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An extraordinary trove of over 200 Victorian printed pattern cotton percale and muslin swatches in their original eye-catching sales sample portfolios.

[Calcutta, India & Manchester: Williamson Brothers of Calcutta, Robert Barbour & Brother, Ltd, c.1860-70 Stock Code: 139053
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Extensive collection of vibrant Victorian printed cottons for the Indian market.

An extraordinarily extensive archive of around 230 Victorian patterned cotton percale and muslin sample swatches produced in Manchester, most likely for the Indian market, all preserved in their original impressive sales sample portfolios. This gathering remains a most remarkable survivor, historically revealing, visually arresting, and with an intriguing back-story.

These vivid decorative card folders, many of them retaining the full range of their eye-catching features - incorporating embossing, die-stamping, metallic inks, chromolithography and hand-finishing - must have made a considerable impression. Frequently they also have manuscript notes of product numbers and the names of the fabric range, one very complete example titled "Evangeline" contains a line of 14 particularly elegant designs on Turkey Red ground.

The well-sized fabric samples show a variety of printed designs mostly employing palettes of strong reds to soft pink and sepia to dark, almost grey, browns, on various grounds, there are also a good number of examples on Turkey or Adrianople Red, most often strikingly combined with a bright yellow-gold. Most of the patterns are florals, ranging in size and stylisation, but there are also some purely abstract geometric designs, and a large number incorporating variants of the paisley boteh device. Turkey Red is of particular historical interest being widely considered the "most complicated dyeing process invented by man" (The Society of Dyers and Colourists Archive: Turkey Red, retrieved 27/03/2020), prized for its brilliance of colour, and its fastness to light, washing and bleaching; first successfully produced in Britain in the 1780s it retained its popularity against the synthetics developed in the mid-late-nineteenth century until at least 1914 because of these singular properties.

Overall the collection provides a remarkable snapshot of the textiles being produced for the overseas market by British companies of the period. Williamson Brothers were exporters in Calcutta who would buy raw cotton to be shipped to Manchester where it was spun, woven and dyed, and then subsequently often sold, as seemingly here, back to the country that supplied the raw materials. In 1877 Williamson Brothers were at the centre of a high profile fraud case, popularly known as The Great Agency Case, which hinged upon the opportunities for deception offered by the volatility of the cotton market during the supply disruption caused by the American Civil War. Robert Barbour & Brother "purchased goods on behalf of the Williamson Brothers in Calcutta for nearly 24 years. But then the Williamson Brothers suspected the Manchester-based company of overcharging them for services and filed a lawsuit" demanding an examination of their books (Decou, 'The Mystery of the 19th-Century Cotton Samples', Slate, 12 August 2019). It emerged that Barbour were not only misrepresenting what was paid for consignments, purchasing at discount and reporting prices from earlier inflated rates, but were also manipulating the insurance premiums charged. The court found against Barbour, and awarded damages of 100,000, a sum with a purchasing power of perhaps 10m today.

In June, 2019, a group of four portfolios similar to those in the present collection was discovered in the Science & Industry Museum in Manchester and shared on line by head archivist Jan Shearsmith in the hope of expanding the archive's somewhat sparse cataloguing. What ensued is outlined in Richard Moss, Social Media Followers Solve Mystery of Museum Textiles (Science & Industry Museum Blog Manchester, June 6, 2019) and Christopher Decou's Slate piece referred to above; a tale of defalcation and deception in Cottonopolis exposed through a close analysis of its world-renowned products.

The condition of the portfolios and the completeness of the samples - among which there is inevitably a certain amount of repetition - is variably compromised across the group, however this extensive gathering remains a most remarkable survivor, historically revealing, visually arresting and with an intriguing back-story.

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Twenty-one pieces: 20 folio-sized portfolios from 356 x 228 mm. up to 419 x 240 mm., 1 oblong quarto, produced in a spectacular range of variously coloured, textured and patterned paper, all overprinted with striking designs often in metallic inks, many with printed and embossed labels of Williamson Brothers, Manchester or Calcutta to the front flaps, descriptive details added in manuscript, a few with annotations in Bengali, a number with hand-coloured or chromolithographic pictorial engravings within elaborately printed and embossed frames inside the flaps, occasional additional gilt "trimmings".


Contents mounted on heavy paper stock in leporello form, leaves varying from 3 to 10 per item, a total of 234 textile swatches, from 228 x 178 mm up to large double-width folding samples, c.300 x 635 mm, many of them retaining the handsome embossed, gilt-


Most portfolios with some damage, variably rubbed, missing flaps, separation in the folds, or leaves loose, in general the mounting leaves are lightly browned, and some have offsetting from the samples, but the swatches themselves are overall startlingly fresh and bright, occasionally a little creased, others with sample strips snipped from them, but altogether the collection survives in remarkable state, both in terms of condition and completeness, certainly good+.


With the exception of framed items*, Peter Harrington offers free delivery on all UK orders of rare books, maps and prints placed through this website. Delivery to USA and the rest of the world is similarly free for orders over £200.

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Established in 1969, Peter Harrington is one of the leading rare book firms in the world. It is a proud member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association – along with ILAB, the PBFA and Lapada – and from shops in Mayfair and Chelsea, London, sells rare books, prints and ephemera to customers across the world.

Email: mail@peterharrington.co.uk

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