Mourning Pictures – An Expression of Grief in the Georgian Era

Portrait of Catherine Lorillard, ca. 1810

I confess, I have a fascination with mourning customs of the Georgian era. I’m not sure how this interest developed, but I do know that I am drawn to objects that helped people express their grief at the loss of those they loved.

Recently, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to see their exhibition entitled, “Death Becomes Her.” This exhibition focuses on the history of mourning attire from 1815 to 1915. There were a number of items that intrigued me. The portrait above was one.

This portrait is of Catherine Lorillard, who was the daughter of the New York City tobacco magnate Peter A. Lorillard. She was born in 1792 and, according to family history, died from cholera while in her teens. The portrait is dated ca. 1810.

Most early nineteenth century silk embroideries illustrate scenes from mythology or pastorals, copied from prints. Memorials, usually called mourning pictures, often included full-length figures standing at grave sites in landscapes appropriately featuring weeping willows. Catherine’s portrait is also a memorial, but in a different, possibly unique form.

It was almost certainly painted posthumously, because the drape over her head is a symbol of death. Her head and neck were painted by a professional artist, perhaps based on a portrait from life. The embroidery was probably by one of her female relatives.

Her expressive portrait, painted in oil on silk and embellished with silk and silk-chenille threads, is unlike any other needlework picture I have seen. What intrigued me most about this memorial, was that it focused on Catherine and not on the images of those she left behind, mourning her at her gravesite. I could understand her family wanting to have this piece as a way to keep Catherine close to their hearts. And for me, it gave me the opportunity to look into the eyes of the girl who must have been missed terribly by her family and friends.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York

A Fashionable Georgian Address: Grosvenor Square

“My aunt,” she continued, “is going tomorrow into that part of town, and I shall take the opportunity of calling in Grosvenor Street.”

Jane Bennet, Pride and Prejudice

Since the Georgian era, the Mayfair district has been one of London’s most prestigious places to live. And Grosvenor Square was one of the most fashionable addresses.

Grosvenor Square

This garden square surrounded by residential buildings was designed by Sir Richard Grosvenor, the 4th Baronet, who is an ancestor to the modern-day Dukes of Westminster.


During the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the estates in London were being developed. In 1710, Grosvenor designed a plan for a large garden square at the center of his estate. It was intended to be the finest of all the then existing squares. The area was to have uniform houses, with stables behind them. Construction of Grosvenor Square began in 1725. The engraving below shows how the original plan was altered over time. On the far left side, the houses are identical. The further you travel along the street, the houses look different.

Grosvenor Square

Grosvenor Square

I visited Grosvenor Square during my last visit to London, to see for myself what it looks like. While some of the original buildings remain, the majority of them have been rebuilt over the years.

Grosvenor Square

Grosvenor Square

In the early 18th century, most of the garden squares in London were designed so that the central parkland was reserved for the exclusive use of the square’s residences. Grosvenor hired William Kent to design his garden. Originally a brick wall was constructed to enclose it. Later, this wall was replaced with iron railings, which gives the area an open feel.

Today, the general pubic is allowed into the garden and in the eastern end there is a memorial dedicated to the British victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Grosvenor Square 9/11 Memorial

Grosvenor Square

Grosvenor Square

Grosvenor Square

Grosvenor Square

Grosvenor Square is not cut off from the rest of London. To give you an idea of the surrounding streets during the late 18th century, here is a portion of the Horwood map of London, which was completed in 1799. The southeastern section of Grosvenor Square is in the upper left corner of the map.

Horwood Map of London 1799

If you are familiar with stories set in the Regency era, you’ve probably read about English aristocrats driving along Rotten Row during the fashionable hour. This portion of Christopher and John Greenwood’s map of London from 1827, shows how close Grosvenor Square is to Hyde Park.

Christopher and John Greenwood's Map of London 18276a00d8341c84c753ef0168e7420e96970c-800wiThere were a number of those notable aristocrats who resided in Grosvenor Square over the years. In 1739, a writer for Gentleman’s Magazine wrote, “the centre house on the east side of the square was raffled for, and won by two persons named Hunt and Braithwaite. The possessor valued it at £10,000, but the winners sold it two months afterwards for £7,000 to the Duke of Norfolk.”

