A rare and important Court Mantua and petticoat of ivory silk, French circa 1770

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Lot 30
A rare and important Court Mantua and petticoat of ivory silk,
French circa 1770

Sold for £ 78,000 (US$ 100,473) inc. premium
A rare and important Court Mantua and petticoat of ivory silk,
French circa 1770
elaborately brocaded with a pattern of narrow stripes and a vertical undulating ribbon of leaves and ears of corn alternating with floral sprays, the fitted bodice with structured pleating to the back, possibly formerly of open sack-back construction, having gathered self-fabric detailing later applied to waistline, possibly furbelows, with later silver lace trimmed stomacher, the elbow length sleeves with silver lace trimming to double layered self-fabric engageantes; the petticoat applied at the hips with matching silver thread lace, (some alterations to front of bodice, and width of petticoat) (2)


  • The Fitzwilliam and Wentworth Dynasty

    For centuries the Fitzwilliams were one of Britain’s great landed families, establishing estates during the 16th century and building them up through their own successes at court and in politics and through judicious marriages. For most of the time the main family seat was Milton Hall, close to Peterborough in Cambridgeshire. The oldest part of the house is the north front built at the end of the 16th century; the most elegant is the long 18th century Palladian south front added by the distinguished architect Henry Flitcroft.

    Sir William Fitzwilliam, grandson of the 1st knight, was Lord Deputy in Ireland between 1560-94 and Sir William the 5th knight was elevated to the Irish peerage as Baron Fitzwilliam in 1620. In 1716 the barony became an earldom and in 1742 the titles were created in the British peerage as well as the Irish one. In 1744 the marriage of the 3rd Earl to Lady Anne Wentworth, daughter of Thomas, 1st Marquess of Rockingham not only added a new lustre to the family’s lineage but would lead to a dramatic expansion in their property. It was no doubt to celebrate their marriage and the arrival in the family of such an illustrious heiress as Lady Anne, that Flitcroft was commissioned to transform Milton Hall into a statement of Palladian elegance. For Lady Anne was the great-grand-daughter of one of the most illustrious and revered men in English history, Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford, who in 1642 was beheaded on Tower Hill after his friend King Charles I had signed the death warrant as a sop to Parliament. As well as the Wentworth inheritance, the Marquess of Rockingham had himself married Lady Mary Finch, daughter of the Earl of Nottingham and Winchelsea.

    Lady Anne’s brother, Charles succeeded as the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham on the death of his father in 1750. He was to become one of the leading statesmen of the great 18th century Whig oligarchy and served as Prime Minister to George III twice, in 1765-66 and again in 1782. Earlier, he served as deputy to the Earl Marshall, the Duke of Norfolk, at the coronation of George III in 1760. His position of such importance at the ceremony and the attending court functions would have necessitated his wife, Mary, to have worn a dress of the utmost quality and fashion, and therefore it is most likely that the mantua was made for her.

    In addition to his political career, the 2nd Marquess was a dedicated patron of both the arts and racing. His father had commissioned Henry Flitcroft to transform, the family seat in Yorkshire, Wentworth Woodhouse into one of the largest Palladian houses in England and at more that 600 feet in length the east front remains the longest façade of any house in England. (No doubt the marquess persuaded his daughter and son-in-law to use Flitcroft at Milton). The 2nd Marquess filled Wentworth with sculptures and paintings and was a particularly important patron of George Stubbbs who carried out many studies of his racehorses, including the artist’s most famous horse painting, of the marquess’s stallion, Whistlejacket.

    The 2nd Marquess died childless in 1782, at which point his titles became extinct, but his estates and other properties, focusing on Wentworth Woodhouse, passed to his nephew, the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam. The title and estates passed through successive generations until 1948 when the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam died suddenly in a plane accident aged 38. Thereafter the family trusts in the name of his widow, Olive Countess FitzWilliam were established for the benefit of their only daughter. The Fitzwilliam title passed to a cousin who became the 9th earl, but when the 10th earl died in 1979 without children the titles became extinct. The Milton Hall estates passed to the descendants of the 10th earl’s widow by her previous marriage and are now owned by her grandson, Sir Philip Naylor-Leyland.

    The history of the Court Mantua

    The restrictive construction of formal eighteenth century dress represents something of an anachronism during what is commonly termed as The Age of Enlightenment. In contrast to this period of academic emancipation, the principals of formal dressmaking remained extremely constrained, with corsets and structures such as hooped skirts ensuring that body contouring was as defined as possible.

