Costume

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Costume

In this blog series, our curators, archivists, conservators and learning team will be bringing together works of art from across the Collection under one theme. From armour and jewellery, to portraits and porcelain, read about some of the most fascinating and marvellous pieces in the Collection here.

Explore the theme of Costume in this week's blog, as we look at two sets of lavish armour design, a theatrical mantel clock and a beloved painting in the Collection by Ernest Meissonier.

Partial armour, Lucio Marliani, called Piccinino, c. 1570-1590

Armour was primarily designed to protect the wearer in combat, though it was also considered to be a highly fashionable form of clothing, on which vast sums of money were spent. One such example is this spectacular partial armour, which was made in Milan by Lucio Marliani between 1570 and 1590.

Skilful embossing of the grotesque ornament, and overlaying of rich layers of gold and silver, combine to create a masterpiece of Mannerist armour-art.

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Three-quarter armour, South Germany, c. 1520-1525

Although armour itself could be the focus of fashion, it could sometimes reflect fashions in contemporary dress. This three-quarter armour, made in South Germany between 1520 and 1525, has plates which have been sculpted to create pleats, while sunken areas have been gilded to form slashes, which together imitate the ‘puffed and slashed’ style of clothing which was popular during the sixteenth century.

Other techniques were used by the armourer to create realistic textile effects, such as etching the surface of the armour to give the impression of damask silk, and heat-tinting the metal to give it a splendid bluish-purple colour.

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Mantel clock, movement probably by Jacques Furet, c. 1745 – c. 1750

Formed in sixteenth-century Italy, the Commedia dell’arte were travelling theatrical groups. Their playful, improvised performances involved stock characters fitted out in flamboyant costumes. They were particularly popular in eighteenth-century France, being frequently portrayed in paintings by artists such as Antoine Watteau, as well as the decorative arts. Five commedia dell’arte figures have been represented on this French mantel clock, made between 1745 and 1750.

The top of the clock shows the quick-witted Harlequin on the left, the scheming Mezzetin in the centre and the clumsy Gilles on the right, while the bottom of the clock shows the cheerful Lélio on the left and the disruptive Punch on the right. The strong sense of movement in these figures as they dance, sing and play instruments, echoes the organic movement of the rococo scrolls on the clock case.

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Ernest Meissonier, Polichinelle, 1860

With his baggy pants, large belly, and characteristic wooden clogs, who could fail to recognise the jolly Polichinelle (or Punch as he is better known in English)? This representation of the popular character from the commedia dell’arte was originally painted on a door panel in the Paris apartment owned by the beautiful Apollonie Sabatier. A celebrated artists’ muse — her famous Paris salon attracted all the prominent French artists of the nineteenth century including Victor Hugo, Édouard Manet, Gustave Doré, among others — she was also the longtime mistress of Sir Richard Wallace.

The clogs (sabatier in French) depicted in this painting were doubtless intended as a visual pun on her family name, Sabatier. The panel was then cut from the door and retouched by Meissonier in preparation for Sabatier’s sale in 1861.

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