Monday, September 1, 2014

A 1790 Gown with a Rare Seaweed Calico by William Kilburn

Monday, September 1, 2014
Isabella reporting,

While my vacation did include beach-time with my family, it also (as usual!) featured lots of nerdy-history junkets along the way. Among these was a trip to one of my fav small museums, the RISD Museum in Providence, RI, where I saw this wonderful dress made from a very rare printed calico. The dress is currently on display in the museum's Angelo Donghia Costumes & Textile Study Gallery. The white petticoat and neckerchief are modern reproductions; and the dress would most likely have originally had a matching petticoat.

While today we tend to think of printed cotton calico as a humble fabric for patchwork quilts, in late 18th c. England it was considered a luxury fabric, used for high-fashion clothing. Technological advances in cotton manufacture (the heart of the British Industrial Revolution) combined with a new taste for lighter fabrics with designs inspired by nature to create a very different "look" in women's fashions as the 18th c. ended.

Some of the most popular calicos featured designs by botanical illustrator, calico designer, and printer William Kilburn (1745-1818). This is from the Museum's description for this dress:

William Kilburn trained in Dublin as a textile printer. His primary talent lay in drawing patterns for block printing, and once he arrived in London his designs were immediately successful. The seaweed-patterned fabric used for this dress was expensive: a guinea per yard. Kilburn gave a similar length for a gown to Queen Charlotte, wife of England's George III. No actual textiles by Kilburn were previously believed to have survived, but just before RISD purchased this dress in 1987 the printed design was found in an album of Kilburn watercolor drawings in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. The dress's style indicates that it was probably made when the textile was brand new and at its most fashionable, about 1790.

A close-up of the printed fabric is left; compare it to Kilburn's original design in the V&A's collection here.

But as far too many creative people learn to their sorrow, popularity brings imitation. Although Kilburn was renowned as one of the best and most successful calico printers in Britain – he owned his own calico-printing factory in Surrey – he was still dismayed by how fast his original designs were copied and printed by other factories. Pirated versions of his work, printed in fewer colors on coarser fabric, appeared for sale less than a week after he introduced a new design, and at two-thirds of his price.

In 1787, Kilburn decided to fight back. He was named the chief petitioner in a request to Parliament for design copyright protection in the textile trades. Although his rivals were furious, one of the first bills protecting artistic work was passed in May, 1787: "An Act for the Encouragement of the Arts of designing and printing Linens, Cottons, Callicoes and Muslins by vesting the Properties thereof in the Designers, Printers, and Proprietors for a limited Time." The "limited Time" gave exclusive rights to the designer for two months after publication.

But it wasn't enough to protect Kilburn. Despite the popularity of his work, the cheaper imitations ruined him, and he went bankrupt in April, 1802.

Above right: Dress, textile designed by William Kilburn, c. 1790. RISD Museum. Photograph by Susan Holloway Scott.
Below left: Detail of the dress. Photograph courtesy of RISD Museum.


Sue said...

Interesting to think copyright was an issue even back then. As we know, it would have been much more difficult to copy back then, whereas today, the moment something is done and placed on the Internet, it will be copied.

Very interesting post!

Karen Anne said...

Fabric -${CAMPAIGN_ID}

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Sue, apparently pirating was just about as easy in the 1790s as it is today. As soon as Kilburn put his new design up for sale, a rival would buy it, and immediately copy it. I was amazed that the turnaround - about a week - was so fast! Reminds me of the clothing company that could offer cheap versions of Oscar red-carpet dresses the morning after the awards ceremony. So much for artistic intellectual property...

Karen Anne, I saw that too! I wished I'd had the time to go to Salem to see the exhibition. The RISDMuseum was well aware of the connection between Indian printed cottons and the British designs as well, displaying several in the same case as this dress. And they didn't neglect the influence that Kilburn had on later designers, either. In the photo of the dress, you can see a gorgeous William Morris textile from later in the 19th c. :)

QNPoohBear said...

I had no idea that dress was at RISD. They're very pushy about their 20th century costumes. I think I'll pop over there some time when the museum is open for free tours. It looks like a dress worth seeing in real life.

QNPoohBear said...

Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I went to RISD today and made a beeline for the dress. It's even more gorgeous in real life. I had fun exploring the textile research center. I have to go back with my camera soon!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

QNPoohBear - Isn't it a beauty? Because it's a dark print, it's not flashy, but the more closely you study it, the more beautiful it becomes.

The textile research area looked new, and when I was there many of the trays were still empty. Will be a great resource when they're all filled with treasures. A good way to make the collection accessible on a day-to-day basis.

And weren't those two large panels of chain-link fencing woven into 19th c. lace patterns SOO COOL? :)

Alistair Kilburn said...

Hello! I live near Norwich in the east of England and I am one of William Kilburn's great-great-great-grandsons. Some years ago I became aware that only three original material samples of his work remain. I believe this one of yours is one and that others are held at the Victoria and Albert in London (they also hold the Kilburn Album of 223 of his watercolour designs, which are stunning) and the third is, coincidentally, here in Norwich.

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