Jacobean Embroidery: Its Forms and Fillings, Including Late Tudor

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Jacobean Embroidery: Its Forms and Fillings, Including Late Tudor


Ada Wentworth Fitzwilliam, A. F. Morris Hands

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Jacobean Embroidery: Its Forms and Fillings, Including Late Tudor

Contents (10)

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Op. I, Tudor Work.
Op. II, Early 17th Century.
Op. III, Details of Blue Crewel Work (the late Lady Maria Ponsonby's).
Op. IV, The uses of Stem Stitch and other characteristics.
Op. V, Bed Hangings at Hardwicke Hall.
Op. Va, Groups of Fillings in which darning plays important part.
Op. VI, Bed Hanging from Powis Castle.
Op. VII, Characteristic Foliations and Late 17th Century Fillings.
Op. VIII, Solid Crewel Work 18th Century including the Terra Firma and different birds and beasts.


TO redeem the monotony of plain surfaces has ever been the aim of all the arts, but especially that of the needle, which being the oldest expression of decorative intention, has, from the earliest time, been very dependent on its groundwork for its ultimate results. This is particularly the case in embroideries of the type of what is commonly known as Jacobean, where the ground fabric is extensively visible, as it is also in that wondrous achievement, the Bayeux tapestry worked in coarse wools upon homespun linen and therefore quite miscalled "tapestry."

Inaccuracy in nomenclature is one of the stumbling blocks the student encounters, and the tendency of the day to classify "styles" by the restricted formula of monarchical periods is likewise misleading. No style is ever solely distinctive of one reign, or even one century, the law of evolution rules the arts as it does nature, there is always a correlation between styles in art and circumstances of existence that is productive of gradual changes of taste, therefore, pronounced evidences in design are, actually, the culminating point in a course of combined influences which have reached the period of individual expression.

Crewel work of the type of Jacobean, was the outcome of that earlier wool embroidery that even in the zenith of fame of the Ecclesiastical broderers still quietly went on its way.

In the middle ages, furnishing of rooms was scanty, and embroidered hangings, cushion and stool covers provided the necessary notes of colour and comfort; the wall hangings of the 13th century were of coarse canvas decorated with a design executed in wools.

It is curious how in English embroideries there has always been a predilection on the part of the designers for interlacing stems, and for the inconsequent introduction of birds and beasts.

Mons de Farcy, author of La Broderie du Onzième siècle jusqu'à nos jours, remarks that "it seems that the position of England, surrounded by the sea on all sides, has provoked in its inhabitants the passion of travelling over the sea, and they came to know, before continental nations, of the parrots and other birds of brilliant plumage so often reproduced in their needlework."[1]

Mrs. Christie, an English authority on Embroidery, admirably sums up the evolution of designs when she writes "Examination of old Embroideries gathered from all parts of the world shows that each individual specimen, every flower and bud, is a development of some existing form, and is not an original creation, invented, as some appear to think all designs are, upon the spur of the moment." In the creation of a design it is a case of assimilation of the fittest and the elimination of the unsuitable from existing examples, thus the interlacing stems of the work of the 14th century became grafted on to the version of the Tree of Life idea in the Oriental designs that came to England in the 16th, through the intercourse opened up by the formation of the East India Company, at the end of Elizabeth's reign.

To deem, as do some writers, the bold, rather ponderous crewel work of the 17th century, sole outcome of the importation of the Palampores of Musulipatan, is to ignore all the tendencies manifested in the embroideries of previous centuries; in the same way, to repudiate the emblematical significance of special features markedly introduced into old designs, is to betray a complete lack of knowledge of the mind and manners of the people of superstitious days.

Knowledge was not rapidly acquired, and even as late as the 17th century was largely disseminated through the country by allegorical narratives, while emblematical lore reflected the history of the immediate moment. There was in the poetry and in the embroidery of Elizabeth's day, a sportive quality which was not likely to be checked under the Stuarts, doubles entendres were not confined to jests! and the political and religious differences of opinion, rampant throughout the period, found expression in the most fantastic ways.

The Stump Embroidery, in vogue at the same time as the crewel hangings specially treated in this volume, was full of symbolism, and naturally the same inspiration directed the worker in crewels. Curiously enough, both these very different types of needlework, crystalised into individuality concurrently, yet one is usually designated Jacobean, the other referred to as Stuart. In this connection it is well also to remember, that the Stuart era extended, historically, from 1603 to 1714, viz., from the reign of James I (Jacobus) to that of Queen Anne, daughter of James II.