The 11th Earl of Derby hired renowned architect Robert Adam to build him a residence at Number 23. It was regarded as one of Adam’s finest works. Unfortunately, it was demolished in the 1860s. The only image I was able to find of the earl’s residence is this engraving of the Third Drawing Room.

Earl of Derby's Third Drawing Room

The Duchess of Kendal, George I’s mistress, lived at Number 43 from 1728 to 1743. Her former residence is still standing.

Duchess of Kendall

The 3rd Duke of Dorset (1745-1799) lived at Number 38.

The 3rd Duke of Dorset

The 3rd Duke of Grafton (1735-1811), the Prime Minister who was famous for his indiscreet private life and racing stables, also called Grosvenor Square home.

The 3rd Duke of Grafton

Other notable residents include: John Wilkes, Esq. who was Alderman and Chamberlain of the City of London; the Marquis of Rockingham; and Lord North, the 2nd Earl of Guilford, who was the Prime Minister during the American Revolutionary War.

Grosvenor Square has other ties to America, which can still be seen today. In 1785, the first American Minister to the Court of St. James, John Adams, took up residence at Number 9 Grosvenor Square. His daughter, Abigail, was married from that house to Colonel William Stephens Smith. In 1788, Adams returned to America and became the second President of the United States. The building Adams lived in still stands on the corner of Duke and Brook Streets.

John Adams House Grosvenor Square

Today, Grosvenor Square looks different than it did in the Georgian era. When I was there, I sat in the park on a warm June evening and three teenage boys road their skateboards past me. On the grassy lawn to my left, a father was teaching his little girl how to dribble a soccer ball. At the time, I couldn’t help but wonder what Sir Richard Grosvenor would have thought of the changes to his elegant corner of the world.

Resources used include:

Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice

Gentleman’s Magazine, 1739

Greenwood’s Map of London, 1827

Horwood’s Map of London, 1799



What’s Inside the Traveling Studio of an 18th Century Miniature Portrait Artist?

Miniature Portrait Painter's Box. Probably United States ca. 1790s. Mahogany with brass fittings.

Miniature Portrait Painter’s Box. Probably United States ca. 1790s. Mahogany with brass fittings.

This late eighteenth century artist’s box is like a portable portrait studio. It’s believed to have belonged to an unknown American traveling artist and contains all the tools and materials they would need to paint portrait miniatures on ivory with either powdered color or watercolor. I came upon this treasure when I went to see the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection of portrait miniatures. It’s an area of the museum that isn’t very big, but I could spend a great deal of time there simply admiring the faces of the past.

Miniature Portrait Painter's Box

Inside this artist’s box are two palettes, one in ivory and one in porcelain. There are gums for binding pigments or glazing, and brushes that have quill ferrules and bone handles. Also housed within the drawers are slivers of ivory cut into ovals and squares, pieces of paper, a brush rest, sponges, chalk, and galipots for water. The box also contains drawing instruments for the artist to accurately measure the small panels; two pairs of compasses, a wood rule, styluses for tracing, and agate burnishers to seal the edges and backs. Some miniature portraits could be as small as 40mm x 30mm, so the artist also kept an eyepiece to magnify their work and help them create the intricate details.

Miniature Portrait Painter's Box Lid

Since the portraits were so small, the artist was able to use the lid of the box as an easel, which could be raised to an angle with brass struts. The ivory would have been secured on the baize with common pins, and a container of them can be found in this box. And finally, several completed ivory portraits were kept within the box to showcase the miniaturist’s skill to prospective sitters.

James Peale Painting a Miniature by Charles Wilson Peale, ca. 1785

A similar box is depicted in the portrait above. It is by the well-known American portrait painter Charles Wilson Peale (1741-1817) and shows his brother, the famous American miniaturist James Peale, at work (ca. 1785).


The Metropolitan Museum of Art


A Shocking Way to Entertain Guests During the Regency Era


Electrifying Machine

When you’re entertaining, you want your guests to have a good time. While good conversation over a meal and then cocktails afterwards can be the makings of an ideal dinner party, sometimes we have an urge to do something a bit more memorable. Our Regency era counterparts were no different. And, in the early nineteenth century, you could make an impression on your guests with an electrifying machine.

