We’re now in the final month that The House of Webb, A Victorian family’s journey to Ormondville exhibition will be on display at MTG Hawke’s Bay.
This object and text rich exhibition is comprised almost entirely of Webb family memorabilia – the sheer volume and eclectic nature of which is astounding. The collection is mainly made up of material from Webb family members most of whom immigrated to New Zealand, but also includes letters the family wrote back home to England. The vast majority of the collection is archival: letters, diaries, sketches and photographs but there are also examples of china, furniture, clothing and textiles, paintings, and jewellery, along with everyday items. Collectively they hold a mixture of familial significance, aesthetic value, and utilitarian appeal. All this material eventually came to Elizabeth Webb, who subsequently gifted the collection to the museum.
Displayed in the exhibition are three closely related items belonging to William James Patterson, the brother of Reverend Webb’s wife Patty – these are a painting of William, the costume he wore when posing for the portrait, and a lock of his hair sealed in an envelope. On the envelope is written in beautiful script: “William’s first hair”. Poignantly, a lock of hair was described in Victorian times as “the most delicate and lasting of our materials and survives us like love and because it is so light it escapes the idea of death.” Sadly William died at the age of 13 years.
The ornate gold framed painting, dated 1830, shows William at 3 years old, seated in a child’s chair at a small table playing with his toys – a house, soldiers and farm animals. He is wearing a blue and white striped off-the-shoulder dress, embellished by ruffles and embroidery, socks and black boots and his hair resembles the silky curls of babyhood. In the cabinet next to the portrait, stands a child’s mannequin displaying the dress William is wearing in the painting.
Throughout history, clothing plays an integral role in the depiction of childhood – providing insights into changes in child-rearing theory and practice, gender roles, the position of children in society, and similarities and differences between children’s and adults’ clothing. Prior to the early 1800’s, clothing worn by infants and young children shared a distinctive common feature: their clothing lacked gender distinction and to their contemporaries, skirts or dresses were entirely appropriate for small children of any gender.
At birth, children wore long linen or cotton dresses with fitted bodices and full skirts that extended a foot or more beyond their feet. Once a child began crawling and later walking, they were ‘short coated’: the hemlines of the dresses were moved to ankle length or even shorter so the child had more freedom of movement. Worn underneath the costume was a set of stays, believed to support the back of the child and encourage ‘proper’ posture. The bodices of the dress often had leading strings or bands attached to the shoulders to help parents guide a young child learning to walk.
Little boys wore these outfits until they reached between four and seven years when they were ceremoniously ‘breeched’. Breeching meant a boy was mature enough to wear miniature versions of adult clothing: coats, vests, breeches and would have his hair cut for the first time.
The breeching ceremony symbolized that a boy was leaving childhood behind and beginning to take on adult roles and responsibilities. The child’s breeching age varied, depending on parental choice and the boy’s maturity, which was defined on how masculine he appeared and acted. After breeching, mothers seemed to have less influence on their sons: instead fathers would get much more involved in overseeing training and education. Boys essentially went from the petticoats of childhood directly into the adult clothing appropriate for their station in life.
It’s not every day that a museum holds a painting along with items represented in it. So please, take the opportunity to come in and have a final look at The House of Webb, A Victorian family’s journey to Ormondville exhibition and this amazing collection.
Written by Gail Pope, MTG Curator Social History
Published in Hawke’s Bay Today 6 April 2019