Published: June 27, 2017
BRISTOL, R.I. – Blithewold, Old English for “happy woodland,” is one of the finest and last intact examples of the Country Place era in America, marrying traditional architecture and landscape architecture with horticulture and the decorative arts. Augustus Stout Van Wickle and his wife, Bessie Pardee Van Wickle, bought the 33-acre estate in 1894 as a summer home and transformed it from a rustic summer home into a modern estate, large enough to accommodate extended family and guests. They named it Blithewold and Bessie described her plan for the estate as “a park with distinctive features, using the house as a centre.” While the original mansion was destroyed by fire in 1906, the second mansion echoed the design of the first to create a sense of family retreat.
In 1957, Bessie’s daughter, Marjorie Van Wickle, donated 33 of her mother’s outfits to the Colonial Dames in Boston for safe-keeping, though many more of her dresses remained at Blithewold stored in trunks and closets. Now, after many years of separation, the Colonial Dames dresses have been returned to Blithewold and the collection is complete, totaling more than 100 dresses from 1882 to 1936.
Upon inspection, Madelyn Shaw, professional textile conservator, described Blithewold’s collection as of “extremely high quality in terms of design, fabrics used and construction.” This collection brings the Van Wickle family history to life and along with a rich archive of objects, letters and photographs help tell the story of one family’s way of life between 1810 and 1976.
Blithewold’s archives also reveal photographs and letters that connect the costumes to various life events. One example is a framed photograph of Marjorie with her father, Augustus, displayed alongside the actual dress that Marjorie is wearing. Another account includes a letter from Marjorie written during her trip to Vienna in 1903 where she describes the process of commissioning clothing. Nineteen-year-old Marjorie wrote to Bessie, “In the p.m. again to Drecoll’s … Just think how long we have been in beautiful Vienna and seen nothing but stupid suits and things!” She did eventually concede that “my party dress is very pretty.” That dress has recently been conserved and is on exhibit in the mansion throughout the summer season, alongside another party dress that belonged to Marjorie 30 years later.
Blithewold’s Costume Collection tells the story of the Van Wickles’ most important life events. One of the standouts is Bessie Pardee Van Wickle’s wedding gown from 1882. The gown, along with its accessories, is still in fine condition despite being 135 years old. The ornate embroidery of daisies, Bessie’s favorite flower, embellishes the gown from top to bottom. The elaborate detail of the wedding dress tells guests more about Bessie and her elegant style than one could imagine. Though the collection consists mainly of Bessie’s clothing, Blithewold also has gowns from her daughters, Marjorie and Augustine, and even from her husband Augustus.
Conserving these dresses is not an easy task. Owing to the value of these pieces (many of Bessie’s dresses alone are worth thousands of dollars) conservation is always undertaken by professionals. The work can take weeks and is very costly. The dresses must be protected from light, gravity and other natural elements. Some key steps in the conservation process include stabilization, appropriate support garments, the use of archival-quality mannequins and proper storage boxes.
Blithewold’s costumes exhibits change twice a year and typically include two or more costumes from the collection. After being displayed, each dress must go back into conservation storage for three years.
Blithewold, formerly home to the Van Wickle family, is a 45-room English-style manor filled with family heirlooms, framed by a series of gardens and arboretum on Narragansett Bay. Blithewold’s mission is to preserve New England’s finest garden estate through horticulture and historic preservation.
The mansion is open for visitors April through mid-October, and reopens for the Christmas season.
Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum is at 101 Ferry Road. For more information,www.blithewold.org or 401-253-2707.
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