Electricity was a hot topic in the Georgian and Regency eras. Benjamin Franklin completed his famous experiment with lightning, Luigi Galvani was studying the reactions of muscles to electricity. By the later half of the eighteenth century, friction machines were used for generating electric shocks to amuse spectators at public exhibitions. In England, popular interest in electricity led to arguments about the propriety of demonstrating these effects in public. A political controversy arose along party lines in Parliament, with the Whigs championing the scientific demonstrations and the High Tories claiming that it was blasphemy to expose God’s secret before an “ignorant populace.”

By the early nineteenth century, electrifying machines became hugely popular and eventually cheap enough to find their way into the homes of the gentry. Scientific experimentation was one of the few areas of Regency life in which women could participate on something approaching an equal footing with men. Therefore, using an electrifying machine was an ideal activity to entertain both the male and female guests during an evening at home.

The watercolor painting at the top of this post shows a fun glimpse of Regency life. It’s dated May 25th 1817 and was painted at Dynes Hall in Essex, England, by a young English woman named Diana Sperling. Diana enjoyed capturing scenes of everyday life. This painting depicts an evening after her brother-in-law, Henry Van Hagen, had purchased an electrifying machine, possibly to entertain his family and friends.

He is shown cranking the machine to create friction, which would carry an electric shock through the string. His wife is behind him, apparently having no desire to take part in the experiment. Henry’s mother starts the chain of guests and has the honor of holding the machine’s string. When enough friction was created, all the guests would receive a shock. I suppose this was considered a novel way to have fun. My favorite part of the painting shows Diana’s sister Isabella, leaning against the wall. It appears as if she is either swooning or cannot believe her family has convinced her to take part in this odd experiment.

I recently held a dinner party for a few friends and I think they would have been shocked if I suggested we have a go at running electrical current through our bodies for amusement. I think enjoying cocktails and amusing conversations, probably was entertaining enough.

References used include:

Longford, Elizabeth, Mrs. Hurst Dancing and Other Scenes from Regency Life 1812-1823, (c. 1981)

Jago, Lucy, Regency House Party (c. 2004)


The Ideal Georgian Writing Box for a British Officer

Campaign BoxTraveling over long distances during the Georgian era was a rough ride. If you were someone with the ability to write, you would have needed a well-made writing box that could withstand the poor road conditions. 

Members of the British military favored a specific type of writing box which was designed for durability. These portable writing boxes became known as military style or campaign boxes and were an important part of an officer’s campaign furniture. A soldier’s life revolved around his mail. Officers would use their campaign boxes to draft military documents and to write letters home. I think a campaign box was one of the most personal items a man took with him when he left for battle.  IMG_1999Campaign boxes made between 1780 and 1810 were rectangular in shape and constructed of solid mahogany, with a flat top. They measure approximately eight to twenty inches wide, seven inches tall, and are ten inches deep when closed. The outside of the box is usually finished with wax. Most have thick brass corners with steel screws which strengthens the joints and prevents the corners of the box from being damaged. This was an important feature for anyone traveling over rough roads, for extended amounts of time.

Georgian Military Campaign Writing Box The earliest boxes have drop down brass handles. In slightly later ones, like mine, the handles are set into the box. Georgian Military Campaign Writing Slope With Side Compartment Open Campaign boxes of this period have one or two side drawers to store writing materials and correspondence. The really interesting ones have secret smaller drawers. And each has a lock to ensure your secret papers are not read by prying eyes.

IMG_2156 Opening a man’s campaign box, would give you a very intimate glimpse into his private world. The top section would hold ink and sand wells, as well as a place to rest pens or a quill. My quill-rest is removable and has a small compartment underneath. In early boxes, the writing surface would have been covered in baize, and later ones in leather or velvet. Each side of the writing slope is hinged and folds to reveal compartments underneath. This allowed the owner to store personal items such as books, additional paper, military orders, letters from home, eyeglasses, a snuff box and portrait miniatures of loved ones.

Georgian Campaign Box
Georgian Military Campaign Writing Slope With Bottom Panel RaisedAlthough we associate campaign boxes with use by the military, members of the public who regularly ventured out on long journeys would have used these as well.

