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Sunday, March 13, 2011

In praise of Olive Matthews (1887-1979)

I've been reading "Understanding Fashion History" by Valerie Cumming which is not about the many and varied styles of clothing throughout history but how collections are formed and used and how that history is taught in our colleges and universities.
Collecting, preserving and storing historical items is an expensive and complex business and vies for budget allocations against not only historical artworks and furniture but also more modern collections. It must be a nightmare jugging what museums and galleries should keep and what they cannot reasonably maintain.  And how do these collections begin anyway?  Quite often it begins with a significant donation of objects.
So who was Olive Matthews and how does this relate to her?
Well Olive was an only child brought up by a strict father in London (her mother died when she was two years old).  
Her early interest in costume seems to have been sparked by some family items including a printed handkerchief c1774 featuring playwrights and actors that belonged to her ancestress Susanna Pearce and embroidered with Susanna's name. 
Fascinated by the 18th century (how could I not love her) Olive wanted to collect 18th century furniture but realising her father would not approve determined instead to collect clothing and items which could "easily be hidden in cupboards and boxes". 
Over a 40 year period Olive would collect more than 4000 items mostly from the period c1740 to c1840, finding things at markets and occasionally through dealers. The collection includes clothing and textiles, accessories, needlework tools (yum), toys and some furniture. 
Not wanting to see her collection split up and realising that large museums like the V&A would not accept it in its entirety, Olive with the help of a friend, set up a trust which administers the collection which is displayed at the Chertsey Museum in Surrey, UK to this day.
I have so much admiration for Olive.  She could easily have been thwarted in her ambition to collect items from the 18th century but she wasn't.  She could have just enjoyed those items throughout her life and left their ultimate disposal to someone after her death but she didn't.  She safeguarded it for the future.  For people like you and me. So we could enjoy it, study it, appreciate the construction and learn from it.
Bless you Olive. One day I will get to Chertsey Museum and see your wonderful collection.
You can check out the Chertsey Museum website at

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