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Victorian Parasols Inspired Impressionists

Victorian parasols were objects of function that evolved into an art form in the 19th century. Light and elegant, they were made from every color in silk, taffeta, chiffon and satin. They were simple or adorned with lace, fringes and embroidery. Their handles could be simple, carved or jeweled. They were a necessity, a fashion statement and a means of communication. They were must-have items for women of all classes—and a few brave gentlemen. Victorian parasols were also the inspiration for a wealth of Impressionist paintings.

The Great Exhibition Re-imagined Victorian Parasols

Parasols and umbrellas had been in use for centuries. But they received a makeover with Britain’s Great Exhibition in 1851. Among more than 100,000 items and patents presented were multiple improvements for newfangled umbrellas and parasols. Sangster Brothers umbrella manufacturing company received high honors for their alpaca wool fabric-covered umbrellas, which were a game changer for affordable protection from rain.

Beautiful parasols were also on exhibit for the six million visitors to the highly successful Great Exhibition, a defining event of the Victorian Era.

This elaborate model set the bar for Victorian Parasol design. Called the ‘Royal Victoria’ it was most likely a commissioned project. According to the Royal Collection Trust it was advertised in the Illustrated London News in March, 1851 by Cheek & Marsh of the Golden Perch, Oxford Street, London.

The official catalog of the Great Exhibition listed a new patent for an umbrella design that featured a folding handle and a stiletto for self defense.

This parasol with a green silk canopy and fringe features a turned ivory handle, ferrule with foliate carving, and metal frame. According to author Paul Thomas Murphy in Shooting Victoria, it has one highly unusual accessory. It’s lined with mail armor. Queen Victoria used it, most likely after John Francis attempted to assassinate her twice in 1842.

“The parasol was reputedly Prince Albert’s idea. There is no evidence that Victoria actually used it, and in time, she would not have, as parasols–chainmail or otherwise–pass out of style. Somehow, it is easier to imagine Victoria braving public danger unshielded than to imagine her on an outing with an unfashionable parasol.”

Parasols Star In Some Of Our Favorite Paintings

Victorian parasols were regular features in ladies’ magazines, clothing catalogues, newspapers and artworks. They were used for fashion, protection from the sun and not the least, for communication.

The paintings included here do not appear to  be weaponized. Several suggest that they might be personalized or commissioned. Others are simple but elegant. All play with light and shadows in extraordinary ways.

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