The making of The Girl with a Pearl Earring and Samuel Pepys’ costumes:
Recreating Johannes Vermeer’s iconic and enigmatic painting Girl with a Pearl Earring was an irresistible temptation. In fact I had been considering this for some time and had already collected a number of yellow and blue silks that were tucked away safely somewhere in my textiles stash.
I had the pleasure of seeing the painting in person when my husband and I visited The Hague a couple of years ago.
The painting is housed in the Koninklijk Kabinet van Schilderijen Mauritshuis, Den Haag, and it was a pleasure to see it in person. The painting is oil on canvas, 46.5 x 40 cm in size and has been dated to the period 1665 to 1667. For the purposes of our project we took the date to be 1666.
Having decided upon the focus of the third of our sketches based on famous paintings, as well as the topical theme we planned to use (Twitter), we now looked to see who else was sitting for a portrait in the same year. A couple of paintings immediately sprang to mind:
Rembrandt’s Isaac and Rebecca
and Velasquez’ Las Meninas
As is immediately obvious, reproducing either of these paintings would be complex and expensive, and neither quite fitted the theme. Then we realised, by happy co-incidence, that not only was the diarist Samuel Pepys sitting for his portrait in 1666, but he also entered the occasion in his diary:
‘Saturday 17th March 1666
Up, and to finish my journal, which I had not sense enough the last nigh to make an end of, and thence to the office, where very busy all the morning. At noon home to dinner and presently with my wife to Hale’s, where I am still infinitely pleased with my wife’s picture. I paid him 14l. for it, and 25s for the frame, and I think it not a whit to deare for so good a picture. It is not quite yet finished and dry, so as to be fit to bring home yet. This day I began to sit, and he will make me, I think, a very find picture. He promises it shall be as good as my wife’s, and I sit to have it full of shadows, and do almost break my neck looking over my shoulder to make the posture for him to work by’.
Samuel Pepys by John Hales, National portrait Gallery.
If anyone in the 17th c. were to have taken the idea of Twitter to their heart, we felt it would have been, like Stephen Fry today, the diarist Samuel Pepys!
As we couldn’t refer in person to the original Vermeer painting we had to rely upon reproduced images which varied considerably in the colour tones – the blue varying from turquoise to cornflower blue, for example. The decision on which version was the truest was made by the director, Nick Loven, on the basis of which most reflected natural skin tones. We then had to test the selected silks on camera for colour saturation and chose the ones which best matched the original on screen rather than by the naked eye.
I created the turban from a length of yellow silk taffeta that was 5 metres long and 31 cms wide. For most of the length I made it a tube for manageability, keeping half a metre or so at each end open to show the edge trim. Close scrutiny of the painting suggests that the blue trim was possibly a fringe. However, a painted version of a fringe is subtle whereas using an actual fringe just looked wrong. In the end I created a border using a band of the blue silk from the turban, covering it with a sheer, ivory coloured silk. I then hand-washed and twisted the silk to give it the look of the textile in the painting, paying particular attention to the edging, which I crushed to give the appearance of fringing.
I used a piece of blue silk dupion, 1.38 by 36cms, for the final part of the turban, as its texture would help grip and hold the whole headdress in place. However, it still took me a week of studying how turbans were tied and experimenting until I could reproduce the twists and knots of the original in a way that I could repeat on the day and that wouldn’t just fall off!
Only part of the Girl with a Pearl Earring’s shoulder and upper arm can be seen in the painting and the full details of her clothing are hidden. I felt that the textile for her top was most likely wool, but of a good quality and possibly with a polished sheen to the surface as it reflects many colours. I consulted a number of costume friends and contacts and they agreed too that it was more likely wool than silk. It took me six months to find suitable wool with the right colour tones and a slightly polished surface. In the end I found it on a fabric stall (Bernie the Bolt) on a re-enactors market. The shift and possibly kerchief that we see at the neck would have been linen. If you look carefully at the painting you can just make out at the back of the sleeve a series of cartridge pleats which help set the sleeve into the armhole.
In order to get more of an idea of the likely cut of the jacket, I studied many of the Dutch paintings made around 1666 and here are a few examples of paintings which proved useful:
Below: Johannes Vermeer, ‘Lady with her maid servant holding a letter’ (1666)
Below: Gabriel Metsu, ‘A Lady reading a letter’
Below: Pieter de Hooch, ‘Woman and maid’ (1663)
Below: Gabriel Metsu, ‘The Cook’
I also used the book ‘The Cut of Women’s Clothes 1600-1930’ by Norah Waugh for guidance.
With a tailor’s dummy dressed in the correct shape foundation garments and of the correct size I cut a toile (pattern) for the wool jacket.
As with most of Vermeer’s paintings, the sitter for The Girl with a Pearl Earring remains unknown and I didn’t want to make any presumptions about her status or be influenced by Tracy Chevalier’s book and the film, starring Scarlet Johansson, based upon it. I just wanted to study the painting and to let it speak for itself. However, having gone through the process of analysis and recreation, I am inclined to regard Tracy Chevalier’s interpretation as rather clever!
Above: Louise Parkin
Above: Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring
Above: Scarlett Johansson
Samuel’s clothes were simpler to understand and recreate. He is dressed informally in brown silk Banyan which is open to reveal a linen shirt and loosely tied cravat. However, matching the silk proved difficult until I was directed to an American company, Burnley and Trowbridge, who were able to supply a silk that was a very close match. Again, I looked at a number of contemporary portraits in order to understand the cut of the Banyan and was happy to go with a simple, but full, Japanese style of gown.
Jason Hippisley as Samuel Pepys
Lincolnshire Echo article:
For Samuel Pepys Diary online head here: The Diary of Samuel Pepys