Women take centre stage at new Shakespeare Birthplace exhibition

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Collage of female portraits held in SBT collections
Eva Garrick’s 250-year-old shoes

A 250-year-old pair of shoes worn by Eva Garrick, who is best known today as the wife of David Garrick, the 18th century actor / stage manager whose Shakespeare Jubilee in 1769 put Stratford-upon-Avon on the literary map, was the centrepiece of a celebration of women at The Shakespeare Centre in Stratford on Saturday.

Eva Garrick

Women Centre-Stage: A Fresh Look at Our Collections tells the stories of influential women from Shakespeare’s time to the modern day, using items from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s library, archive and museum.

Saturday was the launch event for the Trust’s activities for Explore Your Archive 2018, a national campaign that runs until 25th November to encourage greater use of local archives, including those relating to Shakespeare, Stratford and south Warwickshire.

Every day of the week, a new blog Juliet Files will be published on the Trust’s website, www.shakespeare.org.uk, each offering a woman’s perspectives on life, including Annie Justins, Stratford’s first female mayor; Ellen Ann Willmott, a horticulturalist who worked at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and New Place Gardens; and Victorian nurse Emily Minet, who was known as the Angel of Stratford.

Here is an extract from one of the blogs by Katherine Reeve, learning support officer at the Birthplace Trust, who steps into Mrs Garrick’s shoes…

Eva Garrick was born Eva Marie Veigel on the 29th February, 1724, in Vienna. She quickly rose to fame as a talented dancer, and by the age of just 10 she was entertaining the Austrian and French aristocracy with her performances. Eva adopted the stage name of La Violette, and rose to fame in England in 1746 when she was contracted to dance with the Italian Opera Company at the King’s Theatre in London.

It was there that the young Eva was introduced to David, and the couple married on the 22nd June, 1749. Eva retired from her dancing career to become a full-time London socialite. She was well known for hosting high society parties to promote her husband’s theatrical career, but she could never give up dancing completely and was known to still don her dancing shoes whenever the opportunity presented itself.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is lucky enough to hold a rare, surviving pair of Eva’s shoes. They are now desperately fragile and incredibly precious, but when she wore them they would have been the height of high heel and high society fashion. The leather mules — thought to date from between 1760 / 1770 when Eva was in her late 30s — would have originally been a vivid red, with a clashing turquoise silk trim and lining. They were beautifully decorated, and you can still see the metal threads that entwine to make an embroidered pattern on the pointed toes.

The mules also have a distinctive curved heel that was considered incredibly stylish for both wealthy 18th century men and women. Men’s shoes from that time were often so elaborate they were indistinguishable from women’s, and it was not until the 19th century that they began to differ significantly from one another. Men did continue to wear high heeled shoes though, but their heels rarely exceeded an inch in the 1800s!

If you look carefully at Eva’s shoes, you will notice that there is no distinction between the left and the right shoe. Up until the mid-19th century all shoes were made ‘straight’ with no differentiation between the left and right shoe. It was not until 1850 that the need for comfort finally prevailed and foot-specific shoes started being produced.

Eva’s shoes give us a tiny glimpse into the life and times of Mrs Garrick. They indicate a woman with an eye for beauty who was not afraid to make a bold fashion statement, whether it is wearing black velvet breeches as a young dancer, or red heels in high society as a mature woman. Historians discussing the Garricks have always shone the spotlight on David, but this article has returned Eva to centre stage, finally putting the shoe on the other foot.