The Wallis Collection is open for visitors again – this time to examine some of my unusual pairs of historic men’s gloves.
Gentlemen wore, gave and were given gloves throughout the period covered by my collection, circa 1690- 1890. They were often of fine (sometimes coloured) leather and made relatively cheap, convenient and sometimes sentimental gifts at various stages of a man’s life. At weddings they could be given as gifts to the guests; at funerals, to the mourners: “Black shammy gloves and white glazed lambswool gloves suitable for funerals” (Boston Independent Advertiser, 1749.) But Pepys refers to the custom of giving gloves in dozens on St. Valentine’s Day, so these items clearly had social and ritual significance to contemporaries.
Museums frequently display ornate examples given to and by monarchs: Particularly prized are those (allegedly) belonging to Queen Elizabeth the First. (There is internet chatter about the Virgin Queen really being a man, because of the length of the fingers on Her Majesty’s gloves. This nonsense fails to appreciate that long, slender fingers were considered desirable at the time and that the fingers’ ends would be stuffed in order to retain their slim shape. It was the same with fashionable footwear at the time).
From the Queen’s reign until just before the outbreak of the Civil War presentation gloves for both sexes were highly decorated and often perfumed and embroidered, whilst practical ones tended to be plainer (and thus cheaper). Examples of costly, elaborate pairs abound in the amazing collection of the Worshipful Company of Glovers, as well as elsewhere, and are clearly depicted ‘in action’ in William Larkins’ superb portraits of Jacobean gentlemen, now on display at Kenwood House, London.
After the Restoration decoration was mostly confined to knots and bunches of colourful silk ribbons and/or heavy bullion fringing. I have a pair of paper-thin leather gloves with long fingers, the large cuffs edged in heavy mixed purple and gold bullion fringing. To all appearances they date from the time of Charles/James II but inside the gauntlet cuff is written in ink: “Gloves worn by Dr. Grey, Bishop of Bristol, at the Coronation of William IV in 1831.”
So, a mystery! Either they are a 17thc pair worn by an antiquarian clergyman on that auspicious date almost two hundred years later, or they were made new for the coronation, in an ‘antique’ style. The question is, why?
My friends in the Glovers Company can solve the mystery, I’m sure…
But what about this pair of late Stuart embroidered leather gloves, which I date to around 1680 – 1700?
The aforementioned Glovers Company were the under-bidders when I secured these at auction recently, at an eye-watering price. Their disappointed (but gentlemanly) representative told me he had never seen ones with such exaggerated winged cuffs, and neither had the V&A nor the Bath Costume Museum, he assured me. They are flamboyant in the extreme, if not unique – the prized possession of some long-dead fop, and I hazard a guess they were worn around town, but might also perhaps on horseback (though probably not for hunting). They need conservation as the gold trim has come away from the stiffened gauntlet cuffs in many places so I shall get that done.
The gentleman in this wood engraving appears to be wearing a similar pair, with the tops of the gauntlets almost touching the bottom edge of his coat cuff – a true fashion statement.
The colour of this fragile pair of early 18th century chamois leather gloves gives a clue to their purpose; black gloves were given out to principal mourners at funerals, whilst everyone else present received white pairs.
Mourning rings were also fashionable mementoes of the deceased, given out by the estate to members of both sexes; they were enamelled in white for a deceased virgin and black for everyone else.
What makes this pair of mourning gloves unusual is the decorative technique on the palm. (The Worshipful Company of Glovers has a similar pair).
You’ll see a serpentine cut-out shape, infilled by delicate silk lattice-work which appears to be purely decorative. The same technique is applied to a pair of elbow length women’s gloves circa 1700-20 which I gave to my business partner Stephanie. But mine are clearly men’s gloves, judging by the rounded shape of the short gauntlet cuff.
I haven’t yet looked up the name of the glovers who made this pair and must make time to do so…Unless someone wants to beat me to it?
The Wallis Collection must now close its doors, but will re-open soon with another unusual item under the microscope.