Grace Evans, Keeper of Costume at Chertsey Museum, on the extraordinary collection amassed by Olive Matthews
Chertsey Museum, located in a Georgian town house in Windsor Street, Chertsey is a unique and special place of discovery and delight, which has provided me with a constantly varied and fascinating workplace for the past 19 years.
It contains a treasure trove of rare and important artefacts. These relate both to the rich history of the local borough and to the history of fashion; an unusual combination that gives our visitors a fascinating and sometimes unexpected perspective on the past.
The rich local history collections date from pre-history to the present day and a vast array of objects, artworks, photographs and documents are housed within its walls. The borough is particularly known for its links to Magna Carta, but it is also connected to many famous historical figures and institutions.
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The history of Chertsey Abbey is particularly important; this powerful Benedictine abbey was once located opposite the Museum site. Though little of it now remains, artefacts, such as decorative tiles, produced at the Abbey and exported throughout Europe, survive in the collection. The Vikings too left their mark. A rare 10th Century Viking sword was unearthed in the local area in the 1980s and is now part of the Museum’s interactive local history gallery.
Chertsey Museum is also supported by the Olive Matthews Trust, which owns the Olive Matthews Collection of dress and decorative art. This long-standing connection brings a further dimension to the visitor experience, and I am in the fortunate position of being tasked with caring for and interpreting it.
This nationally significant group of men’s women’s and children’s dress and accessories, alongside some decorative art and fine art pieces, incorporates over 6,000 items, which date from 1600 to the present day. The heart of the collection was put together by Miss Olive Mary Matthews, a self-educated collector who began to amass important articles of dress from a young age.
Olive was born in 1887 in Camden Town, London. The daughter of a successful saddler and harness maker, she was educated at home by a governess. When Olive was about 12 years old she was encouraged to follow the self-improving hobby of collecting. Her father gave her a small allowance of between 2s 6d and 5s a week for this purpose.
Initially she collected historic furniture, but her father is said to have disapproved due to the lack of storage space available in the family home. It is at this point that she began her collection of antique dress and accessories. These items were more easily stored in her bedroom, and they embodied all the features that Olive felt to be valuable and important.
In common with many other collectors of her era, she was passionate about material culture from a golden age of hand craftsmanship that was felt to be ‘lost’ by her generation. In this sense, her attitudes were very much in line with those of the British Arts and Crafts movement. Mechanisation and mass production had heralded the end of skilled workmanship on any real scale, and she sought to preserve and treasure examples that still survived.
Olive was therefore keen to collect items which dated up to the early nineteenth century. The majority of the pieces she acquired date from the 1740s to around the 1840s, but there are some notable earlier examples, such as a rare man’s night cap, c.1600 – 1620 and a few later ones, including some stunning 1920s couture evening gowns. In a letter to Bob Trett, the Curator at the time the collection entered Chertsey Museum, she wrote:
“I am interested in costumes up to about early Victoria…styles I have known and worn I don’t care about. They are not Antiques to me”.
This is one of the only written pieces of information that Olive supplied about her motivation for collecting, but it is very telling, and makes absolute sense when taken in conjunction with the objects she held dear. They hailed from an era just beyond living memory, and this allowed her to romanticise about them, their origins and context.
Olive’s own personal situation may also have had a bearing on her motivations for collecting and her choice of objects. She was an only child and lost her mother at an early age. She remained single and spent her middle age caring for her father and maiden aunt until their deaths. A very private person, she did not talk openly about her own life, but some hints to acquaintances and members of museum staff indicate that her father may have been quite authoritarian. At some points in her life she seems to have been nervous about angering him, and this, as well as her rather isolated situation, may have led her to retreat into collecting.
Collecting had the advantage of providing her with a private realm over which she had control, and by her own admission she collected sets of items that might go together, such as a dress, a stomacher and a pair of shoes.
Olive was blessed with “a good eye” but she also read diligently around her subject throughout her life, later enjoying a good relationship with curators from the Victoria and Albert Museum. As a result she had an excellent working knowledge of the history of dress and decorative arts, although she would perhaps have been too modest to describe herself as an expert.
The pieces she found were genuine, high quality, well preserved examples of their type – no small achievement in the often bewildering and sprawling subject of dress history. As already discussed, she preferred items that were handmade, but in addition she was particularly keen on pieces that were, even for their time, examples of exceptional skill in terms of their intricate methods of creation or decoration.
