Gingerly unwrapping 17th-century bling

Cones' other collection - lace - is going on exhibit at the BMA

April 02, 2005|By Kim Hart | Kim Hart,SUN STAFF

Once a week for the past six years, Aurelia Loveman has buried herself in a storage room of the Baltimore Museum of Art, gingerly removing pieces of lace from the boxes, linen envelopes and silk sheets that have concealed them for 55 years.

Elegant cuffs and collars that once adorned royalty in the 17th-century court of Louis XIV, delicate Chantilly lace parasol covers, gauzy shawls and intricately woven 19th-century needle-lace fan leafs are among the valuable remnants hiding inside their dusty tombs.

For Loveman, unveiling each piece of the museum's vast lace collection "was like diving into a swimming pool and discovering that I dove into an ocean," she said. "There's just all kinds of lace of any age, any type ... and certainly no rags to speak of."

The 450 sheer lace pieces span five centuries and at least as many countries. They were acquired by Etta and Claribel Cone, famed for their collection of Matisse and Picasso paintings, between shopping sprees in European galleries. A selection of the laces is now on display at the BMA through Sept. 18 - the first exhibit dealing specifically with the Cone lace as a collection.

The art of lace will be celebrated today at the museum during Lace Day, an event that includes lace-making demonstrations and a lecture by German lace designer Ilske Thomsen.

Loveman, who today will show off her own techniques, has been making the delicate fabric since she was old enough to hold a needle and thread. She still whiles away the hours weaving together lace fan leaves, table-cloths and garments. A lifetime of making lace prepared her for the task of identifying and cataloging each fragile fragment.

She calls it a labor of love. Along with exhibit curator Anita Jones, Loveman carefully studied the lace under a magnifying glass, researched its history and meticulously recorded each finding.

In most cases, the Cones kept only brief, vague notes about their lace purchases. So the students of lace had to reconstruct the past to piece together the stories told by each fragment.

"It drives you absolutely mad as a curator," Jones said after sharing the lace histories with a group of museum visitors. "We looked through archives and long letters and they didn't mention a thing about lace."

Jones perused the daybooks of both sisters, but found only a few clues about where, when and how the lace was purchased (one of Claribel's entries simply stated, "Bought one piece of old lace.") Jones tracked down dozens of distant relatives who, with only hazy memories of seeing lace strewn about the sisters' Baltimore apartments, could remember few details.

"I think [the sisters] recognized lace as art in itself," Jones said. "They did not take a scholarly approach to it, but they were cognizant of the craft and the time it took. At the juncture of machines, they realized that lace like this wasn't going to be made anymore."

A few hundred years ago, lace was more than art; it was a symbol of status and wealth. It often took two lace-makers working 15-hour days for 10 months to stitch a single lace collar. Knights and lords preferred owning lace over real estate.

"It seems so pretty and frivolous, but lace was a big deal," said BMA spokeswoman Anne Mannix. "It was the bling of the 17th century."

The conservative, traditional lace collection is a departure from the contemporary, avant-garde artworks that typically appealed to the sisters. But maybe they were ahead of their time.

"Textiles are just now emerging into the public consciousness," Loveman said in her Catonsville home amidst lace bobbins and spools of thread. "Up till now, lace has been the stepchild of art ... but people are realizing that it's much more than a craft."

Today, several lacers will be at the BMA to prove just that. Needle, bobbin, tatted, knitted and crochet lace will all be part of the display. And Loveman will be there, too, decked out in a dainty lace blouse she made herself.

Lace Event

What: Lace Day at BMA

When: Today, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. "Lace in Fashion" talk at 2 p.m.

Admission: Free with museum admission ($7 for adults, $5 for seniors and college students, free for children under 18)

Call: 410-396-7100 or visit www.artbma.org

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