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The 300 years of shoes collection - research & making - 1795 - Walking on Air


Walking on Air - 1795

Collection: 300 years of Shoes

Garment: shoe of a Georgian woman

Materials: quilling paper strips, wrapping paper, card, embroidery thread, gold card, lacquer, tissue paper, pencil

This shoe reflects the pointed toes and low flared heels of late 18th century shoes; in particular a pair of red shoes with pointed toes of this period from the National Trust’s Killerton House collection.

Walking on Air is inspired by the airy lightness of the hummingbird; in particular by the brilliant red breast feathers and the green/brown back of the Rufous Hummingbird.

Inside this piece is a hand-drawn design created by The House of Embroidered Paper to reflect the beautiful paper labels of the makers of shoes from this era which often contained a dedication. The Killerton House shoes mentioned above contain labels with a dedication to The Duchess of Cumberland

There are examples of shoes in the Killerton House and Chertsey Museum collections in which the owner’s own name can be seen hand-written inside; one such example was bequeathed and the name of she who was to inherit the shoes is written there also.

The hand-written signature inside Walking on Air is a copy of the actual signature of Anne (née Luttrell), Duchess of Cumberland and Strathearn (1743-1808), Wife of Prince Henry, Duke of Cumberland and Strathearn. For, whilst we know she had shoes dedicated to her, we might also imagine that inside at least one of those she personally owned she might have written her name.


- the shoe

This piece went through so many incarnations before it became what it was meant to be that I wasn't sure I'd ever get there. Only by releasing all my original expectations for it could I finally make progress.

At first it was going to be a ballet-pump style shoe, fit for a ball in 1805. With the ongoing theme of 'Glittering Wings' that I'm applying to each of the shoes in the 300 Years of Shoes collection I could really have looked at integrating any flying bird but for me the hovering, nectar drinking, hummingbird seemed surely most perfect, to hold the heal of this shoe in the air.

From the beginning it was the Rufous hummingbird I was drawn to, with it's brilliant red/orange throat feathers and it's green and brown body.

Kerry Crofton, part of my volunteer team at The Regency Town House since Dec. 2018, helped me make a hummingbird body shape from papier mache and for a long time this was what I was set to use as the form for the bird. Believing I would then apply folded and stitched paper detailing. I then free machine embroidered a downy body covering but somehow ended up with a rather chubby bird.

Cutting individual feathers to his back, using forms cut with a flower stamp, didn't add much. Nothing was quite working as I'd hoped.

In keeping with the colouring of the ball gown in The Regency Wardrobe collection I allowed myself to choose from red, white or gold as the colouring for the body of this shoe, meant for the ballroom. I headed first for red, then changed my mind, thinking that the lightness of white would work better. Changing the flower accordingly I settled on and studied the structure of the Calla lily; its elegant form seeming to mirror the curve I sought form my dancing shoe.

I began the shoe, with white paper, looking at my own foot to try and get the angle right.

I had in mind the idea that the shoe would be poised in a dancing position and would be held aloft by a hummingbird. I wanted to capture the idea of feeling as light as air, while dancing at a glorious Regency ball.

Having decorated the shoe by drawing a bunch of lilies onto it I began to try to make a single flower that might sit in the frame with the shoe, the two forms arcing gracefully up and back. Using quilling I began with a flat disk, pushed out its centre and squashed its edges appropriately as I went along.

I found it fascinating, for the first time, to be forming a larger sculpted shape from pure white quilling paper. A form that looked like it could have been 3-d printed. I firmed up its shape with glue. But the form ended up too dense in this context, even with open filigree quilling around its edges, it was wrong for a lily. As a sculptural technique however, it's one I will definitely return to.

By now I could see the toe wasn't quite the right shape for the era and the colouring of the body of the shoe itself (a pale gold), which I liked, didn't appear right either, alongside the colours of the Rufous hummingbird who's body I was also repeatedly rebuilding. I looked at other hummingbirds (there really is a dizzying array of hummingbird species, 360 to be precise, please see: but none were the gold and white combination I believed I needed.

