The Regency Wardrobe collection - research & making - Symphony of Stars

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Symphony of Stars the initial sketch

Mid November 2021 I got the go ahead to begin making Symphony of Stars, a new Court dress that had been designed both to reflect and to be exhibited within the Music Room at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, Sussex; the plan being that it would stand there at the same time as many of the other pieces from The Regency Wardrobe collection, which will be peopling the palace from March until September 2022.

I'd completed the design at the end of October and the research, to that end, had been fascinating. Whilst I will seek to document it in more detail here, I'll begin by saying that certain things were obvious to me from the start, such as the fact that:

- I needed to learn more about what had happened in the year 1822 specifically; because we were planning to show this new work in 2022.

- Much of my focus needed to be musical; because Symphony of Stars was to stand in the Music Room (which you can take a virtual tour of here); because of this I'd also known of course that aesthetically I would be aiming to complement one of the most extraordinary rooms ever designed and built. No small task!

- I would also be looking for direct links to royalty, most especially to George IV, the Prince Regent, himself; because the exhibition was to be in the Pavilion.

Beyond that, as you scroll down, you will see that I have numbered the primary areas of my research (1-11) roughly in the order in which they informed both the design and making phases. I have included images and text that detail this inspiration and work in progress photographs that I hope will help demonstrate how I sought to relate historical research via the many visual aspects of this dress: Symphony of Stars is drawn from history but designed to relate to the audience of today.

1. 2022 is the bicentennial of both:

- The founding of The Royal Academy of Music - The oldest conservatoire in the UK The Royal Academy of Music was founded in 1822 under the patronage of George IV but would not in fact receive its Royal charter until 1830. For its bicentennial in 2022 the Royal Academy has established the ‘200 new pieces’ project. Music of course was one of George’s great passions. And:

- The death of William Herschel - German-born British astronomer and composer. Herschel is a fascinating figure. He read natural philosophy; including Robert Smith’s Harmonics, or the Philosophy of Musical Sounds (1749) and constructed his first large telescope in 1774. He then spent nine years investigating double stars. From 1782 to 1802 Herschel conducted systematic surveys in search of "deep-sky" or non-stellar objects. He published catalogues of nebulae in 1802. In March 1781 he made note of a new object in the constellation of Gemini. It would eventually be confirmed as the first planet to be discovered since antiquity. He first called the new planet the "Georgian star" (Georgium sidus) after King George III, who appointed him Court Astronomer. The planet would eventually be named Uranus. Herschel went on to pioneer astronomical spectrophotometry; measuring the wavelength distribution of stellar spectra. He thereby discovered infrared radiation. He also: improved determination of the rotation period of Mars, the discovery that the Martian polar caps vary seasonally, the discovery of Titania and Oberon (the moons of Uranus) and Enceladus and Mimas (the moons of Saturn). Herschel was made a Knight of the Royal Guelphic Order in 1816. He was the first President of the Royal Astronomical Society when it was founded in 1820.

In addition he played the oboe, violin, harpsichord and organ and composed numerous musical works, including 24 symphonies, many concertos and some church music. He was appointed director of the Bath orchestra.

Throughout his career he worked with his sister Caroline. She often appeared as soprano soloist when he played but was also a fellow astronomer and discovered eight comets.

- the edge of the train of Symphony of Stars is decorated with stars placed on lines of embroidery thread. Their placement accords to the placement of notes in Herschel’s Symphony No. 8 in C Minor; this then is where the name of this dress comes from. The stars have been created by the same team of paper and thread volunteers who have worked with me throughout the design and creation of the entire Regency Wardrobe collection.

