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Notes On Eighteenth Century New England Embroidery

Author: Gertrude Townsend

( Article orginally published September 1942 )

In following the history of needlework it becomes apparent that, though frequently the finest examples of technique must be attributed to professional embroiderers, many of the more charming pieces were worked by women for their own use or pleasure.

The English domestic needlewomen of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century delighted in decorating with their needles a variety of useful objects in addition to articles of dress. These included bed-hangings, coverlets, cushion-covers, purses, bookbindings, work-boxes, jewel-caskets, and looking-glass frames. On many of these pieces the decoration was not limited to formal or naturalistic ornament. Landscapes with figures were not infrequently incorporated in the designs. By the middle of the seventeenth century the making of small embroidered pictures, whose only function was that of decoration, seems to have been a fashionable pastime in England. Among the more favored subjects were scenes from the Old Testament. Abraham and Hagar, David and Bathsheba, King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba were represented in seventeenth century dress against a landscape drawn with little attention to realism or the canons of natural proportion. These English needlewomen could not claim great artistic skill. Indeed they were not unduly concerned with problems of design, but borrowed here and there, whatever pleased them, with results which have a real, though naive, charm.

In the latest volume published by the Walpole Society' an article by J. L. Nevinson presents an illuminating discussion of the problem of English Domestic Embroidery Patterns of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. When the author speaks of crewel-work and its relation to the painted cottons imported from India he says, ". . . . the crewel-work curtains are all of a comparatively late seventeenth century date; before this the embroideress had turned, not to the woven fabrics and painted cottons, but to the contents of her husband's library." One of the most popular sources of embroidery designs were the illustrations in the books on natural history such as Catalogus Plantarium (1542) and Historia Animalium (1551 and 1558) by the Swiss naturalist Konrad von Gesner, and John Gerard's Herball first printed in 1597. Edward Topsell's Historic of four-footed beastes and Thomas Moufet's work on insects, both printed in the early seventeenth century, must have been frequently consulted by needlewomen as well as naturalists, while some of the most curious figures to be found in English embroidery come from Geoffrey Whitney's Choice of Emblemes printed in Leyden in 1586.

Among the books of patterns printed expressly for the use of the embroideress are the Schole-house for the Needle (1624) by R. Shorleyker and The Needle's excellency (10th edition 1634) by J. Boler. The introduction to the latter, a poem entitled The Prayse of the Needle by John Taylor, the "Water Poet," gives a good idea of the high goal a young needlewoman might set for herself. After enumerating objects to be decorated with embroidery he says,

"Thus is a Needle provd an Instrument Of profit, pleasure and of ornament." Indeed there seem to be no limits to its possibilities for, he later says, "Hils, Dales, Plaines, Pastures, Skies, Seas, Rivers, Trees; There's nothing neare at hand, or farthest sought, But with the Needle may be shap'd and wrought."

An indication how this skill was to be acquired comes in the following lines.

"So Maids may (from their Mistresse, or their Mother) Learne to leave one worke, and to learne another, For here they may make choice of which is which, And skip from worke to worke, from stitch to stitch, Untill, in time, delightful practice shall (With profit) make them perfect in them all. Thus hoping that these workes may have this guide To serve for ornament, and not for pride: To cherish vertue, banish idlenesse, For these ends, may this booke have great successe."

Undoubtedly the fact that leisure and ensuing idleness, was less often the lot of a young girl living in New England during the seventeenth century than it was that of her sister in England, accounts, in part at least, for the rarity of pictorial embroidery which may be attributed to New England prior to 1700. The author of the article on "La Nouvelle Angleterre" in Jaques Savary des Bruslons' Dietionnaire Universel de Commerce2 bears witness to this prosperity when he says in writing of Boston that "the beauty of its streets, the magnificence of its buildings, the richness and number of its inhabitants and the abundance of all sorts of merchandise with which its store houses and shops are always filled, sustains the reputation for extensive commerce which has enriched the city and which it continues to carry on with greater success than ever."

It is not surprising that the daughters of these prosperous New Englanders turned to work with the needle to "banish idleness" and to decorate their comfortable homes. They applied their skill to useful ends when they embroidered, with crewels, bed-hangings, coverlets, window curtains,chaircovers, gowns, and petticoats, but they also produced, chiefly in tent stitch with wool and silk on a linen ground, many charming pictures which can claim no useful purpose. A characteristic example of this type of decorative embroidery, a picture which has been called "Boston Common" or "The Fishing Lady," was acquired by the Boston Museum in 1921.

Like the English girl of the seventeenth century the New England girl of the eighteenth century was not an original designer. Though the designs she used differed in style from the embroidered pictures of the seventeenth, they were still "landscapes with figures." The eighteenth century landscape was a slightly more realistic landscape than that found in seventeenth century embroideries, and the subjects are seldom from Biblical stories.

Many of these subjects have not yet been identified, but a sufficient number have been traced to their sources to indicate the dependence of the New England needlewoman on Europe for her inspiration. These sources are to be found in seventeenth and eighteenth century engravings after paintings by English and French artists. The embroideress worked from a design, drawn upon the linen ground, which was frequently composed of figures and groups of figures copied from several different pictures. These figures, which seem to have been the stock in trade of the designer for embroidery, are found repeatedly and in various combinations. As an example of this method of designing we may consider two figures in the familiar "Fishing Lady" in the Museum's collection. The couple sauntering out of the picture exhibited is, in spite of considerable modifications, recognizable as the pair of country folk in an engraving by Claudine Bouzonnet (called Stella) after a pastoral by her uncle, Jacques Stella. A brief account of the life of Jacques Stella will illustrate the international character of the designs. He was the son of Francois (I) Stella, a Flemish painter probably born in Mechlin in 1563 who settled in Lyon on his return from Rome in 1591. Jaeques, his second son, was born in Lyon in 1596. He went to Italy in 1616 where he was employed by Cosimo de' Medici. Soon after the death of Cosimo he went to Rome where he remained until 1634. After visiting Venice and the principal cities of Italy he returned to France, going to Paris where the Cardinal de Richelieu was his patron. Stella was later appointed "painter to the King," given a pension and lodgings in the Louvre, where he died in 1657. In the engraving from Stella's Pastorale the couple are following a musician, who does not appear in this embroidery though he is to be found in another embroidery of this group belonging to Mrs. Neil W. Rice. A woman walking directly behind the musician is missing in both these pieces only to turn up, unaccompanied, in a panel in the collection of the Newburyport Historical Society. Characteristic simplifications resorted to by the New England copyists are conspicuous when the embroideries are compared with a pair of French cushions formerly in the collection of Mr. G. Saville Seligman. The musician followed by the country couple is also to be seen on a chair in the Frick Collection and on a sofa in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, both English and dating from the eighteenth century. These are easily distingushed from American renderings on the subject.

The indolent shepherdess, leaning on one elbow, which has been found in more than one embroidery of the period, is illustrated by characteristic examples in the collections of Mrs. William Tudor Gardiner and of Mrs. Walter Pierce. The original source of this figure has not been found, but an English prototype on the embroidered cover of a card table has been on exhibition in the Museum for several years, lent by Mrs. C. Wharton Smith.

The Fishing Lady who frequently reappears in these embroideries is very elusive. Surely she was copied from some print or painting, but what this painting is, or was, remains a mystery. Among the illustrations is included a particularly ingratiating variation of this design believed to be the work of Desire Dillingham, which belongs to Miss Edith Bangs.

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