Costume Society, News  |  December 9, 2015

A Portrait of Fashion

When the National Portrait Gallery decided to publish a new, refreshed edition of Gallery of Fashion (2000), now renamed as A Portrait of Fashion (2015), I was thrilled to be asked to work on it again, this time not merely as researcher but as co-author alongside Professor Aileen Ribeiro, who needs no introduction to anyone interested in history of dress.

This was a daunting and challenging task, yet one that turned out to be very enjoyable: one of the pleasures in carrying it out of course was working with the best practitioner of the art-historical approach in the discipline, the other was the delight in being asked to select images acquired by the NPG since Gallery of Fashion was first published fifteen odd years ago. In that time the collection had mushroomed, encompassing an ever-wider range of sitters represented in an ever-widening range of media, including digital video, a breadth that begins to reflect our rapidly changing society today.

To be tasked with choosing a small percentage of appropriate portraits from this rich source was like going to a sweet shop and being told you could only have one chocolate éclair (if you like that sort of thing). My initial visceral, emotional reaction to an image, given the limitations of space and time, had to be balanced with an even spread of gender, garments, occasion, time of day, significant sartorial moments in history as well as colour and ‘texture’ for the layout of the book; new images and accompanying text have been incorporated with these criteria in mind.

As well as providing information about sitters through their clothing great portraits also must communicate something about their personalities. The mysterious and unusual portrait of poet John Donne (NPG 6790) by an unknown artist depicts a melancholic figure whose sensitive features express yearning and romance, even as he swaggers in a fashionable, broad-brimmed round hat, a cloak wrapped stylishly around his body. Sir Thomas Lawrence’s glamorous touch with paint and brush makes him the perfect artist to portray the suave good looks (then and now I would say) and professional confidence of Henry Brougham (NPG 3136), every inch the brilliant young lawyer, but also passionate supporter of the abolition of slavery and committed social reformer. In contrast, Russell Westwood’s monochrome photograph of artist John Minton (NPG x35236) in his studio ably captures his vulnerability and perhaps hints at his coming suicide. But hindsight is a wonderful thing: some might say that it is easy to read sitters’ personalities and achievements into their images after they are long dead, but the power many of these images retain continues to capture our attention and interest today.

If I had to choose three of my favourites from the new acquisitions that made the short list for A Portrait of Fashion, they would all be of strong and feisty women who challenged convention or made a difference to society. In the sixteenth century, Mary Neville, Lady Dacre, fought for the restoration of her family’s titles and honours after her husband was executed, a crime he was later cleared of. Her strength of character and determination are obvious in Eworth’s portrait (NPG 6855), in her steely expression, the battle she fought against primogeniture indicated by the large, dynastic, square-cut diamond ring she fingers. It is also an image of lavish conspicuous consumption expressed through costly clothing and quantities of jewellery; in this she is outshone by her son Gregory, the new Lord Dacre, who is dripping with gold aglets, chains, sumptuous fabrics and fur. 

Next I would pick Sir John Millais’ portrait of painter Louise Jopling (NPG 6612), not only because she wears a beautiful embroidered ensemble, made in Paris as she recalled in her autobiography (but irritatingly not by whom it was made), but also because she campaigned for female art students to be able to draw from nude life models and was one of the first women to be admitted to the Royal Society of British Artists. Millais, one of the most successful painters of his day, portrayed his friend as an equal, his gaze returned uncompromisingly by her level, direct stare.

Then there is Christabel Pankhurst: firebrand of the WSPU, advocate of violent military action, including arson. She strides across fellow-suffragette Ethel Wright’s monumental canvas (NPG 6921) as if she can see female emancipation ahead in the distance, wearing an artistic green (of course) dress trimmed with delicate embroidery. How I wish I had been able to write my entry for this painting after the exhibition of Christina Broom’s wonderful documentary photographs Soldiers and Suffragettes at the Museum of London had opened. It might have lead me to work around the possibility that the green gown in Wright’s portrait may have been designed by Amy Kotze, dressmaker and supporter of the cause, who, as I now know, grew up and for a short time, had a shop just up the road from where I sit as I write this. There is always so much more to do.

Cally Blackman, Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London

  • Dame Christabel Pankhurst, by Ethel Wright. © National Portrait Gallery, London
  • Mary Neville, Lady Dacre; Gregory Fiennes, 10th Baron Dacre, by Hans Eworth. © National Portrait Gallery, London
  • Louise Jane Jopling (née Goode, later Rowe) by Sir John Everett Millais. © National Portrait Gallery, London