The photographs used in this post are of my English campaign box which was made between 1790 and 1810. It was reportedly own by a British Army officer. When it’s closed, it measures 18 inches wide by 10 inches deep. When the slope is open, it measures 18 inches by 21 1/2 inches.

Each time I browse an antique shop, I’m always on the lookout for the ever-elusive writing box that has an undiscovered secret drawer. If I ever find one, I hope it isn’t empty.


Source used:

Clarke, Antigone, Antique Boxes, Tea Caddies and Society 1700-1880

Antique Boxes in English Society 1760-1900:


How a Fashionable Lady Showed Her Status in Society

If you walk through any major city across the world, you’ll most likely see women dressed in the latest fashions with the most expensive accessories. The well-trained eye can spot them a half a block away, carrying that rare designer handbag that costs as much as a car or sauntering along wearing a pair of red-lacquered sole shoes. Wearing fashionable accessories like these carries a certain cachet and silently informs the world that you’re financially successful.

While this sounds like a twenty first century concept, in reality, it isn’t. Women throughout history have been using fashion and beauty accessories to announce their status in society. Only back then, many of these items would have been kept at home, displayed on or near a dressing table where visiting guests would see them. I recently attended the “Vanities: Art of the Dressing Table” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and thought you might be interested in seeing some of the lovely accessories they had on display.

British Toilet Service 1683-84

During the Renaissance, containers in various sizes and shapes were used store an array of beauty items. These containers were either laid out on a table that was designed solely for the toilette or one that was multifunctional. This is how the cosmetic box slowly gave way to the dressing table. The British toilet service pictured above is ca.1683  and is made of gilt silver and glass. The various items are decorated with chinoiserie scenes, which were popular at the time. This set would have been displayed in an aristocratic lady’s bedroom or in a smaller connecting room.

Wig Cabinet

I thought this item was fun. It’s a wig cabinet, ca. 1685. After Louis XIII began to wear a wig in 1624, elaborate cabinets were made to store and protect these hairpieces. This cabinet is embellished with marquetry of pewter and mother-of-pearl on horn over paint, simulating tortoiseshell. It contains drawers for combs, brushes, perfumed powder, powder bag, and pins.

By the early eighteenth century, the European elite sought out luxury goods that would proclaim their social status. One such item, intended more for display than any utilitarian purpose, was the nécessaire. It is a small box made of precious materials, designed to hold miniature implements and personal grooming tools. Based on paintings of the period, it most likely was displayed on a dressing table along with other precious objects. Here are three that the Metropolitan Museum of Art had one display:

German Necessaire ca. 1700-1725

German Necessaire ca. 1700-1725














This German nécessaire dates from 1700-1725 and is made of wood, tortoiseshell, gold, glass, and ivory.

British necessaire by John, Barbot ca. 1760.

This nécessaire is one of a pair made by the British craftsman John Barbot around1760. It is made of gold, agate, diamonds, rubies, wood with gold piqué ornaments; and gilt-brass mounts.

French necessaire 1775-1800

And finally, this French nécessaire dates from 1775-1800 and is made of shagreen on wood; gold, porcelain, glass, and steel fittings. This portable nécessaire holds numerous personal grooming items, from tweezers and an ear spoon to scent bottles.

Sources used include:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vanities: Art of the Dressing Table Exhibition (2013-2014)

Adlin, Jane, Vanities Art of the Dressing Table (2013)

The History of the Dressing Table

Madame du Pompadour at Her Toilette

Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour by François Boucher 1750

I fully admit to being, what you might consider, a girly girl. I love lotions and potions. A venture into Sephora will never take me less than twenty minutes, even if I just need mascara. And I begin and end each day, seated at my antique dressing table.

Recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, had an exhibition entitled  “Vanities: Art of the Dressing Table.” It showcased beautiful pieces and provided great information. I thought I’d share some of the highlights from the exhibition with you.

The history of the vanity begins with decorative wooden boxes used by the Egyptians to hold cosmetics and grooming implements. In Europe, the shift from these portable cases to the tabletop began with the evolution of the toilette. This term refers to the process of dressing and attending to personal grooming. The origins of the word toilette can be traced to the Middle Ages. People began spreading a toile (French for cloth, or toilettes, as they became known) onto a table when they were serving meals, addressing correspondence, and applying cosmetics. For the purposes of dressing, the table would typically be draped with a simple cloth that reached the floor, and a more refined cloth or even a piece of leather was placed on top.