This is evident from the presence of over 900 pieces of lace ranging from the seventeenth through to the nineteenth century, and large numbers of beadwork bags from the early to mid-nineteenth century. High quality silk and metalwork embroidery also attracted her, and the collection contains some particularly fine examples.
Larger articles of dress too are part of what makes this collection special. Carefully selected 18th century open robes, made from rustling hand-woven flowered silks and perfectly cut, intricately decorated Regency garments are particularly precious areas of the original collection. They include gorgeous examples of men’s and women’s dress of a quality to rival the holdings of national museums.
The means by which Olive collected her pieces varied through her lifetime. Though she later purchased from dealers and bid for items at auction, as a child she was a regular visitor to the Caledonian Road Market in Camden Town. The stalls contained many examples of antique clothing and textiles, and the young Olive prided herself in finding bargains. She later said that she never paid more than £5 for a piece, and the thrill of finding a treasure as a result of her knowledge, keen eye and persistence was another impetus for her collecting.
She was, for example, particularly proud when relating how she purchased a pair of silk brocade shoes dating to around 1735 – 1745 for half a crown from a stallholder, only to find a pair of brocade clogs which matched them perfectly the next time she visited the market.
Olive was making extremely shrewd purchases with her limited funds. Antique costume was not valued at the time when she was gathering her items. It was seen by most as fancy dress or a source of authentic theatrical costume. As such, Olive and a handful of her contemporaries were able to pick up many rare and important pieces, such as her early seventeenth century nightcap or her pair of early eighteenth century stomachers, for what was effectively pocket money. It was not until the second half of the twentieth century that historic dress would be taken seriously as an important subject for study and museum display.
Olive Matthews’ collection came to be part of Chertsey Museum through a variety of opportune circumstances and the actions of far sighted individuals. She and her family had moved to nearby Virginia Water at the outbreak of the Second World War. Her collection had come with her and was tucked away in boxes stacked in cupboards around the house and in her garage. During the 1960s she began to seek a suitable long-term home for her collection.
Members of the local community offered an opportunity for the collection to remain together. They were involved with the newly opened Chertsey Museum, and in 1969 the Olive Matthews Collection Trust was formed and a mutually beneficial arrangement with the council was mooted. This enabled the collection to be kept in its entirety whilst also forming an intrinsic part of a new and more dynamic Chertsey Museum which opened in 1972. Olive was at last able to see her pieces displayed in a public museum, with a gallery devoted to her costumes. Sadly she passed away just a few years later in 1979. She was 92 years old.
No longer a private passion kept hidden away for only a select few to enjoy, the collection has taken on a new life since entering the museum. It is now available for all to discover and successive curators have added pieces to the collection, filling gaps and incorporating important garments from later periods in order to make it relevant to modern audiences.
There are now two galleries in the museum which are dedicated to the fashion collection. One features annually changing themed exhibitions which show and interpret a wide variety of pieces. The other gallery houses a large number of fashion accessories – an area of collecting which was of particular interest to Olive.
The collection has a reputation internationally for its important and exceptionally well-preserved pieces, and researchers and designers regularly access items for in-depth study. The museum also runs a lively events programme, offering fashion-related workshops, talks and re-enactment days to packed audiences.
Learn more about the Olive Matthews Collection:
Virtual Tour: explore Chertsey Museum’s current fashion exhibition Folded and Moulded, Pleating and Draping in Fashion virtually here: chertseymuseum.org/costume-exhibition
Grace Evans is also writing a blog entitled ‘Unbreakable Threads – Dressing Through Adversity’. In the light of the current pandemic she looks with new eyes at some of the most treasured items from the Olive Matthews Collection. Discover it at chertseymuseum.org/fashion_blogs
The exhibition programme at Chertsey Museum, which is run by the Borough of Runnymede, changes regularly throughout the year, and despite being closed during the lock-down, the Museum has a good online-presence with plenty to discover at chertseymuseum.org
We have fine collections, including history of the Runnymede area, local archaeology and history of Chertsey Abbey, fine art, decorative art, social history including many documents and photographs, local clocks and the nationally significant Olive Matthews Collection of dress and textiles. Free Wi-Fi and smart phone gallery guide available.