Between 1650 and 1850, the Connecticut River Valley was one of the most important areas in America for the teaching and production of embroidery works by young schoolgirls. Tutored in various academies, these precocious needleworkers created pictures and other images that have become widely recognized for their importance in American history in recent years.
Often beginning before the age of 10 with elementary samplers worked on linen, Connecticut Valley girls developed a variety of increasingly sophisticated stitching techniques. Executing their samplers, canvas work pieces, memorials and silk pictures, they signaled their suitability to be wives capable of managing a household and educating offspring.
Embroidered pictures and memorials, often displayed in a family’s home, reflected their makers’ mastery of the principles of “politeness” †a concept suggesting knowledge of religious and literary subjects, as well as an appreciation for art and music.
Guest Curators Are Stephen and Carol Huber
Guest-curated by pioneering needlework dealers Carol and Stephen Huber, “With Needle and Brush: Schoolgirl Embroidery From the Connecticut River Valley” is a welcome and revelatory exhibition. On view at historic Florence Griswold Museum through January 30, this is the first time samplers, canvas work and embroideries produced by Connecticut Valley girls have been examined as a group.
Guest Curated by Stephen and Carol Huber
“Schoolgirl Embroidery” offers insights into the traditions of needlework, the evolution of embroidering techniques, the impact of school mistresses who nurtured distinctive works of enduring appeal and the nature of young women’s schooling before the advent of widespread public education. Comprising some 60 samplers and other embroideries, watercolor sketches and portraits, the show draws heavily on examples from private collections, many never before seen publicly. A companion book will be published next year.
As the exhibition unfolds, visitors will see how young girls started with simple stitching projects involving alphabets and numbers before progressing to more advanced needlework as their skills improved. Teachers in the area’s urban centers, with ties to Boston or Providence, were exposed to current styles that they passed on to their pupils. Schoolgirls in rural Connecticut Valley towns had instructors untutored in contemporary trends who relied instead on their own vernacular creative designs or British precedents.
“Consequently,” observe the Hubers, “work from the valley is diverse, ranging from folksy, simple samplers to sophisticated embroidery and watercolors copied from prints, to elaborate coats of arms embellished with silver metallic thread.” Moreover, they add, valley needlework is different from that of other areas in New England because of the continuity of families in the area, which “allowed distinct regional characteristics to develop.” This multigenerational permanence “resulted in a more ingrown culture with strong local roots.”
The results, wonderful to behold, represent astonishing creations by unsophisticated and quite young needleworkers. A highlight of the exhibition is a colorful, lively canvas work garden scene outside a substantial brick house featuring courting couples, servants serving refreshments, children playing and a cupid flying overhead aiming its bow. Originating in the Chandler family of Pomfret, Conn., it is said to have been stitched by a daughter of John Chandler Jr and Hannah Gardiner in 1758. Reminiscent of British “conversation pieces,” this sophisticated work continues to appeal to Twenty-First Century viewers.
Equally charming is a vividly colored work executed in 1762 by 17-year-old Alethea Stiles of Woodstock, Conn. It is based on popular Eighteenth Century French prints of a reclining shepherdess and a nearby shepherd attending his sheep. In addition to the two major figures, the foreground is festooned with animals, flowers, trees and grass, with a substantial manor house looming in the distance. Alas, Stiles’s accomplished, vibrant composition did not presage happiness; she married briefly and unfortunately died at the age of 38.
Some of the most graphic, color-filled and fanciful Connecticut Valley embroidery creations emerged in the form of canvas works around the middle of the Eighteenth Century. While some images derived from established designs, many were original and innovative. Some of these needlework pictures featured identifiable buildings, animals and people; others were more whimsical and adventurous. The star in the exhibition is a circa 1745, brilliantly hued floral wool on linen, measuring 13 by 16 inches, by Mary Lockwood, likely of Fairfield County, Conn.
As might be expected, some of the oldest schoolgirl work in the exhibition, dating to the Seventeenth Century, draws heavily on samplers stitched in Mother England. As they mastered basic skills, Connecticut Valley girls later on demonstrated their expertise in tent stitching †needlepoint today †in the form of needlework pictures that continued to recall British precedents.