Queen Anne is so often relegated, in the public mind, to an isolated position, genealogically, and the pronounced developments in the changes of taste that took place at the commencement of the of the 18th century, left such a very definite impression, that she is rarely remembered as a Stuart; it was in her reign, however, that the vogue for the old crewel embroideries revived, and though differences of treatment crept in, the designs, were, in the main, purely Jacobean, being copies or adaptations of patterns popular in the middle of the 17th century. It is these copies that exist mostly to-day, few, indeed, are those hangings which pertain to the earlier date, but a study of those few, taken in conjunction with the still fewer that remain of the 16th century, prove the gradual growth of the designs that have the tree motif which makes them all kin.

Lady Brougham and Vaux had a most wonderful collection, from which interesting comparisons could be made. One pair of bed hangings, of coarse linen of the 16th century, show the trees with a meandering growth entirely characteristic of those of heavier kind which appear in later embroideries, these trees also are undoubtedly intended to represent the Tree of Life, for round one is coiled a serpent, while beneath the scanty but large leaved boughs, incidents in the story of the expulsion from Paradise are to be descried, as also the procession into the ark.

The work is without doubt early, for there is a primitive character in the arrangement of the inconsequent groups of figures, Adam and Eve stand nude either side the tree, couples in weird though contemporaneous costume to the work are dotted over the surface quite at haphazard.

The similarity between the tree on these curtains and on one of the 18th century once in the same collection is very striking. Added grace of design has beautified the later work, but the same forms can be traced and the same parrots and squirrels are introduced, the Biblical story at the foot of the 16th century curtain has been replaced by a portion of the legend of the human soul.

Another very interesting example I have seen, attributed to the years of James I's reign, seems to suggest that the worker had realised the "waves" in an Eastern pattern and made growths of coral at the base of the tree, but had then converted a line or two of waves into terra firma, for at one end reposes a lion, towards which a stag is bounding with head turned back as if in fear of pursuers.

The birds in this example are very tropical, a miniature peacock on the lower branches spreads its tail stiffly, parrots like the one illustrated in our collection of details, birds of paradise, and squirrels, are all to be noted among foliations that are the most superb, taken individually, it is possible to imagine, most are worked fairly solid, such light fillings as there are, being small sprays of leaves like those in our plate No. 17.

Carnations, harebells, canterbury bells, roses, marigolds, grapes, are included in the composition; block shading, chain stitch, stem stitch are all employed in the working, and a very interesting example of the Opus Plumarian is given in the tail feathers of the tiny peacock.

The dissection of detail in early English crewel embroidery is a very fascinating occupation and well repays the expenditure of time. So little has been written about this particular phase of the embroiderer's art, that it is by old records and examples one becomes best informed and in a great measure enabled to trace the growth of the style that culminated in the massive designs that derived their name from the epoch in which they were in favour. Tudor crewel work, was chiefly done in broad outline of a more or less fanciful nature as regards the stitching, witness the sections of that Tudor piece which is shewn in our first illustration.

Forms were large but gradually became reduced as they were worked more solidly. The beautiful foxglove pattern in "Bess of Hardwicke's" curtains at Hardwicke, shews a very slight feeling of transition but it may safely be assumed that one of the influences bearing on the execution of the crewel work, was the portentous character of much of the contemporary canvas hand-worked tapestry such as the famous set of panels unearthed in Hatton Gardens. The architectural basis is a link between the Ecclesiastical and Secular embroideries of the past centuries, and anyone interested in the evolution of design would be struck with the similitude of the large leaves and flowers in these panels to those of the crewel designs of the same date; it is also noteworthy that the symbolic significance in the details of the panels is ecclesiastic, whereas in the crewel work it is always based on the legend of the Tree of Life, or secularly emblematic.

Colourings were often in both styles, blues, greens, bright yellows and browns predominated, carnation reds figuring in some examples, used for the flower of that name and for the pomegranate, which, with its seeds visible, signifies future life and immortality.

The carnation and the caterpillar were both Stuart emblems, and occur in nearly all kinds of work executed during their reigns; the rose, of course, has its national as well as its religious significance, likewise the oak (after the restoration).