Really there are only so many months that even I can bang my head against a brick wall, trying to see completed a vision which, though I felt very attached to it, from the start, if I'm honest, wasn't fully formed and hadn't appeared quite right, even in my preliminary sketch. 'It will develop and finalise as I start working on it,' I had told myself, and would continue to, as I continued to pick the piece up, then put it down. It sat in parts, in various stages of disrepair, alongside and in the background to my working on nearly all of the large, mannequined pieces in The Regency Wardrobe. Forming every other piece I met with blocks and leapt hurdles, but with each I found my way, moved forward, worked it out.

In the end I had to abandon all my original notions for this piece and start seeing instead what it wanted to be. This meant looking beyond what I had imagined for it.

It was while following up on some research into the area of labels and signatures in eighteenth/early nineteenth century shoes that I looked again at images of a beautiful pointed toe version from 1795 and something clicked into place. I'd taken the photos on my visit to the National Trust fashion collection at Killerton House, while researching Regency clothes and looking at names/labels in shoes had already been giving me many ideas. The labels in this pair were dedicated to the Duchess of Cumberland and though the shoes are a decade earlier than I had meant to represent in this piece everything else felt right.

The toes of this late eighteenth century pair look beak like, the bows look both feathery and floral and the colour combination took me straight back to where I'd begun, linking perfectly to the brilliant orange-red of a Rufous hummingbird breast. The flair of the small Louis heal even seemed to correspond perfectly with the flair of the humming bird's tail. Suddenly therefore I knew exactly where to position the bird; and though standing on tail feather's would be practically impossible, surely the wings of this bird, moving as fast as they do, would keep the wearer aloft. My original hope for the piece was that it would look like the shoe was being held up by a bird, I had just imagined the bird holding it in it's beak and from above, now it would be at the heal.

Here then was the shoe I would shift my attention toward for inspiration.

Combining my impression of it with this one from the V&A collection dated from the same period, with a petal pattern on the brow and a tassel effect gave me all the stimulus I needed.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

"Pair of ladies shoes of black and pale yellow satin. Trimmed with a black satin ribbon rosette and a silk tassel at the toe with braid trimming around the top of shoe. Petal cutouts in yellow satin at the toe exposing black beneath. The Louis heel is faced with black leather. The heel quarters are lined with white kid leather and the toes with canvas. There is a canvas inner sole".

'(01) & I.C.' On two paper labels stuck on instep - British c. 1790

"Shoe styles gradually became simpler during the 1780s, a change that was accelerated by the French Revolution. Conspicuous symbols of wealth, such as the extravagant buckles and high heels of earlier shoes, were no longer appropriate.

Women's shoes were also known as slippers. They had broad flattish heels, long pointed toes and a low U-shaped throat (or perhaps V-shaped). Simple but elegant, they were made from a wide range of beautiful coloured leathers".

So I began again, with both the shoe and the hummingbird, for he also needed to be completely rethought. Rather than heavy and chubby he needed to become light and airy. I turned back to quilling. I quilled his body, added tissue paper to his wings and started cutting away some of the back layer of a large red flower I'd sewn from gold card, covered with orange and then red tissue paper

There had to be a flower on the shoe (to assist in attracting a hummingbird to the piece!)

Previous research I've conducted (please see: into Mary Delany, herself a Georgian figure, an artist creating 2-d paper flowers in the 1700's, in her 70's, came back to me during this work.

Paper shoe under hummingbird body and tail feathers

Here then was my completed bird which I tried attaching to the shoe

Please click on the arrow buttons to see more images

But none of the designs in the 300 years of shoes collection with it's glittering wings theme is meant to look as if a bird has simply been pasted on to a shoe and something about this one did appear so. And so it was back to the drawing board again for the third and final time, the entire process having taken place over a two year period. But I was not completely beginning again this time. The body of the shoe was as I wanted it, as was the flower. It was my representation of the body of the hummingbird that was wrong.

