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Reconstructing the life of an object

Lorna Rowley speaks with Master of Conservation graduate students while Vanessa Nicholas examines a shawl from the collection through a microscope. Photo: Garrett Elliott
Lorna Rowley speaks with Master of Conservation graduate students while Vanessa Nicholas uses a microscope to examine a shawl from the Queen’s Collection of Canadian Dress. (Photo: Garrett Elliott)

Research on the provenance, style, and material of the oldest garment in Queen’s Collection of Canadian Dress – a Regency-style day dress once in Agnes Etherington’s possession – has taken Vanessa Nicholas (BFA’07) and Lorna Rowley, the 2019 Isabel Bader Fellow and Graduate Intern in Textile Conservation and Research, on a journey from the Cataraqui Cemetery to the colonial United States, and has piqued their interest in fashionable florals and silk worms.

The dress is one of four garments – along with another dress and two shawls – in the collection that are the focus of the 2019 fellowship project. Each of the garments has been subjected to historical and scientific analysis with the aim of determining their provenance and materials.

“These garments and accessories all pre-date Confederation, and our oldest case study is a silk day dress made in a style that dates to the early 19th century” says Nicholas, a PhD candidate in the Department of Visual Art and Art History at York University, who has an Master's of Arts from the Courtauld Institute of Art and a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Queen’s. “Curiously, the dress’s silk likely dates to the 1770s or 1780s, and we have synthesized genealogy, fashion history and lab results to reconstruct the life of this object.”

This research will be contextualized within environmental history, which studies the relations between human culture and the natural world.

In residence until the end of April at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre and the Master of Art Conservation Program at Queen’s, Nicholas and Rowley have been sharing their expertise with conservation students through workshops and discussions, as well as consulting with other conservators and professionals in the field about their research.

Rowley holds an MPhil in Textile Conservation from the Centre for Textile Conservation and Technical Art History, University of Glasgow, and a BA in the History of Art and Design from the National College of Art and Design, Dublin, with a specialty in embroidery.

The two will present an insider art talk to the public on their research into some of the oldest materials in the Queen's Collection of Canadian Dress as part of the INSIDE AGNES: Music and Art Series on Sunday April 14, 2-3:30 pm. Admission is free, and all are welcome.

The Isabel Bader Fellowship in Textile Conservation and Research is a four-month residency and research opportunity that promotes investigation in textile conservation and costume history. Through the generous support of Dr. Isabel Bader, the fellowship links two of Queen’s University’s  unique resources: the Queen’s University Collection of Canadian Dress at the Agnes, which comprises more than 2,000 articles of fashion from the late 1700s to the 1970s, and the Master of Art Conservation Program, which offers Canada’s only graduate degree in conservation theory and treatment.

For more information, contact Kate Yüksel, Communications Coordinator at 343-333-5478 or kate.yuksel@queensu.ca.