BOOKSELLERS, like the staff of auction houses and curators of
museums and galleries, have long puzzled over the distinction
between high and low art, a problem that has increasingly arisen
since the 18th century and an age of mass production. What counts
as which, and how is any one form to be regarded? "Hamlet
versus Bugs Bunny; string quartets versus rap music; J. Alfred
Prufrock versus Sam Spade", as John A. Fisher of the University of
Colorado at Boulder worries.
Illustrative and decorative work has often been regarded as of
less worth than the traditions of painting and of sculpture, at
least in the West. Potters maybe admired for their craftsmanship,
but artists such as Pablo Picasso or John Piper are still
celebrated when they turn to ceramics.
Such distinctions, artificial as they necessarily are, have only
more recently become capable of change. Although it took
universities more than a century to accept degree courses in
photography, one of the more fascinating graduate seminars I have
attended in the past few years offered a paper on the importation
of windows and window-frames from Bristol into Ireland in the 17th
and 18th century. Tara Hambling has compellingly shown the
importance of plaster and stucco work in marking the social changes
of the early modern period.
The current exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, in the
University of Oxford, occasions many of these thoughts. It marries
themes that are both sacred and secular in a miniature whirlwind of
colour and cross-stitch. Samplers, caps and coifs, cushions, book
covers, a rare survival of a chalice veil, and humble purses bring
to life the world after Elizabeth I.
In great part, the show is drawn from a private collection of
17th- century embroideries owned by Micheál and Elizabeth Feller.
Alongside, the museum shows some of its own collection, including a
spectacularly embroidered box, decorated with scenes of the life of
Abraham (photo, right).
Encased in silk and linen fabrics, the wooden chest is adorned
with silk and metal threads. Hair, feathers, marbled papers,
natural pearls, and silver wire are woven with lace to compose
delicate biblical scenes set between richly decorated borders on
which rabbits leap between flowers and a squirrel nonchalantly eyes
up a crouching lion.
This is the fantasy world of a child's imagining. It was donated
in 1947. An earlier note records: "The cabinet was made by my
mother's grandmother who was educated at Hackney School. After the
plague in London all the young ladies works were burnt (crossed
out) destroyed that then were about at that time. She left school
soon after, therefore this was made viz before year 1665."
As a historical record, this will not identify the needlewoman
who has wrought such fine detail, but it gives us valuable evidence
that there may have been a girls' school near London at much the
same time as John Whiston's bequest established what is regarded as
the oldest girls' school in the land, Red Maid's School in Avon
(1634). It also suggests that furnishings and soft fabrics may have
been an obvious casualty of the plague, cast away from fear of
The first exhibit we see is a similar box, once owned by
Princess Margaret, that has scenes from Ovid's
Metamorphoses worked on it. The cabinet may once have
contained pen and ink as well as a pin cushion, and would have been
a much coveted fardel in its day.
Apollo, wearing day dress of the 1630s or 1640s, chases a
demure-looking Daphne the other side of the keyhole. She begins to
sprout leafy branches from her head and hands. On the back, Orpheus
enchants three lazy sheep, while the end panels trace the theme of
water; Narcissus gazes vainly at his reflection in a well head
beneath one handle, and Dinah loftily saves the nymph Arethusa from
the grasp of Alpheus.
Samplers, then as now, provided great exercise for nimble hands,
and the results, in both whitework and polychrome, line one wall.
Ladies of quality would certainly have taken enjoyment from such
disposition; we know from her diary that Lady Margaret Hoby
(1571-1633) sewed while others read to her from the Bible, and the
much embittered Lady Anne Clifford (1590-1676) whiled away much
time in an unhappy marriage at Knole embroidering while listening
to classical stories.
Pattern books emerged for the simpler designs and became widely
circulated in the century. The Needles Excellency was so
popular that it had run through ten editions by 1636. Tellingly,
the Bodleian Library catalogue lists no copy of it, nor of John
Taylor's 244-line poem The Praise of the Needle (1631),
even though the so-called "Water poet" (1578-1653) was well known
Bibles and other illustrated books supplied engravings that more
adventurous embroiderers might adapt as suitable sources for
designs. Engravings from Gerard de Jode's Thesaurus Sacrarum
Historiarum Veteris Testamenti (1585, Antwerp) and copper
plates after Rubens, by Boetius Adamsz à Bolswaert (1585-1633),
were strenuously followed by those who wished to depict Elijah and
the widow of Zarephath, or the judgement of Solomon.
The choice of biblical scenes was as much about familiarity as
it was about selecting moralising scenes to encourage suitable
behaviour in a wife, or to emphasise a child's duty before God. The
temptation of Adam and Eve, Ruth and Boaz, Susanna and the elders,
the sacrifice of Isaac, and even Jephthah and his daughter all
feature as more realistic admonitions than could be found in the
cavorting gods of the classics.
When the milliners and shopkeepers of the Royal Exchange
petitioned Archbishop William Laud in 1638 they claimed they
furnished, "Rare and curious covers of imbrothery and needle worke
. . . wherein Bibles Testaments and Psalm Books of the best sort
and neatest print have been richly bound up for ye nobility and
gentry . . ."; and the Ashmolean has recently acquired an exquisite
example of a 1632 pocket Bible.
The linen of the hand-embroidered chalice veil (1679) is stained
rust-brown with the sacred elements and has been folded,
butterfly-like, at some point in its history. Around it, Mary
Cordingley, a pious woman, inscribed an obscure caution in the
service of the Church which reads like a cod verse of George
A man in time on high
May climb if fortune do him feed
But down he shall catch shall
If that he take not good heed.
Not all needlework is women's work. Back in London, I was
fortunate enough to get to choral evensong on the eve of the
commemoration of the outbreak of the First World War at St Paul's
Cathedral. There, an altar frontal stitched by ex-servicemen after
1918 was being unveiled later (News, 8 August).
Too tall and long for the modern nave altar that now huddles
beneath the Dome, it had, I was told, been laid out over a couple
of ping-pong tables! The ladies of the 17th century would not have
had much truck with that, and it was good to learn that it would be
more fittingly displayed throughout the next five years.
"The Eye of the Needle" is at the Ashmolean Museum, Beaumont
Street, Oxford, until 12 October. Phone 01865 278000.