Exhibition | Useful Hours: Needlework and Painted Textiles

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on August 5, 2013

Press release (20 February 2013) for the exhibition now on at The Huntington:

Useful Hours: Needlework and Painted Textiles from Southern California Collections
The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, 1 June — 2 September 2013

Curated by Harold B. Nelson

WebBanner copy

Taking its title from a verse stitched in a 1796 sampler by 10-year-old Anne ‘Nancy’ Moulton, Useful Hours: Needlework and Painted Textiles from Southern California Collections explores the development of needlework and painted textiles in the United States in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. With a selection of 29 rare and finely wrought examples, the exhibition offers extraordinary insight into the early training, daily lives, and social and cultural values of American women during this rich period in American history.

Useful Hours includes several exceedingly rare pieces of 18th-century American needlework, drawn in large part from the collection of Victor Gail and Thomas H. Oxford, a promised gift to The Huntington, as well as from the collections of Los Angeles County Museum of Art and private lenders. The 25 surprisingly beautiful, touching, and painstakingly executed examples of American works are juxtaposed with four examples of British needlework, a related painting, American furniture, and other decorative arts objects, along with books and manuscripts from The Huntington’s collections.

“I hope visitors feel the sense of amazement that I feel when I explore these young women’s accomplishments,” said Hal Nelson, The Huntington’s curator of American decorative arts. “Their technical skill and creativity within needlework traditions of the time are truly marvelous. I also think people will be surprised when they realize these remarkable pieces are all from Southern California collections,” he added. “A common misconception is that the best American art collections are only on the East Coast, but when you see these pieces you instantly realize that is far from the case.”

Useful Hours is organized thematically, focusing on a variety of subjects, themes, and formats, including coats of arms, pictorial samplers, mourning pictures and memorials, family trees, pockets and pocket books, marking samplers (showing the basic stitches for practical domestic needs), and the relationship between needlework teachers and students. Each section of the exhibition illuminates the lives and accomplishments of the young needleworkers based on new curatorial research.

The Highest Virtues for a Young Lady
Anne ‘Nancy’ Moulton, from whose work the exhibition takes its title, stitched this verse into her pictorial sampler in 1796: “How blest the maid whom circling years improve/Her God the object of her warmest love/Whose useful hours, successive as they glide/The Book, the Needle, and the Pen divide.”

In these words, which appear on several other samplers of the period, piety, self-improvement, and the productive use of leisure time through activities such as needlework, reading, and writing are presented as the highest virtues to which a young lady might aspire. Moulton was the daughter of a prominent Newburyport, Mass., silversmith. As with most American women in the 18th century, she was taught at an early age the basic, or ‘plain’, needleworking skills required for making, labeling, and repairing her family’s clothing. But, as she was raised in relative affluence, she also studied “fancy” needlework, more advanced needleworking skills, and produced compositions that brought distinction to her family and identified her as a young woman of great gentility and refinement.

Coats of Arms
Coats of arms—insignia bearing crests, family names or inscriptions, and sometimes including elaborate decorative ornamentation—became immensely popular in the United States in the second half of the 18th century. These symbols of a family’s wealth and aspirations for worldly status were painted on canvas and paper, etched in silver, inscribed on bookplates, as well as embroidered on silk. According to numerous inventories of upper-middle class homes in the late 18th century, both stitched and painted coats of arms often were framed and displayed in the most prominent room of the home where they could be seen and enjoyed by visitors as an indication of the family’s wealth and elevated social standing.

The visually striking Ives Family Coat of Arms was stitched by Rebecca Ives Gilman in 1763 when she was 17 years old and is a testament to her social and economic standing.  Ives’ parents both were from prominent Massachusetts and New Hampshire families, and the fine needlework in the piece demonstrates the attention paid to her education and preparation for married life. Because Rebecca Ives married Joseph Gilman in the same year she stitched this coat of arms, her ‘By the Name of Ives’ needlework became an enduring tribute to the family and life she left behind.

