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.