Shown during the making process with the quilled shapes held on to the surface using pins while the glue dries

Finally then I abandoned my figurative representation of the bird and it became something completely different. I used the shapes of it's wings, it's beak, it's tail. I used the colours of its feathers, red, pale brown, green, grey. I used the angles of it's body when hovering above a flower set to drink, but through my used of quilling the impression of the bird is also surface decoration in a way that it wasn't before. The airy quality of the coiled quilled strips nods toward it's lightness, the heal flairs like it's tail but this is the decorative suggestion of a bird.

The Hummingbird and Georgian Britain

"Shipping exotic animals with the intent that they would arrive in Britain alive, during the Georgian era, was considered desirable, meaningful, and importantly profitable. Success depended on whether the animal could be readily supplied with their preferred food source or forced to eat another and were resilient enough to, if not flourish, at least survive in Britain for significant periods of time. The nectar-feeding hummingbird, for these reasons, was never brought to Europe alive in the eighteenth century. Whilst reptiles like boa constrictors, crocodiles and rattlesnakes, with their ability to control their metabolism and tolerate many months without food were residents in many eighteenth-century menageries.

That’s not to say that hummingbirds were unknown in Europe in the 1700’s. "The conquerors of the New World hunted airborne treasures and found these minuscule winged jewels particularly perplexing unsure if they were birds or insects. The first mention of this frenetically active little bird can be found in the travel journals of Jean de Léry (1536–1613), who belonged to a crew of mariners sent to the Brazilian coast. In his journal, published in 1557, he mentioned a bird whose body was “no larger than that of a hornet or a stag beetle.” He called it “an extraordinary wonder and a masterpiece of minuteness.” Georg Markgraf (1610–48), who travelled to Brazil in 1638, wrote in his book Historia naturalis Brasiliae (A Natural History of Brazil), published in 1648, that the ruby throated hummingbird, weighing in at slightly over one-tenth of an ounce (barely 4 grams), was the most beautiful of all the hummingbirds, and he had seen many on his travels.

The French called them oiseaux mouches (bird flies), the Portuguese beija-flores (flower kissers) or chupa-flores (flower suckers), the Spanish picaflores (flower stingers). The English called them humbirds from about 1640 and later changed their name to hummingbird. Very tiny species in Brazil were also called besourinhos (little beetles). In 1758, Carl Linnaeus, who knew 18 of the 340 species known today, gave it the scientific name Trochilus".

Birds of paradise arrived with Ferdinand Magellan’s ship Victoria in Seville harbor on September 8, 1522, along with a priceless cargo of spices, but the birds were dead, their gossamer-light, dried skins and long silky feathers all that remained.

Antonio Pigafetta (1491–1534) wrote:

"These birds are as large as thrushes; they have small heads, long beaks, legs slender like a writing pen, and a span in length; they have no wings, but instead of them long feathers of different colours, like plumes…they never fly, except when the wind blows. They told us that these birds come from the terrestrial Paradise, and they call them “bolon dinata” that is divine birds.

In fact the wings had been removed. But the idea that they floated on the breeze nearly had them classified in their own separate order. When the natural historian Francisco López de Gómara examined the first specimens received by the sultan of Bacan as a gift, he declared, “We are of the opinion that these birds are nourished by dew and the nectar of spice trees.”

The birds were said to come from islands in the vicinity of terra australis incognita (an unknown land to the south). Their mysteriousness gave rise to the distinctive mystique as exotic treasures and objects of desire.

Even the esteemed ornithologist Carl Linnaeus (1707–78) fell for the fairytale. Linnaeus called them: Paradisea apoda or “footless bird of paradise” and depictions of the birds in sketches and watercolours of the time were likewise unrealistic, as artists could not observe live birds in their natural surroundings.

A French ship’s surgeon named René Primevère Lesson (1794–1849) arriving in New Guinea in 1823–24 must have been one of the very first Western naturalists to see a live bid of paradise. He published the results of his research in 1835 under the title Histoire naturelle des oiseaux de paradis (The Natural History of Birds of Paradise). These rare and seemingly mysterious creatures could put bird hunters into a state of high excitement until well into the second half of the nineteenth century and gorgeous bird of paradise feathers decorated many hats in fashionable circles."

