Posts Tagged ‘Needleworman’

The Bodleian Library in Oxford recently exhibited a sampler (along with other items) for one day to celebrate World Book Day on March 1. This linen cross stitch sampler, purportedly made by a 12-year-old Jane Austen in 1787, was displayed for the very first time. The stitching has become frayed and undone, so that the sampler appears to have been made in 1797. A stylized border with flowering trees surround the words to the psalm, “Praise the Lord O my soul.”

The sampler was purchased in 1996 for over £2000. According to the sale catalogue, the “present owner, who lives in Gloucestershire, received the sampler as a present, folded inside a tobacco tin.” A note on the back of the frame states that an early owner was “related to Jane Austen the novelist” and that she had “received it as a memento” of Austen’s life. (Such a practice was very common after a person died. Letters and personal items were given to close friends and family members as a remembrance.)

I must add that this sampler’s provenance is doubtful. The provenance cannot be directly traced to Jane Austen, and “an early owner related to Jane Austen” simply does not provide enough reliable information.

Sampler detail. Image @Jane Austen Centre Gift Shop*

Jane Austen prided herself on her precise sewing skills. This sampler shows a more inexperienced hand than a seamstress in her later years. (I must add that a sampler I made at a similar age does not look nearly half as good.)

Jane mentions a young needlewoman in Northanger Abbey. Henry Tilney remarks upon the age difference between Catherine Morland and himself:

“I had entered on my studies at Oxford, while you were a good little girl working your sampler at home!”

To which she responds:  “Not very good I am afraid.”

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No needlework, either of ancient or modern times, (says Mr. Lambert,) has ever surpassed the productions of Miss Linwood. So early as 1785, these pictures had acquired such celebrity as to attract the attention of the Royal Family, to whom they were shewn at Windsor Castle. Book of Days

Mary Linwood by Hoppner, 1800

Mary Linwood by Hoppner, 1800. Image @Victoria & Albert Museum

Mary Linwood, Partridges after the painting by Moses Haughton, 1798

Mary Linwood, Partridges after the painting by Moses Haughton, 1798

Mary Linwood was an artist who used needlework as her material.  Born in Birmingham in 1755, Mary made her first embroidered picture when she was thirteen years old. She was mistress of a private boarding school, which her mother started, but her lasting claim to fame lay in her needlework art. For nearly seventy-five years Mary imitated popular paintings in worsted embroidery. An enterprising woman, she opened an exhibition in the Hanover Square Rooms in 1798,  which afterward traveled to Leicester Square, Edinburgh and Dublin. Four years before her death in 1845,  her works were still exhibited in London.  She embroidered her last piece when seventy-eight, although she lived to be 90 and worked as a school mistress until a year before her death.  In 1844, during her annual visit to her Exhibition in London, she caught the flu and died.

Mary worked with stitches of different lengths on a fabric made especially for her in Leicester. She had coarse linen tammy cloth prepared for her as well. Her long and short stitches looked like brush strokes, with silk for highlights, and many amateurs copiesd her on a smaller scale. A good example of her work is the almost 2 ft square portrait of Napoleon in the South Kensington Museum.

Needlework image of Napoleon

Needlework image of Napoleon

Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte embroidered with coloured worsteds in small short and long stitches By Miss Mary Linwood In gilt frame glazed English Late 18th or early 19 th centy H 2 ft 7 in W 2 ft 2 in Bequeathed by the late Miss Ellen Markland 1438 1874 This is a remarkable specimen of embroidery involving great labour to imitate a painting – A Descriptive Catalogue of the collections of tapestry and embroidery in the South Kensington Museum, Alan Cole, 1888, p.369

Miss Linwood’s worked pictures, exhibited in Leicester square, were for many years reckoned among the sights of London, and although their pretensions to artistic merit are regarded contemptuously by the present generation, they were in one sense undoubtedly wonderful productions. The exhibition contained copies after such masters as Carlo Dolci, Guido, Ruysdael, Opie, Morland, Gainsborough, Reynolds; a list that proves how great was the scope Miss Linwood’s ambition, and how catholic  her taste. The whole collection was dispersed at Christie’s room after Miss Linwood’s death in 1845, when the pieces knocked down for sums far below those at which they had been valued a few years previously…Miss Linwood’s pictures, worked with untwisted soft crewel specially dyed in graduated shades on a ground of twilled linen, are really meritorious, nevertheless one cannot regret that their day, equally with that of the Berlin wool Landseers, is overpast and that we have at last learnt the limitations as well as the possibilities of the embroiderer’s delightful craft. – The Collector

