Saturday, July 14, 2012

Flowers and Animals Of Stuart Embroideries

      The seventeenth century embroideress had two sources of inspiration open to her. If she lived in the country she would most likely draw her designs from memory and nature. If she lived in the town, then she would make use of an old herbal book, or perhaps one of the few books of embroidery patterns then published. Such books were illustrated with engravings of every possible kind of plant, animal and insect, and various designs for borders and a few allegorical figures. 
Lady Jane Allgood displays her embroidery
of an anemone and tulips worked in
long-and-short stitch, part of a set of
18th century chair covers and screens
which survive at Nunwick Hall,
although now much faded.
The language of flowers and other symbols was taken very seriously, and it is obvious there is quite a lot of hidden meaning behind many of the Petit Point designs, particularly those worked in the earlier years of the period. 
       Patriotic emblems are mixed up with family crests. Charles I and his Queen appear again and again in the role of various Biblical heroes and heroines. Political leanings could be thus expressed without hurting anybody's feelings. No doubt a lady living during the Commonwealth would get a certain joy out of embroidering Stuart symbols all over her cushions. 
       The crewel work panels do not seem to suggest these hidden meanings. The ambition of the journeyman embroiderers who probably worked many of them, would be to include every variety of flower he could draw, however inconsistent they were. Still, the same flowers and animals are seen in both types of work, and it is interesting to pick them out. 
      Trees have always been popular in English embroidery. Apple trees, pear trees and oak trees seem to be chief favorites. The Indian version of the Tree of Life became a great favorite, and was immediately adopted for the crewel patterns. The little earthy mounds, out of which spring all sorts of flowers , appear everywhere. 
      The flowers and plants most often used are roses, lilies, harebells, tulips, hyacinths, honeysuckle, pansies, foxgloves, jasmine, shamrock, carnations, wheat and thistles, also the vine, or at any rate bunches of grapes and cherries. In the crewel work you also find numerous Eastern flowers copied from the Palampores. Notice the Indian cone shapes here and there. 
      The rose, is, of course, a national emblem. It sometimes turns up in its Tudor and sometimes in its Persian form. The oak or acorn was used as a national emblem after the Restoration to commemorate Charles IPs escapade in the oak tree. The carnation is usually connected with Charles I, as also the caterpillar and the butterfly. 
You will often find the strawberry introduced in some odd corner ; apparently it was a great topical novelty. 
Fanciful leaf in crewelwork, detail of a curtain,
England, c. 1696. V&A T.166-1961.
      Those queer and clumsy leaf shapes of the earlier Jacobean crewel panels are rather similar to acanthus leaves. 
      Sometimes even sacred symbols appear. For instance, you will often find the pelican, which stands for divine love ; the dove and the peacock, or the pomegranate, which means eternal life. 
      Every sort of animal is introduced — lions, leopards, unicorns, stags, squirrels, camels and elephants are worked in among the mounds, whilst occasionally a dog chases a rabbit. 
The phoenix, birds of paradise and parrots help to fill the spaces between the leaves and branches on the hangings. 
      Next time you visit an exhibition or museum where Stuart embroideries are shown, look out for some of these little creatures. You will find such queer versions of the elephant and the camel. Remember they were drawn by people who only had the stories of travelers and their own imaginations to work upon. There is something very attractive and happy about these embroideries, and they make us feel that England must really have been " Merrie England " in those days. 

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