Harris Art Gallery Acquires The Dress Featured In Its Favourite Portrait

By 24 Hour Museum Staff | 12 July 2007
photo of a dress in a case next to a painting of a seated woman wearing the same dress

Visitors can see the painting displayed alongside the unique dress in the museum’s Costume Gallery. © Harris Museum & Art Gallery

The Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston has added a remarkable extra dimension to one of its most iconic portrait paintings with the acquisition of the yellow dress worn by its elegant subject, Marie Pauline Miller.

Pauline in the Yellow Dress was painted by Sir James Gunn and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1944, where it was bought by the Harris and has been on show in Preston ever since.

The painting features the artist’s second wife as the subject and the bright mustard yellow dress worn by her has remained with the Gunn family until their recent generous donation to the Harris Museum and Art Gallery.

“We are very excited and privileged to have been given the dress,” said Keeper of Art at the Harris, Amanda Draper. “We had no idea it still existed until the Gunn family contacted us.”

Visitors can now see the painting displayed alongside the unique dress in the museum’s Costume Gallery. It provides a fascinating glimpse into the painting and into the personality and lifestyle of the wearer.

photo of a dress in a case next to a painting of a seated woman wearing the same dress

The garment has recently undergone conservation work at Lancashire Conservation Centre to enhance its condition and help preserve it for the future. © Harris Museum and Art Gallery

The painting, known locally as Preston’s Mona Lisa, was originally a controversial purchase as it depicted an elegant, wealthy woman wearing make up and an elaborate dress during a wartime period of austerity. This was a time when clothing was rationed and women found it difficult to acquire cosmetics.

‘Pauline’ has since developed iconic status for regular visitors to the Harris, and the acquisition of the dress has enabled the museum to provide a unique and evocative insight into the lady herself.

“It is so rare that the garments seen in paintings can be displayed alongside them,” added Amanda.

The 1930s dress is made from good quality viscose fabric, overprinted with a geometric design in black. The top half features black velvet bows and buttons which are unfastened in the painting.

Artist Herbert James Gunn (1893-1964) trained at Glasgow and Edinburgh Schools of Art and by the mid-twentieth century was Britain’s foremost portrait painter. When Pauline in the Yellow Dress was first exhibited at the Royal Academy, the Daily Mail described it as the ‘Mona Lisa of 1944’.

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