Exhibition, Book of Days

Exhibition, Image @Book of Days

Although Mary Linwood’s needlework exhibits were popular during her lifetime, not everyone was enamored with her work. In 1919, Emily Leigh Lowes wrote these rather hateful statements about Mary in her book, Chats on Old Needlework (Embroidery),

The originator and moving spirit of this bad period was Miss Linwood, who conceived the idea of copying oil paintings in woolwork. She died in 1845. Would that she had never been born! When we think of the many years which English women have spent over those wickedly hideous Berlin-wool pictures, working their bad drawing and vilely crude colours into those awful canvases, and imagining that they were earning undying fame as notable women for all the succeeding ages, death was too good for Miss Linwood. The usual boiling oil would have been a fitter end! Miss Linwood made a great furore at the time of her invention, and held an exhibition in the rooms now occupied by Messrs. Puttick & Simpson, Leicester Square. Can we not imagine the shade of the great Sir Joshua Reynolds, whose home and studio these rooms had been, revisiting the glimpses of the moon, and while wandering up and down that famous old staircase forsaking his home for ever after one horrified glance at Miss Linwood’s invention?

Not only Miss Linwood, but Mrs. Delany and Miss Knowles made themselves famous for Berlin-wool pictures. The kindest thing to say is that the specimens which are supposed to have been worked by their own hands are considerably better than those of the half-dozen generations of their followers. During the middle and succeeding twenty years of the nineteenth century the notable housewife of every class amused herself, at the expense of her mind, by working cross-stitch pictures with crudely coloured wools (royal blue and rose-pink, magenta, emerald-green, and deep crimson were supposed to represent the actual colours of Nature), on very coarse canvas.

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young-girl-of-spirit-constance-hillIn December 1859, Florence Nightingale wrote this letter of recommendation to Parthenope Verney:

My dear [Parthenope Verney]

It occurred to me after writing yesterday if you are going to set up a needlewoman under the housekeeper, Mary Jenkins, Bathwoman, Dr. W. Johnson’s, Great Malvern, has a niece, living at Oxford, a first-rate needlewoman, eldest girl of a very large family, who wants or wanted a place. If she is at all like my good old friend, her aunt, she would be a very valuable servant. Perhaps her needlework would be almost too good for your place. I believe she is a qualified “young lady’s maid,” though when I heard of her, she had never been “out,” i.e., in service. Perhaps she has a place. I think it answers very well in a large house to have as much as possible done at home, as little as possible “put out.”

This domestic job as needlewoman – mending, embroidering, making clothes – sounds benign compared to the custom of the Regency and Victorian eras to overwork seamstresses. While plying the needle was a common domestic activity (Jane Austen was known to possess a particular talent in this direction), working class seamstresses were appallingly overworked and underpaid, especially during the heyday of the Industrial Revolution. Many women toiled for long hours in poor lighting conditions, with some going blind from their employment. An apprentice seamstress in a milliner’s shop worked under slightly better conditions, but during the Season when demand for new and fashionable dresses was high, these women would also be pressed to work into the wee hours of the night to complete an order.

The above illustration of Jane Austen sewing comes from Jane Austen: Her Homes and Her Friends by Constance Hill. In Chapter XX, Constance makes the following observation about Jane Austen’s skill as a needlewoman:

Her needlework was exquisite. We have seen a muslin scarf embroidered by her in satin-stitch, and have held in our hands a tiny housewife of fairy-like proportions, which Jane worked at the age of sixteen as a gift for a friend. It consists of a narrow strip of flowered silk, embroidered at the back, which measures four inches by one and a quarter, and is furnished with minikin needles and fine thread. At one end there is a tiny pocket, containing a slip of paper upon which are some verses in diminutive handwriting with the date “Jany. 1792.” The little housewife, when rolled up, is tied with narrow ribbon. “Having been never used and carefully preserved, it is as fresh and bright as when it was first made.

For more on this topic, click on my other post The Life of a Seamstress.

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