The potato flower seen in both Jacobean and Portuguese embroideries is an example of the habit of recording the latest novelty, the strawberry was also popular on this account, and is frequently introduced in those hillocky foregrounds, which, to me, appear one of the most interesting evidences of combined influences.

Once again, another Oriental idea was evidently assimilated, for in numberless Chinese patterns one sees the main motive springing out of a base of waves formed exactly like the hillocks which became such a distinctive feature in these large branching designs.

In the earliest examples the hillocks were much broken up, and smaller (more like the mounds in the painted Palampores) than in the later work, from which we may presume the spread of the Oriental influence had done its work, the "terra firma" being carried out with a similitude to the eastern version of waves that includes the actual stitchery; grafted on to this was the legend of the pursuit of the human soul (typified by a hart) by evil, personified by the huntsman, the hounds and various uncanny beasts, two bearing unflattering resemblance to the heraldic lion and leopard; while rabbits, snails, grubs of all kind hinder the hart's progress, these are relics of the days when The Bestiarta (symbolism of beasts) was carefully studied.

The riotous re-action from the Puritan rule was reflected in the embroideries of the restoration, as in everything else, and patterns became exuberant, colouring more brilliant, the exquisite stitchery gradually gave place to the easier achievement of solid fillings, and the requisite relief was secured by light sprays filling up the ground between the larger leaves, jasmine, cherries, harebells, potato flowers, honeysuckle, shamrock or trefoil and acorns took the lead.

It is an almost impossible task to describe the large leaves, since they bear no resemblance to anything natural, they are, however, rarely angular in outline, rejoicing rather in sweeping curves, and drooping points, curled over to display the under side of the leaf, a device that gave opening for much ingenuity in the arrangement of the stitches. The variety in these was so great that on reading the enumeration made by Taylor, the Water Poet, one becomes quite breathless. The predominating ones, however, are—Outline or Stem Stitch, used for all but the largest stems, and veining and outlining leaves and flowers.

Shading Stitch, sometimes called long and short, used for large branches and leaves, Basket and Double Back Stitch are also used for these stems.

Satin Stitch, for all kinds of flowers and small foliage, or for the definite flat shading, that is like block shading without the ridge caused by the carrying back of the wool into the past row of stitches.

Buttonhole, also much used for leaves, especially those having light fillings and broad outlines.

Rope Stitch, Coral, Cable and Chain, also for outlines, the last named being also used for fillings.

The fancy fillings such as darning, French knots, etc., are demonstrated and described in the following pages, and the colour plates endeavour to give the idea of the correct colourings. In this connection, a few observations, based on the study of genuine originals, may not be amiss.

As I have before mentioned, a certain brilliancy characterised the work at one period, but this cannot be regarded as the best type to imitate. The most harmonious were carried out in two schemes. One had all the leaves worked in Mandarin blues, shading from darkest indigo to softest blue-grey. These were placed in juxtaposition, with tender mignonette and silvery greens, a strong accent being occasionally introduced by a flower or filling carried out in true rose leaf shade or by veinings of bronze greens and browns.

The other scheme, and this is more rarely met with, was in bronze greens throughout, intermixed with yellow and about three shades of the dull blues. Black sometimes is to be noticed in both these colour schemes, also bright and buff yellows and chestnut browns, and the colours were mostly confined to the blue scheme first named, but there are examples extant of an entire design carried out in shades of red, as in the Tudor and early 16th century hangings one finds blues responsible for the whole colouring. These vary in tone, and in the late copies of the designs the blue has a very green tinge about it.[2]

In the reign of Queen Anne taste reverted to the older lighter designs, grotesques were eliminated, massiveness gave place to grace, and brightness of colour to a soft modified brilliancy that was very engaging. In the Georgian copies heaviness again obtained favour, and gradually the designs deteriorated, and were eventually temporarily lost in "the limbo of the past." The vogue for lace work in the reign of William and Mary influenced the stitches in the crewel embroidery, and in Queen Anne's day the variety of stitches was reminiscent of the earlier period, some of the fillings being beautiful.

The material used was through all the phases the same, viz., a twill fabric, of which the warp was of linen, the weft of cotton; the wools varied somewhat in the twist, but were always worsted, the word crewel being a diminutive of clew, "a ball of thread," and probably came into vogue with the importation of wools from Germany, the corresponding word in that language being Knäuel.