New Find – Old Book

December 27, 2008 at 11:00 am (books, fashion) (, , , , )


johnson3This fascinating page is from A LADY OF FASHION: BARBARA JOHNSON’S ALBUM OF STYLE AND FABRICS (Natalie Rothstein, ed; 1987). Miss Johnson kept an album describing the cloth purchased (and its price per yard!), with clippings of fashion plates for the period from 1746, when she was eight-years-old, until her death in 1825. Can you imagine anything more useful in studying the lives of Emma Smith and Mary Gosling!?! The original album is owned by the V&A.

The Study of Dress History (2002) has this to say about the album: “This is a curious object because it is simply an old accounts ledger, but one into which one woman pinned samples of fabric of all the dresses she wore and then noted alongside details of price, date and occasion for which the dress was made. Even more astonishing is the fact that Miss Johnson did this over a period of nearly eighty years…. The album came up for auction at Christie’s in 1973 and after some desperate fund raising it was purchased for the Victoria and Albert Museum. Natalie Rothstein, then Keeper of Textiles, has since then been able to identify Miss Johnson as a fashion consumer moving on the fringes of London society within the circle of a well-off clerical family. She spent time in London, Norfolk and Bath and never married.

Turning over the pages of this album is almost like hearing Miss Johnson’s voice speaking about her clothes, whether they were for weddings, funerals or visits to smart relatives in London and Bath. The note written carefully in black ink alongside a small sample of medium-weight cotton printed with a tiny speckled repeat design in grey and mauve, reads: ‘A Stormont Cotten gown and petticoat, ten yards, two shillings a yard. April 1788, mourning for Aunt Johnson.’  This modest little print is indeed in the exact etiquette-correct colours of half mourning. Another mourning fabric chosen twenty years later is described as ‘a black Chambery muslin, seven yards, half a crown a yard. Made in Bath. June 1808, mourning for my dear friend Mrs Wodhull.’ This little note tells us that even when elderly, Miss Johnson was still keeping up with the latest fashion fabrics by turning to the lighter silk and cotton materials fashionable in the early nineteenth century.” [pp. 7-8]

Opening the Nursery Door: Reading, Writing and Childhood, 1600-1900 (1997) (which looks to be of use all on its own!) is a bit more forthcoming about the life of young Barbara. Authors Morag Styles and Mary Hilton first identify the family, with this memorial inscription:

” ‘Sacred to the memory of the Revd Woolsey Johnson clerk who died April 21 1756 in the sixtieth year of his age, and Jane his wife daughter of Richard Russell esq. of Warwick, who died February 9 1759 in the fifty second year of her age. Also of George William Johnson, esq. eldest son of the above Woolsey Johnson and Jane his wife who died February 8, 1814, in the seventy fourth year of his age. Through life beloved.’

Nearby in the same cemetery is buried George’s brother, the Rev. Robert Augustus Johnson (1745-99), who became rector of a nearby parish and was the only child of Jane’s who had children of his own. The remaining son Charles became vicar of the village church in Witham-on-the-Hill.

Barbara (1738-1825) was the eldest child in the family. She never married but remained close to childhood family friends of Lincolnshire and London. She became a member of moderately prominent social circles in London and often visited Witham-on-the-Hill, as well as the family homes of her brothers, especially Robert, with whom she maintained a frequent correspondence until his death in 1799. It is from her letters and memorabilia that we can draw many inferences about the kind of mother Jane Johnson must have been. Barbara kept throughout her life an album of her own fashions and occasions for acquiring and wearing many pieces of her apparel. She also tucked into her album pages and plates she had torn from various Pocket Books, leather-covered calendar books popular with women in the second half of the eighteenth century. Barbara’s complete album, along with brief quotes from letters recalling moments of her childhood, is reproduced in A Lady of Fashion….

We may safely assume that Barbara’s mother was educated primarily at home, but perhaps also at some nearby girls’ school in music, reading and in manners befitting a lady of a country manor similar to that of females portrayed in the century by novelist Jane Austen. Emma (published in 1815) in particular gives considerable insight into the education of such women three-quarters of a century later: ‘light’ but considerable reading, facility with the piano and needlework, ‘elegant, agreeable manners’, and a range of knowledge about how to run a household and estate, and to entertain guests. We may assume that Jane Johnson was perhaps not quite so wealthy and comfortable as Jane Austen’s heroine Emma Woodhouse, but she was certainly not so dependent on a vicar’s salary as Mr Elton in the same novel. Emma reports conversations, thoughts, and perceptions of the characters of her countryside society. She also lets her readers in on their leisure reading of books and letters and pastimes of playing games with handmade alphabet cards created by women of the household for word games.

We know from the letters of Barbara and Jane that the Johnson children and their friends must have had much in common with Jane Austen’s Emma. They too had books, wrote and received letters, played alphabet games, and had sets of cards and small handmade books created for their pleasure…. As children, Barbara and her brothers were expected to be performers, listeners, reading audience, and reading and writing partners. The children wrote, did paper cuttings, painted, told stories, sang, and created a range of types of written and artistic records of their lives, many of which have been lost but receive mention in letters written by Jane to her children….” [pp. 18-20]

See the Bodleian Library’s Jane Johnson & family papers.

The website Wigs on the Green (which has miniatures, silhouettes, etc. for sale, but is especially recommended for its pictures and lovely bibliography) says of the Album and its originator: “this fashion-conscious lady kept a swatch of fabric from every garment she had made and pinned it into her album noting how much it cost and what it was used for. Alongside she pasted in the fashion plates from the ladies’ magazines which inspired her wardrobe. The pages from her album are reproduced in full-size and in colour: the fabrics are so vivid you imagine you should be able to feel their texture. This book is out of print and can be pricey but for anyone interested in 18th century costume it’s well worth the investment.” Looking online – after a look at local libraries (not on their shelves…) – yes, pricey: a median cost is $200. Dartmouth College (a bit of a drive, but doable at under two hours) has a copy — but it’s JUST been taken out (and obviously by faculty): the damned thing’s not due back until 22 December 2009!

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1 Comment

  1. True Up » Archive » An Amazing Fabric Diary said,

    [...] on Barbara Johnson on the blogs Le Divan Fumoir Bohémien (in French) and Two Teens in the Time of Austen. Thanks very much to Rosa Pomar for the [...]

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