this sexuality was displayed differently in private and in public. As I was delving deeper into the collections at the Museum, I came across a short but fascinating letter sent to Enthoven in 1933 from the South African actress Marda Vanne. In this letter, Vanne, the long-term partner of fellow actress Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, invites Enthoven to their home for mulled wine on Christmas Eve. She ends with the tantalising line: ‘this is a mad letter and madder still when I end it with I love you.’ (Theatre and Performance Archives, THM/14/22)

The objects both at the V&A and as far away as the Harry Ransom Center continue to shine light upon the elusive private life of an extraordinary collector. The people she corresponded with, the personal photographs and objects she amassed, and the diary entries that reference her add to the unique and complex narrative of a private life; a life distinct from her public role as collector and theatre archivist. There are things about Enthoven, such as her sexuality, that still remain ambiguous and my research and investigation into the less public aspects of her life will continue. For now, these seemingly innocent objects tell a multitude of stories and offer a glimpse into the people she knew, the people she loved, and the people she may well have wanted to avoid.