Textile Fragments at the Courtauld Institute of Art


Dr Rebecca Arnold, Oak Foundation Lecturer in History of Dress & Textiles, showing students a 19th century bodice from the Harris Collection.
MA students Jessica Draper and Jennifer Potter, examining an 18th century stomacher from the Harris Collection.


Three woven fragments, each composed of similar red and gold threads in a design of kufic or pseudo-kufic characters, seemingly formed a complete textile at one time. Today, labelled and sewn side-by-side onto linen matting, with no documentation in reference to their creation, they serve as uncertain evidence. They also speak to the historian’s urge to retain, to classify, to learn, as well as to shifts in dress and art history.

The fragments form part of a larger collection of diverse textile and dress articles, held at The Courtauld. As students, we eagerly await opportunities to study historical textiles, such as these, up close, and it is wonderful to have a collection to work with on site. Recently, as well as looking at the textile fragments, such as those pictured, I viewed a late nineteenth-century bodice  – one of the few complete pieces of clothing we have in the collection. Deconstructed and decontextualised from its life as a worn garment, it now evokes bodily and other types of loss. The poignancy of such interactions is heightened as, through contact with the object, we connect to distant periods and places. Our viewing experience thus works on a separate level to our theoretical and contextual readings of dress, that form much of our research. While our tutor, Rebecca and I discussed the bodice, other students marvelled at the detailed, sculptural qualities of a stomacher from the seventeenth to the early eighteenth century. These objects at once evoke the visual culture of the period in which they were made, yet remain shrouded in mystery.

Intriguingly little is known about the collection’s provenance. An anonymous brochure, entitled, A Collection of Textiles: European 14th – 18th Centuries, explains that it was created by Lionel Harris, a dealer of Spanish art and antiques and founder of London’s Spanish Art Gallery, largely on his travels to Spain between 1876 and 1938, and provides a few clues to its content:

This collection of four hundred and sixty-six rare examples of woven and embroidered materials forms what is probably the most comprehensive collection of antique European textiles in private possession. It comprises several hundred fragmentary specimens of tapestries, carpets, needlework, embroideries, velvets, brocades, brocatelles, damasks, woolwork, and other woven fabrics. In addition there are more than four hundred silk and metal fringes, gimps, galoons, and metal laces, and forty tassels.

The brochure, which purportedly corresponds to an exhibition of the collection at Eton College in 1944, one year after Harris’ death, evinces period prioritisation in favour of quantity, connoisseurship and typology.

Information concerning the Harris’ collecting is as ambiguous as the objects themselves. In her 1987 collection assessment report, textile conservation student Caroline Pilkington surmised that Lionel’s son Tomas, who inherited the collection, “added to it as well as dispos[ed] of certain items.” At some point before his death in 1964, he gave it to The Courtauld on long-term loan. In 1968, according to Pilkington, The Courtauld Gallery exhibited fifty-four textiles from the collection with the help of Joan Allgrove, then Keeper of Textiles at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. Harris’ siblings, who were also dealers, collectors and historians of Spanish art, then officially donated the collection to the school in 1972.

In parallel with this, in 1965, Stella Mary Newton, a well-known fashion and theatre costume designer, established the The Courtauld’s History of Dress postgraduate course. Between 1973 and 1975 Newton and her students sewed the Harris collection fragments, originally mounted on cardboard with tape and other adhesives, onto linen supports. This followed a shift in focus towards scholarship and protection, and away from antiquarian collecting.

In 1986, Newton’s successor, Aileen Ribeiro asked Pilkington, assisted by a textile conservation student, to organise the collection and store it in acid-free paper. In her report, Pilkington described how she categorised the articles first by textile type, followed by pattern and rough dates. The report expressed a hesitancy to attribute facts, perhaps in recognition of the need for accurate scholarship to legitimise the field. She made note of omissions and possible errors, and regretted that “there was no time left for any research on the actual textiles or weaving techniques. It is to be hoped that this may be tackled in the future.”

What we have then is a tantalising collation of information and facts, from which to begin further exploration. We must begin however, with the object, as my recent visit made clear. In view of the fiftieth anniversary of the dress history course in 2015, it is fitting that Rebecca Arnold would now like raise funding to develop the Harris textiles into a valuable study collection that can be easily accessed by students. In its new form, the primacy of analysis and meaning over quantity would reflect a new phase in dress scholarship.