Spotlight On … the Glovers.

Written by Dr. Mike Redwood.

Anyone visiting the Charles I exhibition at the Royal Academy will come away with the clear impression that the portraits done by Sir Anthony van Dyke are excellent impressions of the individual involved. His Charles I in Three Positions, for example, was sent off to Italy in order for a bust to be sculpted. A look at this, and the many other portraits of him, make it clear that portraiture at the time was a case of “what you see is what you get”; almost photographic. A short boat trip up the Thames from the RA you will find two van Dyke portraits of Sir William Killigrew and his wife, Lady Mary Killigrew, which were united at the Tate earlier this century after at least 150 years apart.

SIR ANTHONY VAN DYCK (1599-1641), Charles I (1600-1649), 1635 – before June 1636. In an exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts [London].

This is significant for those interested in the extensive collection of gloves held in the National Leather Collection which, in both quality and volume, counts as one of the most significant anywhere. It was Lady Mary who persuaded King Charles I that the quality of gloves being manufactured were below standard as a result of fraudulent alum tanning and aggressive selling of low grade leathers.

As a result, she got him to agree to re-establish the Worshipful Company of Glovers with a new Charter in 1638, the same year as her portrait was being painted. The Glovers Company had initially been established in 1349 with appropriate ordinances – there had, of course, been organised Glovers for centuries before that – but poor finances meant they joined up with the Leathersellers in 1502. The new Chartered status in 1638 established the Glovers as the 62nd Livery Company in order of preference.

This Glovers Company was created at a time when gloves were really important in society. Queen Elizabeth I had a huge interest in gloves and, along with Catherine de Medici, had kickstarted global demand for perfumed gloves.

Around the same time the gauntlet style became more popular in

Royal circles and in rich society, as it allowed plenty of space for glorious embroidery and precious stones. It is also the reason why our collection is rich in gloves from this period.

So the Wirepullers Guild and the Broderers were relevant to glovemaking as well as the Glovers alone, and there was a battle between the Glovers and the Apothecaries over who controlled the perfume market; in the end the Apothecaries were given the Royal nod.

That a woman should be leading the lobbying might be considered curious, but we do know that some gloving businesses were owned and run by women, and that women were employed in the industry. In Chester we learn some ways they could get involved, although we do not believe it is the full story.

Women were not allowed to become freemen, but from the late 16th to the 18th centuries, some widows of guildsmen were admitted to guild membership so they could continue the family business and take apprentices.

Not all livery companies were the same, and in reality we do not know a lot about the role of women. It is suggested that Lady Killigrew had rights to inspect the glove leather being sold, so would gain financially if the new Charter was agreed. Since her husband was losing all their savings trying to drain the Fens in Lincolnshire, they certainly needed the income. Quite how glove companies were organised in those days is not clear, nor how a Lady of the Court interfaced with them, except of course for purchasing and fitting.

Portrait of Sir William Killigrew 1638 Sir Anthony Van Dyck 1599-1641.

This portrait is currently on display at the Tate, and is viewable here.

Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

Portrait of Mary Hill, Lady Killigrew 1638, by Sir Anthony Van Dyck 1599-164.

This portrait is held by the Tate, and is viewable here.

Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

Yet, as we moved towards and into the 19th century, at some stage women became defined as doing the sewing of gloves while men pulled the leather down (to get the stretch correctly aligned with the hand) and did the cutting. Often the sewing was homework, and this continued in the UK until at least 2010. This remains the case today. In France, glove factory owners (male and female) are very determined that cutting glove leather is still a “man’s work”. Yet to look at the task being done there is nothing in the work that suggests it is anything of the sort.

Quite when and why this separation between men and women, between cutting and sewing, really began is not at all obvious. As with the details of how and why Lady Killigrew lobbied a king for Glovers nearly four hundred years ago, more research is needed. But we do know that she almost certainly looked a lot like her portrait.

Dr. Mike Redwood humbly describes himself simply as a tanner; he has been lecturing, blogging and writing for the leather industry for over three decades.

 © National Leather Collection 2018
 © National Leather Collection 2018

A selection of gloves held at the National Leather Collection.

 © National Leather Collection 2018