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Folded Beauty and Jacobean Portraits

Fri 1st February 2013

The Holbourne Museum
Gt Pulteney St, Bath BA2 4DB



Tel: Tel: 0207 923 0331

Report by Bridget Marrow

My Grandmother’s copy of Mrs Beeton had a double-page spread of instructions for folding table napkins. I remember a waterlily and a bishop’s mitre. But I had no idea that this was the last remnant of an extravagant Renaissance art form, producing elaborate and delicate sculptures from starched linen.
Catalan artist JOAN SALLAS is dedicated to researching and reviving this lost art, and this is his first exhibition in the UK. Every piece is created on site, and folding was still going on when we called, in preparation for the official opening next day. But Mr Sallas still found time to talk to us, to tell us the background and explain the basic techniques involved.
Linen table napkins were in use in Europe from the early middle ages. About 1500 someone, probably in Florence, had the bright idea of folding them into fancy shapes, using folding and pleating techniques already in use in fashionable dress. This quickly developed into elaborate table centre decorations, using much more linen, and replacing an earlier vogue for sugar sculpture. The first of many books on the subject was published in 1629. Highlight of the exhibition is a table fountain, flanked by heraldic beasts: 1½ metres high and filling the width of the gallery, it was recreated from a design dated 1677. In this Baroque world, meals were an opportunity for theatrical display. The table settings were used only once (the linen could of course be washed, restarched and used again). Though many model books were published, particularly in Germany, originality was essential to keep up with the Graf von Jones’s.
Special designs would be created for special guests: a napkin folded into a 7-point crown was reserved for the exclusive use of the King of Sweden. Fashions came and went: mythological subjects gave way to animals and plants, and conceits such as a fort from which live birds and rabbits were released. More practically, a folded turkey could be lifted to reveal the real thing underneath, with the added advantage that the layers of linen would help to keep the roast warm!
By the 19th century linen folding had moved downmarket. The French Revolution dealt a blow to all kinds of princely magnificence. Instruction books with step-by-step diagrams put an end to creativity, and we’re back with Mrs Beeton and the waterlily and mitre which still turn up in would-be posh restaurants.
As reported in the last newsletter, ‘Folded Beauty’ is supported by a grant from the Textile Society. After Bath it will be at the Bowes Museum and Waddesdon Manor. Do go and see it if you get the chance.

Still with courtly magnificence, the second exhibition showcased a group of portraits on loan from Kenwood House. Matthew Winterbottom, Curator of Decorative Arts, gave us an introduction to the display.
Painted by William Larkin about 1613-18, probably to celebrate a dynastic marriage between the powerful Howard and Cecil families, these full-length, almost life-size, portraits are a record of Jacobean fashion at its height. The Holburne has managed to ‘accessorise’ the paintings with appropriate items of surviving dress: a portrait of Elizabeth Carey is almost exactly matched by an embroidered jacket from the Bath Fashion Museum, which has also lent an exquisite man’s shirt embroidered in blackwork. There’s a fan from the Royal Collection, an elegant pair of shoes from the Ashmoleon, a selection of lace lent by Heather Toomer and also two complete replica costumes made by Jenny Tiramani for Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.
Both exhibitions were a feast for the eyes, and they complemented each other in unexpected ways, both showing how a lavish use of cloth served to demonstrate the affluence and prestige of Europe’s elite families during the Renaissance and beyond.