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The Girl in the Silk Dress

Updated: Mar 16, 2021

By Anne Ewen, Chief Curator of Art and Heritage

In preparation for the summer 2021 exhibition honouring the 115th birthday of Catharine Robb Whyte, we are conserving and restoring a few of her personal items. In particular, is the dress 19-year-old Catharine wore for the portrait-sitting by famed painter Frederick Andrew Bosley (1881 – 1942, American). Commissioned by her parents Russell and Edith (Morse) Robb to commemorate her societal début in December 1924, Catharine needed convincing by her brother to participate in the expectations of that well bred coming-of-age spectacle.

Frederick Andrew Bosley (1881 – 1942, American), Untitled (Portrait of Catharine Robb), 1925, oil on canvas, 114.3 x 99.5cm, Gift of Catharine Robb Whyte, 1979, BoF.02.01

For the above Bosley portrait, Catharine wore a dress made of very fine burnt orange and black silk chemise encrusted with gold ruching, blue and gold embroidery with burnt-orange beads scattered throughout the bodice. Over the dress she is wearing one of the Bosley studio kimonos, a preferred accoutrement for his many female portrait patrons. The screens in the background of the painting were painted by Bosley and form part of his studio props inventory. Bosley also carved the frames for his portraits; the original of which still adorns Catharine’s portrait.

Catharine first sat for Bosley on Thursday, May 7, 1925 and the occasion is described in her diary.

“I went to Mr. Bosley’s for my first sitting. He said he wanted to paint me full face so I have been going a lot. 2 hours and a half at once. I’m sitting in a green chair with my arms on its arms the most unnatural way possible and full face with a Chinese coat on too. Oh its lovely. By now it looks quite like me if you look in a mirror upside down.”

Few details follow in her minimally-scripted entries but do reveal nine additional sittings.

“Mr. Bosley’s again, another sitting, pose, Mr. Bosley in the morning, Bosley and finally, Mr. Bosley then had lunch at one.”

These sittings were scheduled around her many functions as well as her attendance as a first-year student enrolled at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

True to her innate modesty, Catharine never showed the portrait to anyone except close relatives; it hung for many years in the Robb residence in Concord, Massachusetts, and when she brought it to Banff after her mother’s death in 1961 Catharine stored it in a closet.

The intricate conservation work on the dress is being conducted by textile conservator, Gail Niinimaa, whose expansive career spans continents. After graduating from the University of Alberta with a Bachelor of Science in Home Economics, Gail travelled to England, Switzerland, and Denmark where she honed her skills apprenticing in labs there. She was hired by the Glenbow Museum in 1979 where she has been a major contributor to their textile collection. Requiring much patience and an eye for detail, Gail is sought after for her expertise, pragmatism, and the professional approach she applies to her work.

The conservation and display of Catharine’s dress includes mending, then fitting onto a well-supported torso mount. The worn under-arm areas are being reinforced with polyester netting that is secured with an anchor stitch using Gütermann Skala 360 polyester filament.

With delicate netting and tread as thin as a strand of baby hair, the task is tricky.

Instead of silk thread, Gail explained that conservators have found it deteriorates after 30 years, thus the more durable plastic-based brand is now preferred. The mount is padded with acid-free and unbleached materials to support the fragile and fine silk qualities of the garment.

This installation view of the dress is from the Whyte Museum exhibition The Lives and Legacy of Peter and Catharine Whyte: Their Story curated by Deborah Reeves in June of 2005. You can read about this exhibition in the Spring/Summer 2005 issue of The Cairn.



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