    Three main shapes dominate the period between 1710-1780. All of them aimed to minimize the waist and exaggerate the hip. Dome shaped hooped underskirts were popular at the start of the century, and between 1714-1730 the dome flattened tooval and this lead to wide oblong hoops by 1750. These structures were known as panniers, and were worn to either hip, made of basket-like material often spanning six feet from side to side. It was only when collapsible panniers were invented that women could start to walk through doors head on again. Costume in such excess was de rigeur only for the monied classes attending the English and French court. An open robe with fitted bodice was worn over the top and a matching petticoat or jupe underneath.

    One may chart the development of the Mantua from around 1715. It was known as the sack back, Mantua, and later in the 19th century as the Watteau gown due to Watteau's popular paintings of society ladies dressed in this particular style. It mostly consisted of a rather shapeless garment at the back of the neck and led down to the skirt to the floor. The bodice became fitted but the pleats to the back remained, having been nipped in at the waist. The hooped underskirts and then panniers altered the shape of the skirt, and by the mid eighteenth century the back of the dress had developed into a long gathered or pleated cape-like form which fell from the neck in a loose style whilst the rest of the outfit was fitted and sculptured by corsets or stays and wide panniers.

    An interesting point to remember is that formal court dress and fashionable dress were not necessarily one and the same thing. Formal court dress developed at a much slower rate than fashion depending on the dictates and favour of the monarch. George III's Queen, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz arrived in England in 1761 and continued to wear the same style of court gown until her death in 1818.

    Mantuas were generally made for special occasions at court such as presentation, coronation celebrations, royal birthdays or weddings, and were made from exceedingly expensive fabrics; mostly beautiful woven silks. The width of the panniers indicated the social status and life of ease which a lady of court obviously had. Extreme clothing such as this meant that she would always need assistance with the simplest of daily tasks, but it also created a wonderful space on which to drape and amply display the embroidered and woven silks, thus reinforcing people's perceptions of her spouse's wealth and means. The impracticality of these items is illustrated in the novel 'Tom Jones' by Henry Fielding (1749), 'The door of the room flew now flew open, and, after pushing her hoop sideways before her, entered Lady Bellaston.'

    Prices for silk fluctuated greatly throughout the eighteenth century, but regardless of whether the fabric came from France, Italy or was woven in Spitalfields in London, prices for the finest woven silks remained high. There were a number of reasons for this. The process of woven silk fabric was a lengthy one. Raw silk was sent to the silk thrower for spinning and winding. Then it would go to the weavers. Looms would have to be prepared (which could take between three and six weeks). The master weaver was restricted by the mercer as to how much of each pattern he could produce in order to ensure an absolutely unique product. To protect the English silk industry a heavy import duty was exacted on foreign silks, however this led to a rise in illicitly smuggled silks being sold.

    The 'Almanach des Negociants' published in Brussels in 1762 was a guide to the quality and success of various European silk weaving centres. It considered Lyons and Spitalfields to be superior to all others due to the wide range of fabrics produced from plain satin, taffeta weaves in self colours to the elaborate polychrome and metallic brocade silks.

    French silk retail prices in 1751 were 180 to 400 livres per ell (between 19.5 and 21 inches) for silks brocaded very richly in gold and/or silver, whereas plain silks would cost between 2 and 14 livres per ell. The cost of weaving was an indication of the complexity of the weave. The brocades with metallic threads were divided into categories according to the weight of the gold/silver used. The greater the weight, the higher the end price. Also, due to the brittle nature of the metallic threads, it was more difficult to weave metallic brocade. Weaving progressed at the slow rate of one eighth of an ell to three ells per day depending on the complexity of the pattern and weave. A sack back dress circa 1769 would have needed approximately 22.5 yards of silk. Therefore, based on the prices and rates of work for the very expensive and ellaborate metallic brocades, a dress such as this one would have taken approximately 324 days to weave at a retail cost for the silk alone of 16,200 livres.

    The French Revolution in 1789 brought about the downfall not only of the French monarchy, but also corsets, panniers, wigs, high heels, powder, beauty spots and ribbons as these were seen as symbols of the aristocracy and therefore were to be despised. All eyes had been on France since the seventeenth century as the fashion leader and trendsetter, however, the last decade of the eighteenth century saw England take the lead. As such fashion developed and by the end of the eighteenth century the mantua became outmoded. The Fitzwilliam mantua therefore represents one of the last of such an expensive type of dressmaking, and joins part of an extremely rare and important group of such dresses that survive today.
A rare and important Court Mantua and petticoat of ivory silk, French circa 1770
A rare and important Court Mantua and petticoat of ivory silk, French circa 1770
A rare and important Court Mantua and petticoat of ivory silk, French circa 1770
A rare and important Court Mantua and petticoat of ivory silk, French circa 1770
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