The stars are formed from quilling, a rolled paper technique that would have been practised during the Regency and which I have talked about in greater depth in other posts. I listened to many of Herschel’s pieces in order to settle on one and chose this one simply because it is my favourite. You can hear the whole symphony here. In order to work out the placement of the stars I had sought the score for this Symphony and found it on the Herschel Society's website here. I knew we would only be able to reflect the top line and I was intrigued to hear just the specific notes we would be representing being played. So as of our group progressed with star making one our number, Sara Callerman, made contact with the professional violinist, Rachel Isserlis from nearby Glyndebourne and asked if she would play the first few bars for us to hear what we were making. You can hear her play that section here:

For the tails of the musical notes we twisted DMC platinum coloured embroidery thread.

work in progress photographs

Stars can in fact be spotted quite liberally scattered around the Music Room, in its decoration, but our quilled stars are in fact formed from a combination of other shapes on the area just beneath the dome in the Music Room, which you can see in this photograph:

photo by Xin Harper-Little

There are 59 stars on the train of Symphony of Stars made by: Denise Morton, Gilly Burton, Jenny Fraser-Smith, Sara Callerman, Liz Fitzsimons, Judi Lynn and Xin Harper-Little

And the reason that our stars are platinum in colour...

2. 2022 is the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee - The name Platinum is derived from the Spanish term platino, meaning "little silver". It is sometimes known as white gold and has been symbolised by joining together the symbols of silver (moon) and gold (sun), or the symbols of gold and iron as it has been often found by chemists mixed with iron. Platinum is one of the rarer elements in the Earth’s crust; in the 18th century, platinum's rarity made King Louis XV of France declare it the only metal fit for a king. It is also one of the least reactive metals and is therefore considered a noble metal. Platinum leaf was in fact used extensively on the walls of the Saloon at The Royal Pavilion during its restoration becase silver would have tarnished over time.

Also interesting is that Uranus, therefore William Herschel, and Platinum are linked. The astrological symbols for Uranus were created shortly after its discovery by Herschel. The first was intended to represent the metal platinum, newly discovered by Europeans. The second suggested in 1784, in a letter to Herschel, was described to him as "un globe surmonté par la première lettre de votre nom" ("a globe surmounted by the first letter of your name").

3. The train of the dress - Inside the star studded border of the train I knew I wanted to replicate one of the beautiful Asian wallpapers that the Pavilion has in storage. I'd watched the unrolling of them by the team at the Pavilion on Instagram here and fallen for the first piece they'd shown; one with a faded Gamboge background, covered in birds, bamboo and flowers, originating from the early 1800’s. It's possible that this piece once hung on the walls of the upper floor of the Pavilion, certainly it's known to have been seen by George IV.

As you might imagine, before I can begin any new piece, I need to source and order the right materials. Primarily this period is about the paper and thread I'll be using but this time, as I began, I was able to talk to professional paper conservators, so I took the chance to ask some questions that had been playing on my mind. I do use glue, as well as paint, lacquer etc to decorate and apply decoration to the surfaces of pieces. To-date, particularly whilst quilling as a decorative technique, PVA has been my go to. But I'd begun to learn over time that that might not be the best choice in terms of the longevity (re. mould and other degeneration) of the surfaces so I wanted to look at what else was available and recommended by those in the know. I had read that egg white was once used, for example by Mary Delaney in the late 1700's, but as a literal food source even for human beings I had to wonder why that wouldn’t be a food source also for microbes, then again what we settled on was micro cellulose which is in fact a food additive but which, when mixed correctly with water, I now know makes an effective, translucent glue. Anyway that's what I went with. So I had my glue what then of the paper? I’d begun by focusing on the paper tablecloth I return to as my default, looking to source it in different colours, but that proved frustrating and besides I do love the light filled translucency of tissue paper so I ordered a stock of acid free tissue in all the colours I knew I’d need and went from there.

The scale of the train of this dress meant that I often ended up working on it on the floor...

...and certainly in order to sew this piece I had to work on it in sections. In fact it's true to say that the first time I would be seeing it all together would be when it was installed. I simply don't have the floor space at home to have set it up.

work in progress photograph

4. The lace - the lace on the train o