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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 August 2005, 07:21 GMT 08:21 UK
Costume drama bringing history to life
By Lisa Costello
BBC Northern Ireland London correspondent

Grand houses and important gardens are the stock in trade of the National Trust and Blickling Hall near Norwich is no exception with its Jacobean mansion and 5,000 acres.

Costumes from Springhill near Magherafelt are being restored
Costumes from Springhill near Magherafelt are being restored
But in a barn conversion away from public sight - some of the UK's top experts are performing groundbreaking conservation work - on costumes from Northern Ireland.

For the last six months, experts at the National Trust's textile conservation studio have been carrying out the painstaking restoration of 12 costumes from Springhill - the National Trust's 17th century plantation home near Magherafelt.

The pieces span nearly three centuries and as textile conservator Deborah Mecklenburgh explains, each has their own special tale to tell.

"Over the years, many of these costumes have been changed - a lot of them for fancy dress purposes," she says.

"This Polynaisse is a Spittalfields silk dating from around 1760. The back has altered with panels inserted - perhaps because the original wearer might have been very small and a later wearer may have been a bit larger.

Using beetle wings for decoration was not uncommon
Using beetle wings for decoration was not uncommon

"That's quite important to the history of the costume. We wouldn't remove that and take it back to its original shape because it has become part of the history of this piece."

The costumes are to be returned to Springhill in time to form a travelling exhibition due to start touring the whole of Ireland in September.

Springhill's costume curator, Helen McAneney, hopes the publicity will draw new visitors and help put Springhill firmly on the map.

"The Springhill costume collection is very much a hidden treasure and we want to raise its profile and make people from Northern Ireland see what they have on their doorstep," she says.

Helen is especially keen to see the completed work on her favourite costume - a sheer cotton skirt decorated with silver gilt thread and nearly a thousand beetle wings which she describes as "iridescent jewels".

Using beetle wings for decoration was not uncommon during the Victorian era, but restoring this piece has been a particular challenge for the experts.

The bill for restoring the 12 costumes is 50,000
The bill for restoring the 12 costumes is 50,000

Conservator Howard Sutcliffe consulted experts to identify that the wings were those of the Indian jewel beetle to ensure that replicas made with Japanese tissue paper and lacquer were as close a match as possible.

"It's very fiddly. This is some of the paper that we have been using to support the wings," he says.

Howard has to clean the surface, trim it and then stitch it back onto the dress to the exact area where it came from.

Such dedicated attention to detail does not come cheap. The bill for restoring the 12 costumes has come to an incredible 50,000 - and it has only been possible because of a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Blickling Hall near Norwich is a Jacobean mansion
Blickling Hall near Norwich is a Jacobean mansion

Costly as the amount sounds, experts insist it is a small price to pay for one of Northern Ireland's most unique collections.

The Ages of Elegance exhibition featuring the restored Springhill costumes opens at Collins Barracks in Dublin in September.

Over the next two years, you will be able to see it at Carrickfergus, Ballymena, Enniskillen, Newry, Mayo and Monaghan.




SEE ALSO:
Trust buys Belfast mountain
16 Nov 04 |  Northern Ireland


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