In early 1885, Theodore and Mabel Bent were travelling in the islands we now refer to as the Dodecanese (in the Eastern Mediterranean), but were then in Turkish hands. Their main interest was Karpathos, but before sailing there the couple spent time on Rhodes, Nisyros, and Tilos, looking for items of interest to them – antiquities, textiles, ceramics – as well as making notes of traditions, folklore, and customs, and taking photographs and sketching.
Avid collectors (and dealers) of textiles, the Bents acquired a number of articles of clothing and domestic embroideries on their journey around the Dodecanese in the first quarter of 1885. It was a competitive field, as illustrated by an (unpleasant) note by Theodore regarding a fellow passenger, the following year, to the nearby island of Asytpalaia: “Another passenger, too, turned up, whom we soon learnt to be a little red-haired Jew from a bazaar in Constantinople, who took this opportunity to make a descent on Astypalaea for embroideries and plates; he was our bête noire in the island: whenever we tried to effect a bargain he was always to be seen hovering around, ready to offer more if our price was low, and to chuckle if we gave too much.” (‘Astypalæa’. The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 262 (Mar), 253-65) (NB Mabel never refers to this merchant in her diary and Theodore may well have made it up to pander to the prejudices of the day.)
The Bents explored Nisyros from 21–24 February 1885, and seem to have bought there eight or nine garments/textiles, as Mabel notes in her diary for 23 February: “The women here wear a very pretty dress, and now we know why ‘Turkey red’ is called Turkey red, i.e. because all the women in this Turkish island wear an open sleeveless gown of it with a very full skirt a good deal shorter than the thick cotton shirt with handsome silk embroidery round the tail, 1½ yards round. The sleeves are splendidly embroidered. We have bought 5 of these underdresses, 1 pair of sleeves, a pillow cover, and a bed valance for £3.15.0.” (The Travel Chronicles of Mrs. J. Theodore Bent, Vol. 1, 2006, Oxford, p.73.)
The sterling sum Mabel mentions (taking £1 in 1885 for £150 today) equates to nearly £600. In 1886 Theodore offered three dresses acquired from Karpathos (visited in the same season as Nisyros) to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London for £15 (£2250).
Two of the Nisyros items are today in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London – a red overdress (T.166-1931) and a cushion cover/pillowcase (T.149-1930). These were sold to the famous London retailers Liberty & Co. after Mabel’s death (1929), or shortly before, by her nieces (who were her beneficiaries). Liberty’s then donated them to the V&A in the early 1930s.
As for the other items Mabel refers to (‘underdresses’, the ‘sleeves’, ‘bed valence’), we can only guess as to which collections they might now be in. A search of the V&A’s online collections reveals several unprovenanced items, including bed valences, and it is possible that some of the Bent textiles were bought and then donated to museums around the world. For instance, the ‘sleeves’ (bodice?) Mabel Bent refers to could easily resemble those illustrated by V&A item CIRC.628-1928, said to have come from Tilos, the next island south from Nisyros, and donated by Professor and Mrs Percy Newberry, whom we know were in contact with Mabel Bent. Did she sell to them perhaps? All pure conjecture of course.
At the end of 1885, the Bents gave a lecture to the Anthropological Institute, London, entitled ‘On Insular Greek Customs’, and Mabel Bent curated a small exhibition of her embroideries for it, including the Nisyros valence she referred to above: “A sindhoni of Niseros worked in brown, light yellow, and blue”. Another exhibit featured the red overdress also mentioned and illustrated above: “A figure dressed as a woman of Niseros, in a short narrow dress of white cotton, embroidered round the tail and round the square neck, and with wide sleeves, embroidered in stripes of various coloured silks, and with silver embroidery on the shoulders; over this a very wide dress of turkey-red, half a yard shorter, and sleeveless. A black kerchief across the forehead, and a yellow one over that, hiding the mouth.” (J.T. Bent, ‘Insular Greek Customs’. The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 15 (1886), pp. 391-403. [With an Appendix by ‘Mrs. Bent’, p. 401-3])
Mabel exhibited three of her Nisyros ‘underdresses’ (as well as several other possessions) at an event hosted in 1914 by the Burlington Fine Arts Club (BFAC Catalogue Nos. 44, 66, 83), Exhibit No. 44 included her Nisyros red overdress, the catalogue entry of which begins: “Overskirt of red Turkey twill and Frock embroidered in cross-stitch in coloured silks, of which black is dominant, on linen.” (Catalogue of a collection of old embroideries of the Greek islands and Turkey by Burlington Fine Arts Club (eds A.J.B. Wace et al.), London, 1914, p. 12)
Other items acquired by the Bents on their tours of the Dodecanese and now in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, include a ‘stomacher‘ from Astypalaia and dresses from Karpathos.