Pictorial Samplers
As she proudly states at the top of her composition, Eunice Hooper stitched her extraordinarily lively and complex sampler when she was just nine years old. Hooper’s remarkable work is part of a small group of pictorial samplers all produced around 1790 by young women living or studying in Marblehead, Mass., a prosperous fishing village north of Salem. In this group of samplers, several have richly embroidered black backgrounds and vivid scenes from everyday life. Hooper’s depicts a woman reading seen through a window, another standing on the porch of a house next to a handsomely dressed gentleman, and harvest imagery. This scene is combined with idealized, classical images: a helmeted figure riding in a chariot and a maiden dressed in classical attire and sandals, seeming to welcome the charioteer. These moments, both real and ideal, occur beneath a sky teeming with birds and butterflies and in a landscape filled with lush blossoms and plants.

Mourning Pictures and Memorials
Death was a common part of life in the United States in the first decades of the 19th century, and mourning pictures (images depicting grieving figures standing beside neoclassical urns and tombs) and memorials (more specific contemplative tributes to deceased relatives and friends) became widely popular. These compositions often combine intricate needlework in the trees and landscape with watercolor painting to render greater detail in the grieving figure’s face, hands, and costuming.

A touching example in Useful Hours is by Elizabeth Allen, who stitched a tender memorial tribute to her deceased father when she was 19. Elizabeth herself died just five years later at the age of 24.

Family Trees
Family trees were another type of needlework popular at the time. A beautifully designed example by Elizabeth Stone, stitched in 1820 when she was 12, takes the form of a ‘tree of life’ or ‘apple tree’ sampler. Its three-sided flower and leaf border and its use of yellow fruit for the female siblings and white fruit for the male siblings, is typical of needlework produced in Middlesex County, Mass., in the first quarter of the 19th century.  The linked or overlapping heart motif at the base of the tree is also typical of work produced in this region.

Pockets and Pocketbooks
Because most 18th-century women’s clothing lacked fixed pockets, detachable pockets were tied around the waist and worn either over a dress or under an overskirt. Decorated in a variety of patterns, including a combination of flame and diamond-within-diamond designs, they were used to carry a great variety of items from keys and papers to sewing implements and tools.

Pocketbooks were used by both men and women in the late 18th century. As with one on view in Useful Hours that was made in 1776 by Elisabeth Fellows, an owner’s name or initials were stitched into the purse to facilitate its return if lost or stolen.

Marking and Darning Samplers
In their spare color and minimal decoration, marking and darning samplers possess the fundamental qualities of usefulness, plainness, and simplicity associated with the Society of Friends (or Quaker) needlework. Two of these samplers in Useful Hours were stitched by Ann Gibson, a young student at the Westtown School in Chester County, Penn., an academy run by the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. The first is a darning sampler utilizing the basic stitches and patterns used for repairing socks and other forms of clothing. Unlike many other samplers in the exhibition, which are brightly colored and richly decorative or narrative, the beauty of Gibson’s sampler lies in its simplicity and practicality. Ann Gibson’s second sampler, an exercise in geometric medallions, half-medallions, and abstract patterns, includes a so-called ‘Quaker rose’, often seen in samplers produced by girls studying at Society of Friends academies.

Teacher and Student
American girls at the time were likely to learn needle work from a local authority—sometimes a school teacher in the town—and in other cases, a specialist who would often advertise her skills and classes in the local or regional newspaper. While over the course of time, the names of most needlework teachers have been lost or forgotten, one unusual sampler in Useful Hours includes the name of the young artist’s instructor. In addition to acknowledging her parents, Isabel Arthur stitched the name of her teacher, Mary Tidball, in a prominent location above the roofline of the centrally place house. Several other wool on linen samplers of this period all done in a similar style—with brightly colored, broadly patterned, and highly stylized trees, flowers, and houses—feature the same teacher’s name. They range in date from 1836 to 1852 and were made in western Pennsylvania. Mary Tidball taught needlework classes near the Bethel Presbyterian Church in Bethel Park, Penn., southwest of Pittsburgh, says Nelson.

The Collection of Victor Gail and Thomas H. Oxford
The Gail-Oxford Collection, comprising more than 500 objects, from historic American furniture and paintings to ceramics, metals, and needlework, is a promised gift to The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. While several samplers from the Gail-Oxford Collection have been shown at The Huntington in the past, Useful Hours is the first exhibition to explore in depth this aspect of the collection.

This exhibition is supported by the Susan and Stephen Chandler Exhibition Endowment and funds from Steve Martin for exhibitions of American Art.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s