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The ‘sanctifying needle’ in an age of change

by
08 January 2009

A new exhibition and catalogue celebrate the Metropolitan Museum’s collection of English embroidery. Terence Handley MacMath is won over

She in needles Art attain’d to be
Perfectly curious; every work
In which a cunning skill did lurk,
She had it at her fingers end,
And lov’d therein so time to spend.

Excerpt from The Virgins Pattern, John Batchiler (1661)

WHEN I was of an age, if neither so cunning nor so perfect, to devote similar hours to the “needles Art”, the English embroideries of my foremothers of the generations between 1580 and 1700 were not held up to us as great models of artistic achievement.

WHEN I was of an age, if neither so cunning nor so perfect, to devote similar hours to the “needles Art”, the English embroideries of my foremothers of the generations between 1580 and 1700 were not held up to us as great models of artistic achievement.

After the flattened rich delicacies of the medieval opus anglicanum designed for great religious houses, the dun colours and pro­truberances of Jacobean stumpwork-encrusting boxes and book covers seemed as fussy and dull as a Victorian interior. With the exception of the blackwork designs exquisitely rendered in the clothes of Holbein’s subjects, and lovingly reworked in simpler decorative panels in the 1960s and ’70s, this period of English embroidery did not find much favour with embroidery writers during the 19th and 20th centuries.

This view was not shared by all, however, and particularly not by a handful of wealthy men who snapped up examples of 16th- and 17th-century embroidery, often to complement their collec­tions of furniture from the period. Among their number were Lord Leverhulme, Sir William Burrell, and Percival Griffiths; but pre-eminent was Irwin Untermyer (1886-1973), a New York judge, who in 1964 donated more than 400 em­broideries to the Metropolitan Museum, more than doubling its collection.

This view was not shared by all, however, and particularly not by a handful of wealthy men who snapped up examples of 16th- and 17th-century embroidery, often to complement their collec­tions of furniture from the period. Among their number were Lord Leverhulme, Sir William Burrell, and Percival Griffiths; but pre-eminent was Irwin Untermyer (1886-1973), a New York judge, who in 1964 donated more than 400 em­broideries to the Metropolitan Museum, more than doubling its collection.

’Twixt Art and Nature: English embroidery from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1580-1700, by Andrew Morrall and Melinda Watt*, is the catalogue of an exhibition open until 12 April at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery, New York (www.bgc.bard.edu/exhibit/gallery). Looking through it, we are forced to reconsider what our mothers (and possibly our fathers) were fashioning with silks and wool, beads and metal threads, during the reigns of Elizabeth I, James I, Charles I, Cromwell, Charles II, James II, and William and Mary. In a period that spanned as many changes as our own, women were quietly, and possibly subversively, stitching their religious and social world-view on to domestic items.

We read of Dame Dorothy Selby, whose epitaph records that:

She was a Dorcas
Whose curious needle wound the abused stage
Of this leud world into the golden age,
Whose pen of steel and silken inck enroll’d
The acts of Jonah in records of gold.Whose arte disclosed that plot [GunpowderPlot], which had it taken,
Rome had tryumph’d, and Britain’s walls had 
shaken
.

She was a Dorcas
Whose curious needle wound the abused stage
Of this leud world into the golden age,
Whose pen of steel and silken inck enroll’d
The acts of Jonah in records of gold.Whose arte disclosed that plot [GunpowderPlot], which had it taken,
Rome had tryumph’d, and Britain’s walls had 
shaken
.

Women with leisure and economic independence were not necessarily the only ones who could express their ideas with their needle. Another Dorcas, the servant-girl heroine of a 1639 comedy by Jasper Mayne, irritates her mistress with her Puritan con­victions, expressed in her needlework:

She works religious petticoats; for flowers
She’ll make church-histories. Her needle doth
So sanctify my cushionets; besides,
My smock sleeves have such holy embroideries
And are so learned, that I fear, in time,
All my apparel will be quoted by
Some pure instructor.

For all embroideries, however, the Bible was the favourite source of inspiration, particularly the Old Testament. This was probably because of the spread of Protestant moral values of chastity, prudence, childbearing, and righteous living. We see a series of canvas panels of various biblical subjects, which, improving as they are, also allow the workers some scope for exotic imagination: paradise gardens, camels, Bathsheba perched on the edge of a foun­tained pool, and the Queen of Sheba among flowers and animals of surreal size.

For all embroideries, however, the Bible was the favourite source of inspiration, particularly the Old Testament. This was probably because of the spread of Protestant moral values of chastity, prudence, childbearing, and righteous living. We see a series of canvas panels of various biblical subjects, which, improving as they are, also allow the workers some scope for exotic imagination: paradise gardens, camels, Bathsheba perched on the edge of a foun­tained pool, and the Queen of Sheba among flowers and animals of surreal size.

Although the trope of a young girl, sitting chastely at her needle, persists — whether we wish to see her as an obedient artisan in a patriarchal society or a silently subversive political or religious recorder — the collection reveals a more workaday economic reality. Much of the work was probably done by men, and there was a small industry of professional de­signers and embroiderers based in London. There were several court embroiderers, and a trade guild, the Worshipful Company of Broderers. Some of their stories are told briefly in the catalogue.

As clothes became more extravagant, led by Elizabeth I, and church furnishings became more austere, so embroidery became a domestic and fashion necessity. Susan North’s essay on clothes, con­tained in this volume, notes: “In a phe­nomenon frequently noted by foreign visitors, the English working classes aspired to fashionable dress, and translated any spare cash into the latest fashion, especially accessories.” Dressmakers will find this chapter fascinating for the light it sheds on the business of the Elizabethan rag-trade, as much as the beauty and symbolism of their most expensive creations.

Apart from clothes, the catalogue illustrates a variety of embroidered objects: bed hangings, cushions, boxes, samplers, a burse, beaded objects, and portraits (Charles II and Catherine of Braganza looking very much like a Pearly King and Queen). Biblical scenes vied with contemporary political references (one example combines both, showing Adam and Eve mirrored by Charles I and Henrietta Maria — perhaps suggesting the royal marriage to be a reflection of a paradisal order, and asserting the divine right of kings).

All in all, this is a leisurely walk around a Jacobean John Lewis’s haberdashery department with a knowledgeable guide.

* Yale, £40 (CT Bookshop £36); 978-0-300-12967-0.

To place an an order for this book, please email details to CT Bookshop

ALL PHOTOS: METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

* Yale, £40 (CT Bookshop £36); 978-0-300-12967-0.

To place an an order for this book, please email details to CT Bookshop

ALL PHOTOS: METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

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