The dressing table, as we know it today, was developed in Europe in the beginning of the seventeenth century. By the eighteenth century, it became known as a mark of social standing as well as an object of fine design and craftsmanship. Two French women, in particular, helped to make the dressing table fashionable. The first was Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764), the highly influential mistress of King Louis XV. She popularized the once-private morning ritual of the toilette by sitting at her grand dressing table to receive guests. The other woman was Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), wife of King Louis XVI, who set the tone for matters of fashion, art and design.

Here are examples of some dressing tables from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries:

American Dressing Table. ca. 1710-30.

American Dressing Table 1710-1730

This dressing table was made in Connecticut and is characteristic of early American furniture. It is based on the Jacobean style prevalent in England during the reign of James II. It relies on the wood turning rather than elaborate carving for decorative effect.

Combination Table. ca. 1775.

This combination table was designed by Martin Carlin, a German-born cabinet-maker who lived in Paris and made luxury pieces. It was made specifically to accommodate the needs of an aristocratic woman who might receive visitors while seated at her dressing table. This table features a removable upper section that could serve as a bed table, an adjustable mirror that could be reversed to form a bookrest, and lidded compartments in the shallow front drawer for storing toilette items. The lower section is a full-size table, complete with shelves that pull out in front and back. It has drawers on both ends that can hold equipment for dressing, taking breakfast and/or writing.

Work Table Attributed to Duncan Phyfe. ca. 1805-1815.

Work Table Attributed to Duncan Phyfe 1805-1815

During the early nineteenth century, worktables were made for ladies. This example takes the form of American Neoclassical furniture, derived from the English Sheraton and Hepplewhite styles. It could serve as a sewing table, a writing desk, or a dressing table. The hinged top opens to reveal an adjustable writing panel covered in baize. You can convert the writing desk to a dressing table by lifting a small leather tab behind the writing panel, and pulling up a framed looking-glass. There are also two removable half-round compartmentalized trays at each end of the table that might hold knitting or needlework. The front drawers and space underneath the inner surface were designed to hold toiletries.

Oval Dressing Table and Dressing Glass. ca. 1883.

Oval Dressing Table  George A. Schastey and Company ca. 1883

In 1881, Arabella Yarrington Worsham, mistress of the railroad tycoon Collis P. Huntington, hired George A. Schastey and Company to design and decorate her bedroom and dressing room in her New York City home. Schastey was one of several firms that created sumptuous custom-designed rooms and furnishings for wealthy American clientele. This oval dressing table was designed by Schastey for Arabella and features a removable mirror.

The attention to personal appearance has never been restricted to women and men had their own requirements as time went on. During the second half of the eighteenth century, men were shaving at home, aided by instructional manuals. Specialized dressing tables and shaving stands were developed to meet men’s needs.

Shaving Stand. English. ca. 1700-1730.

English Shaving Stand ca. 1700-1730

This shaving stand, or toilet mirror, would rest on a table. It’s made out of maple, oak, beech and spruce.

Men’s Dressing Table. English. ca. 1790-1795.

Seddon, Sons and Shackle London 1790-1795

This dressing table, was made by Seddon, Sons and Shackleton of London, one of the foremost furniture makers of their time. It is in the British Sheraton style, popular in the 1790s and early 1800s. Since men generally attended to their grooming while standing, this dressing table is higher than a ladies dressing table would be.

Seddon, Sons and Shackleton Dressing Table 1790-1795

It contains four fitted wood boxes for the storage of shaving supplies and other implements. Within a semicircular glazed compartment the maker’s proud name has been inlaid in wood. The design of the dressing table also provides space for a basin and water. The mirror is placed at a height appropriate for a man who is standing.

With pieces this beautiful, it’s hard not to want to primp. Next week I’ll show you what a lady kept on her dressing table.

Sources used include:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vanities: Art of the Dressing Table Exhibition (2013-2014)

Adlin, Jane, Vanities Art of the Dressing Table (2013)