Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Music To My Ears: Wilton's Pianoforte

Accession #: 1903.5
Item: Pianoforte

Of all the furnishings in an elegant eighteenth century house that suggested the wealth, culture, and refinement of its inhabitants, none articulated status more clearly than the presence of a finely crafted harpsichord, clavichord, or piano forte. For most of this period however, the harpsichord and its variants, along with the flute and the fiddle, provided much of the musical entertainment for Virginia’s gentry. Far from being considered mere embellishment to gracious living music, and the dance, were an essential part of the colony’s social life, as reflected in diarist Philip Vickers Fithian’s famous observation that “Virginians are of genuine blood; they will dance or die.” That William Randolph III and his family shared this enthusiasm is suggested by the beguiling portrait of his daughter, Lucy Randolph Burwell, whom the artist captured playing a mandolin, and it may be imagined that a harpsichord would have found its way into Wilton sometime sooner rather than later. This is only conjecture, alas, as the earliest extant inventory of the Wilton’s furnishings was done in 1815, subsequent to the death of William III’s grandson, William IV. There, occupying pride of place as the most costly item in the house, was a harpsichord valued at a princely $200.

Interestingly, the harpsichord already represented old technology by this time, having been displaced by the more versatile pianoforte. Developed in Italy during the early eighteenth century the pianoforte, since abbreviated to piano in modern terminology, provided greater variation of tone and more volume than the harpsichord could offer. The musical terms “piano” and “forte” actually mean “quiet” and “loud.” By 1800 most English and American makers of keyboard instruments had abandoned harpsichords in favor of the pianoforte. Foremost among them was the London firm of “John Broadwood and Sons” which traced its lineage to a young Swiss immigrant, Burkat Shudi, who apprenticed himself to a maker of harpsichords in Soho in 1718. Later establishing his own workshop, Shudi achieved some reputation producing instruments for such notables as George Frideric Handel; Frederick, Prince of Wales; and King George II. In fact, the firm which he began has made instruments for every British monarch since. Little wonder that in 1765 when the child prodigy Mozart visited London, he performed upon a Shudi.

Produced in 1800 by “John Broadwood and Son, Makers to His Majesty and the Princesses,” it is a tribute to the cabinet builder’s art with its mahogany-veneered case, satinwood keyboard surround, and boxwood inscription cartouche identifying its origin. Featuring Chippendale type legs with beading, and Hepplewhite bolt brasses with a Hepplewhite brass to secure the top, it has long served as a principal adornment of Wilton’s magnificent parlor. Though missing a pedal, it is in otherwise excellent condition since its expert cleaning and refurbishment in 2002. As rare as it is beautiful, it is estimated that during the period of its manufacture there was only one grand piano produced for every twenty to thirty of the less costly square pianos, and that there are currently but fifteen Braodwood & Son grand pianos dating from between 1795-1805 in the United States. An enduring testimony to Mrs. Hugh McGuire’s esteem and affection for the Colonial Dames of Virginia and for Wilton, as well as to her own “discriminating taste,” it is in every way a fitting centerpiece for what has been termed one of America’s one hundred most beautiful rooms.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

My Love Ten Thousand Times

Accession #: 1906.0009
Item: wedding dress belonging to James Madison's mother
Mermaid, princess, A-line, shift, or column. Potential silhouettes of any dress for any sort of occasion. But more importantly: the dress, for the occasion many dream about starting from their adolescence. Although most only wear their wedding dress on the momentous day itself, it serves the purpose of honoring matrimonial tradition. Today's dream of the big, white dress was not always the case. It was not until Queen Victoria's wedding in 1840 when she dressed in white satin and lace that the trend was set. Before then, it was of fashion to simply wear one's “sunday best” for the special occasion.
            It is typically unheard of that a modern bride will wear a color other than white to her wedding. Today's interpretations of wedding white bring to mind purity, innocence, and virginity. In past centuries, however, it was the color blue that symbolized these qualities, as witnessed by the silk and cotton wedding gown (1860),  given to the Metropolitan Museum of Art from the Brooklyn Museum. In fact, the color of the bride's dress was much more focused on demonstrating she and her family's wealth, rather than symbolizing virtuous characteristics. This proved that the family was able to afford a dress that their daughter would most likely never wear again. The rarer the color, the better showcasing of wealth. A silly poem was published in the 19th century about the color of your dress predicting the outcome of your marriage. It states,
            “Married in white, you will have chosen all right. Married in grey , you will go far away.    Married in black, you will wish yourself back. Married in red, you’ll wish yourself dead. Married in blue, you will always be true. Married in pearl, you’ll live in a whirl. Married in green, ashamed to be seen, Married in yellow, ashamed of the fellow. Married in brown, you’ll live out of town. Married in pink, your spirits will sink.”
Even after Queen Victoria's wedding in 1840, white was not a popular choice until the end of the 19th century thanks to the rise of the upper-middle class who strove to emulate the upper class while now having a more expendable income.
            It was not uncommon for a woman to alter or dye her wedding dress after the special occasion. Some brides even purchased separate bodices to accompany the dress for later occasions. Necklines were higher and more conservative on wedding dresses than on typical evening attire so the bodice was often switched or altered for later use.
            Wedding gowns of the 18th and 19th centuries were created as two separate, adjoining pieces: the bodice and the skirt, as seen in the dress of James Madison's mother found in Wilton's collection. In the 1700s, the bodice would most always cover one's elbows as well as establish a narrow waist for the wearer. Elegant women of the time, such as Empress Josephine of France, greatly popularized certain silhouettes of the early 19th century, such as the column-like gown, complete with an empire waist situated under the woman's bust. The silhouette was inspired by Ancient Greek and Roman dress however it was brought back into style thanks to Empress Josephine.
            By the 1840s, the circumference of the skirt grew to an exaggerated fullness thanks to increased petticoats and caged crinoline. The size of the skirt reached its climax by the 1860s, but then quickly fell out of style by the 1870s thanks to the rise of the bustle. Large leg-of-mutton sleeves often accompanied the bustle at the time up until the 20th century. Thanks to the reverse “S” shape silhouette popular of 1900, women were forced to squeeze and contort their bodies into unnatural and painful feminine shapes. This sort of unnaturalness sparked the rebellion against corsets just before the 1920s, creating loose, diaphanous, and much shorter dresses. The silhouettes of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s echoed the natural shape of a woman, redefining the waist-line and took inspiration from Hollywood, World War II uniforms, and influential women such as Jacquelyn Kennedy and Grace Kelly.
            Wilton's upcoming exhibit opening February 4th, 2012, entitled “My Love Ten Thousand Times: Love and Courtship since the 18th century,” chronicles love and marriage in the 18th, 19th, and 20th century. This exhibit will include a variety of wedding dresses spanning two hundred years.

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