It’s a truth universally acknowledged that everyone loves English country houses, Jane Austen and classic Regency novels.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
So I thought it would be a good time to catch up with the new Austen Costume exhibition at Belsay Hall in Northumberland.
Belsay Hall is a classical Greek Revival villa built in 1807 and designed by Sir Charles Monck at the height of the Regency period.
Belsay is a place where you have to use your imagination to get a sense of the house in its heyday when it was the centre of a bustling social scene.
Today its rooms are long neglected and largely empty so you have to work hard to conjure up images from this glittering age.
Although it’s fun to explore the empty shell of the house, the building comes to life when it holds its regular programme of changing exhibitions.
The house is currently hosting the Jane Austen costume film and TV exhibition, a great way of showcasing the house and breathing new life into its empty spaces.
The exhibition adds to the sense of ‘time and place’ at Belsay. You can imagine guests arriving at the splendid house in their horse-drawn carriages for parties and social engagements.
Belsay was built at the height of the Regency period which extended from around 1795-1837 during the reigns of King George III, George IV (as Prince Regent and monarch) and William IV.
The Regency era was characterised by its elegance and artistic achievements during a period of great social, political, and economic change.
Jane Austen and Regency style
The Costumes from Austen exhibition brings together about 30 pieces from film and television programmes based on the author’s classic books.
I’ve visited Belsay many times but for the first time I felt like a guest peaking into the lives of the Regency gentry as I walked through the great hallway into the reception rooms.
Amongst the costumes on display are pieces worn by actors Dame Judi Dench, Gwyneth Paltrow, Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman in well-known films and TV programmes based on Austen’s novels.
I was struck by the gorgeous fabrics, the fastidious attention to detail and the historic accuracy of the costumes as I wandered from room to room taking in the Regency atmosphere.
One of my favourite costumes in the show was Emma Thompson’s cream dress with strapped bodice paired with a flowing, striped jacket and wide-brimmed straw bonnet from the film, Sense and Sensibility (above).
It exuded the essence of Regency style with its elegant lines and pale, pastel colours, and a design which is timeless and uncluttered.
In complete contrast were the gowns designed for balls and special occasions, characterised by a desire to impress with luxurious fabrics and accessories.
This hat is a beautifully crafted piece designed to be worn with a matching dress in stunning gold silk, the finest of materials, intended to show off the wealth and status of the wearer.
The detailing is simple but exquisite particularly when paired with a striking drop necklace (see below). The vibrant colour and the sensational fabric make this a blockbuster outfit.
Another star costume is Gwyneth Paltrow’s dress from the film Emma which is subtle and understated but devastatingly pretty.
The delicate cream and pale green patterning of the dress is topped off by a charming ribbon sash tied in a bow. Simply stunning.
But it isn’t just the female costumes which stand out in this exhibition – the men also get their fair share of show-off outfits.
Alan Rickman’s uniform from the film Sense and Sensibility is a blaze of red and gold with its dazzling braid and buttoned military jacket.
His character, Colonel Christopher Brandon, wore this outfit at his marriage ceremony to Marianne Dashwood, played by Kate Winslet, in the film.
The Regency period was also the time of the Napoleonic wars so this military outfit hints at the wider world beyond the confines of the cosy domestic houses seen so often in Jane Austen’s novels.
Strangely, it’s a relative simple costume that grabs the attention of most visitors – and steals the show.
Mr Darcy’s white shirt, jacket, breeches and boots, worn by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, is one of the most instantly recognisable pieces in the show.
Sadly, the outfit does not come with the real life Colin Firth inside it – or indeed a screen version of Mr Darcy dipping himself in Belsay’s lake!
There’s much to admire in this exhibition but I would have liked more interpretation especially better information about the costumes and how the designers recreated the period styling.
We could have done with screens showing video clips from the films to put the costumes into context. Photos and posters from the movies and TV might also have helped us locate the costumes on first glance.
I’m aware that money is tight these days so this show is, by necessity, quite plainly presented.
Belsay Hall does not have the budget of the V & A in London whose recent Hollywood costume exhibition was a tour de force with moving images of the actors projected onto the static mannequins and costumes.
But a little more background information – over and above the basic plaques – would have helped engage my partner, Tony, who started to look bored halfway round.
The Jane Austen show is definitely worth the trip, not least for the stunning costumes from a great selection of Jane Austen film and TV adaptations.
Television and film costumes can so often appear less impressive in reality than on screen but these pieces are stunning.
They almost leap off the pages of the Jane Austen novels with their classy designs and Regency styling.
Most of all, the exhibition provides a glimpse of Regency society and brings to life the empty spaces of Belsay Hall.
For fans of Jane Austen on the big and small screen, this show is a must-see event. The only missing treat is having the characters wandering around the house and gardens in the period costumes.
The costume gallery
Tammy’s Top Tips – Belsay
Belsay is located in the village of the same name, 14 miles north west of Newcastle upon Tyne on the A696 road in Northumberland, England.
The Costumes from Austen exhibition runs at Belsay Hall until Monday 26 August, 2013. Admission is included in the overall entrance fee to the house and gardens.
Regency Revels is a Regency-themed weekend taking place at Belsay on Saturday 3 and Sunday 4 August 2013, designed to evoke that period. It will bring together period performers and musicians plus demonstrations of Regency tea rituals.
Whilst at Belsay don’t forget to step further back in time and explore the ruins of Belsay Castle, dominated by a 14th Century defensive ‘pele tower’.
Built as a refuge at a time of Anglo-Scottish warfare, it was used later as a Jacobean mansion where the family lived until 1817 when they moved into the newly-built Belsay Hall.
Belsay is also renowned for its gardens designed by Sir Charles Monck and his grandson Sir Arthur Middleton.
In common with many Regency houses, there are formal gardens for walking and entertaining plus informal gardens designed to look more natural and unkempt.
Lovers of Regency landscape garden design will also be pleased to see the ha-ha feature, an ornamental, hidden ditch – so often referred to in Jane Austen’s novels.
One of my favourite places is the informal Quarry Garden – don’t miss the beautiful walk through its 30 foot high rocky-faced walls, exotic trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants.
Its ravines and sheer rock faces were inspired by Sicilian quarries. And it was here that the stones were cut for the building of the hall.
Today it remains a fabulous spot with its many exotic species designed to thrive in its sheltered micro-climate.
Also take a walk along Magnolia Terrace with its gorgeous blooms of azaleas, magnolias and rhododendrons.
Late spring and early summer is my favourite season at Belsay for garden colour… but timing is of the essence if you want to catch the garden at its best.
For those of a sporty nature, there’s a splendid croquet lawn where you can join up to learn the gentle skills of this old game.
Like Jane Austen’s novels, it reflects a more relaxed period in time when visitors to the house could forget the hustle and bustle of the outside world.
Take a ringside seat and watch the players swinging their mallets to ‘cannon’ their opponent’s balls in pursuit of victory.
Belsay provides a great soundtrack to a very British summer.
On a sunny day there’s nothing better than listening to the sounds of the gardens including the gentle clattering of cannoned croquet balls and the singing of chiffchaffs and willow warblers in the trees.
In the distance I could hear the distinctive call of a cuckoo, my favourite summer sound and a rare treat these days.
Belsay is a sheer joy on an idyllic summer’s day… why not treat yourself to a visit.
To get a flavour of Belsay’s gardens here’s a selection of images which Tammy took on her summer visit.