"Hummingbirds Philip Reinagle RA (1749-1833) RA collection: Art

Many of Philip Reinagle's drawings in the Royal Academy collection are studies of birds, some of which are preparatory drawings for paintings. Birds feature in many of Reinagle's compositions... and he also produced a group of paintings depicting large assemblies of different types of birds, such as 'The King Eagle Pursued to the Sun by a Multitudinous Flock of Birds'. The source material for such compositions was almost certainly Sir Ashton Lever's museum or 'Holophusikon', which was open to the public in London between 1773 and 1806. The collection included ethnographic material, natural objects like fossils and shells as well as a large number of stuffed birds and animals. Reinagle provided illustrations for George Shaw's Museum Leverianum, containing Select Specimens from the Museum of the late Sir Ashton Lever, Kt. , London, 1792-96."

Birds of paradise arrived with Ferdinand Magellan’s ship Victoria in Seville harbor on September 8, 1522, along with a priceless cargo of spices, but the birds were dead, their gossamer-light, dried skins and long silky feathers all that remained.

The Label:

Integrating my research into shoe labels and handwritten names in shoes (please see: resulted in my both: designing my own label design; in my keeping to the dedication in the label in the red Killerton shoe and therefore looking into the Duchess of Cumberland.

I believe she seems quite ornate enough to have worn my Walking on Air!

Anne (nee Luttrell), Duchess of Cumberland and Strathearn by Valentine Green, published by John Brydon, after Thomas Gainsborough, and after Richard Cosway coloured mezzotint, published 1790 NPG D33040

© National Portrait Gallery, London

For more background about the Duchess of Cumberland please see:

The title Duke of Cumberland caused me some confusion at first. Indeed Mary Delany (the paper flower lady of the 1700's, mentions the Duke of Cumberland in correspondence, but an accompanying footnote in the book in which it's published says that the Duke remained unmarried). This was William (26 April 1721 – 31 October 1765) , an earlier Georgian Duke of Cumberland, brother of George II, therefore the uncle of the Prince Regent.

It seems I am not alone in having been at first confused, for more information on the three Georgian Dukes' of Cumberland please see:

Henry (7 November 1745 – 18 September 1790) however was involved in adulterous trouble even before his marriage to Anne. And their union caused a romantic scandal, a scandal that would be linked to Brighton:

"The Duke's marriage to a commoner, the widow Anne Horton (or Houghton) (1743–1808), on 2 October 1771 caused a rift with the King and was the catalyst for the Royal Marriages Act 1772, which forbids any descendant of George II to marry without the monarch's permission. There were no children from this marriage. Anne, though from a noble family – she was a daughter of Simon Luttrell, 1st Earl of Carhampton, and the widow of Christopher Horton of Catton Hall – seems to have been rather loose with her favours, given one wag's comment that she was "the Duke of Grafton's Mrs Houghton, the Duke of Dorset's Mrs Houghton, everyone's Mrs Houghton."

The marriage between Anne Horton and the Duke of Cumberland was described as a “conquest at Brighthelmstone” (now Brighton) by Mrs. Horton, "who", Horace Walpole says, "had for many months been dallying with his passion, till she had fixed him to more serious views than he had intended." Anne was however generally thought one of the great beauties of the age, and Thomas Gainsborough painted her several times."

(for news of the trial of the Duke please see:

All of this, I believe, makes my imagining Anne in a pair of risqué scarlet shoes perhaps in some way symbolically appropriate. Rather than dedicating the shoe to her however I wanted her name signed in them, taking ownership.

In case you're interested to see mention of the Duke and/or Duchess of Cumberland from society press of the time:

The couple, again linked with Brighton, can be placed there attending the races:

"The Duke was also instrumental in the development of Brighton as a popular resort. He had first visited in 1771, and in 1783, the Prince of Wales visited his uncle there.

The Duke of Cumberland died in London on 18 September 1790. His widow died in 1808"

And for another Brighton link - a description of the Prince of Wales hearing of the death of the earlier Duke of Cumberland, William, his uncle:


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