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Be kind to bugs week

April 17, 2009

picture credit: wikipedia commons

1888. Ellen Terry, the leading Shakespearian actress on the London stage appears in Macbeth as Lady Macbeth. Among the captivated audience members is the artist John Singer Sargeant, who persuades her to pose for this portrait in full crazed homicidal trance.

“One of Mrs. Nettleship’s greatest triumphs was my Lady Macbeth dress…The picture of me is nearly finished, and I think it is magnificent. The green and blue of the dress is splendid, and the expression as Lady Macbeth holds the crown over her head is quite wonderful . . .” wrote Ellen in her diary in 1888.

Flicking through the latest National Trust newletter I was stopped in my tracks by an actual colour photograph of the amazing dress Ellen wears in this portrait (although I can’t find an electronic version anywhere on the internet). It seems that Ellen’s home Smalhythe Place in Kent, UK (which is owned by the National Trust) has a collection of her stage costumes. Currently they are looking to raise money to help conserve this particular “Beetle-wing” dress.

Beetlewing? I thought, peering at the text that accompanied the photo. Must be the name for the shiny iridescent bits… Some kind of metal sequin or gemstone perhaps? But no. Apparently beetlewings are actually, um, beetle wings. After I’d finished recoiling in horror that anyone would wear a dress covered in bug detritus (although I suppose it’s no less odd that wearing a real stuffed bird on your hat- ah, our Victorian cousins!) I started doing a little research.

When Ellen starred in Macbeth in 1888, there was not a wide choice of fabrics available in England, and her costume advisor Alice Comyns-Carr could not find the colours she wanted to achieve her effects. She wanted the dress to ‘look as much like soft chain armour as I could, and yet have something that would give the appearance of the scales of a serpent.’ (Mrs. J. Comyns Carr’s ‘Reminiscences’. London: Hutchinson, 1926). Ellen’s dressmaker Mrs Nettleship found a twist of soft green silk and blue tinsel in Bohemia and this was crocheted to achieve the dress’s chain mail effect. The dress hung beautifully but: ‘we did not think that it was brilliant enough, so it was sewn all over with real green beetle wings, and a narrow border in Celtic designs, worked out in rubies and diamonds, hemmed all the edges. To this was added a cloak of shot velvet in heather tones, upon which great griffins were embroidered in flame-coloured tinsel. The wimple, or veil, was held in place by a circlet of rubines, and two long plaits twisted with gold hung to her knees.’ (Information from the V&A here.)

Turns out that the beetle-wings used in embroidery are the modified fore-wings which mostly come from members of the family Buprestidae, often know as Jewel Beetles. Beetle-wings have been used for centuries by Indian civilisations, cut into tiny spangle shapes to adorn a range of objects from garments and turban cloths, to canopies and book covers, their reflective properties admired as a means to ward off evil spirits. In the 19th century beetlewing embroidery became a luxury export to Britain for ladies’ ball gowns and other textiles.

photo: Hampshire Museums Service (site at http://www3.hants.gov.uk/museum )

The Hampshire Museums service has the beetlewing tea cosy above (their website is well worth a look) and has the following information:

It was clearly possible to acquire the beetle-wings in England by the mid Victorian era, too. A beetle-wing embroidered lace dress worked by a dressmaker in Dublin had been exhibited in The Great Exhibition in 1851 and by 1865 a discussion on the ‘queries and answers’ pages of The Queen magazine pondered how a very large quantity of ‘Indian beetle-wings’, could best be employed to good effect on English dresses. The enquirer noted that “in India the wings are generally bordered round with gold or silver, but I do not think this is at all necessary”. The use of “white crape or aerophane” as opposed to muslin or velvet was recommended for the ground. (From http://www3.hants.gov.uk/museum/dress-and-textiles/beetlewing.htm)

Curiouser and curiouser.

On 16 May 2009 at 2pm there is a talk at Smallhythe Place by Siobhan Barratt (regional conservator) on the costume collection at Smallhythe. There is also a chance to see some costumes not normally on display. All money raised from this talk will go towards the conservation costs to repair the Beetle Wing Dress. More info and tickets here:http://www.ticketingsolutions.com/portal/event/8930

Further reading:

Ellen Terry in portraits and photographs:
http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person.php?linkID=mp04458

All you could wish to know about beetles in embroidery:
http://www.insects.org/ced2/beetles_tex.html

A beautiful modern example of beetle-wing embroidery:
http://oakenking.livejournal.com/153387.html

More beetlewing textile examples:
http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/?irn=15913
http://www.dhub.org/object/15979
http://www.embroiderersguild.com/stitch/infocus/beetle.html
http://www.meg-andrews.com/showitem.php?item=6947

Example of a beetle-wing embroidered dress in the Museum of London.

Photo copyright: Museum of London.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 20, 2009 10:10 am

    Thank you for your interest in Hampshire Museums’ recent acquisition of a beetlewing teacosy and the article which I wrote about it, from which you have quoted here. I have been researching beetlewing embroidered dresses and accessories and textiles for 25 years, and have lectured and published quite widely on the subject.

    I should be grateful if you would give the website address for the Hampshire Museums Service and my contact details for any follow-up enquiries, as I have a wealth of information and am continuing to compile a list of extant examples for a database and article for the Costume Society Journal (far too long in the offing but close to completion now, with all the references you give above, and many more).

    Thank you.

    Alison Carter MA FMA
    Senior Keeper of Art and Design

    Email: alison.carter@hants.gov.uk

    • glassoffashion permalink*
      May 20, 2009 11:36 am

      Alison- thanks so much for getting in touch with details of your research. I hadn’t realised there were still many examples of beetlewing in existence- how absolutely fascinating!

      As requested, I’ve added the actual text website address of the Hampshire Museums Service in the post, in addition to the direct links already in there. And how kind of you to allow me to give your contact details for any follow up queries! I’ve added your email address to the bottom of your comment.

  2. May 20, 2009 12:41 pm

    Many thanks! Alison Carter

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