As the Hubers observe, “The education of all began with the making of a sampler” †i.e., images stitched with silk thread on linen backgrounds by neophytes in the form of alphabets, numbers and other routine markings, with perhaps some decorative touches. As students became more proficient, these so-called “marking samplers” were replaced by more complex works that were sometimes so well done that they were framed and proudly displayed.
Like other areas of the country, Connecticut Valley samplers featured distinctive techniques, styles and subjects. An early sampler by 12-year-old Alice Mather of Lyme, Conn., a 1774 pastoral scene replete with reclining shepherdess, palm tree and a blue house set against a solidly stitched black background, is set off by a floral chintz border.
Another notable sampler on view is one dating to the 1780s by Elizabeth Moore Huntington, who studied under an unknown schoolmistress in Norwich, Conn. Daughter of General Jedediah Huntington, this 8-year-old needleworking whiz produced a highly ambitious piece featuring a variety of stitches and designs, alphabets and numbers and three verses of Joseph Addison’s hymn, “When all thy mercies, O my God” of 1712. The surround of flowers and strawberries complete an amazingly accomplished work.
Another ambitious piece, created by 15-year-old Polly Jennings of Norwich, blends silk, sequins, gold foil and paint on black silk in a charming courting scene. Depicted in a landscape setting are a shepherd and shepherdess, plus cows, sheep, dog and a house with smoke rising from the chimney. Such “garden and pastoral scenes were romantic indulgences,” say the Hubers.
One of the most ambitious sampler compositions on view was fashioned in 1804, probably in Northampton, Mass., by 9-year-old Wealthy Griswold of Windsor, Conn. Throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, this young lady herded within a roughly 16-by-16-inch format an alphabet, numbers, flowers, baskets, birds, trees and a shepherdess in a central oval guarding sheep. A crowned lion mimics an Eighteenth Century English sampler motif. The bottom inscription reads: “Then O divine benevolence be night / & teach me how to live and how to die.”
Family record samplers, widely popular in the early Nineteenth Century, documented births, deaths and marriages. While attending Miss Cornwall’s school in Hebron, 14-year-old Mary Ann Post executed an imposing composition that chronicles the saga of her family.
Of particular interest to many will be examples of memorials, silk embroidered mourning pictures that represented expected accomplishments of cultured young ladies of the time. These sensitive and poignant memorials typically display a gravestone, languid willow trees and weeping figures. “Contrary to popular belief,” say the Hubers, “the stitchers of these memorials were not necessarily in mourning over the loss of a loved one, but merely creating a popular form of needlework.”
One fascinating piece by teenaged Maria Hulbert was produced at Abby Wright’s South Hadley, Mass., school, known for its imaginative, heavily embellished memorials trimmed with silver metallic thread. Stitched around 1805, Hulbert’s “Memorial to the Hulbert Family” shows identical figures, likely representing the artist and her sister, hovering over their parents’ gravestones, with intricately rendered weeping willow trees presiding behind them.
Less common, because they were more difficult to create, were watercolor memorials on silk. Vermont native Lucy Hubbard Chillson, aged 11 in 1806, painted a memorial to her father, surrounding the work with gold paper. Measuring 157/8 by 193/8 inches, it features a winged angel carrying a memorial banner.
Due to the stress on refinement among wealthy New Englanders, young ladies in population centers like Boston and Providence often attended more than one “finishing school.” “Education for a young woman in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries could easily exceed the cost of sending a young man to Harvard or Yale,” the Hubers point out. Three important academies that taught embroidered needlework were established in Connecticut during this period, by Miss Sarah Patten in Hartford (1785), Miss Sarah Pierce in Litchfield (1792) and Mrs Lydia Bull Royse in Hartford (circa 1800).
The Patten school encouraged students to develop compositions with floral garlands and padded eagles surrounding colorful pictorial scenes based on allegorical or biblical subjects. Eighteen-year-old student Louisa Bellows of Walpole, N.H., chose the fashionable subject of Charity for her silk embroidery of around 1810. This good-sized (18¾ by 25¼ inches) work is notable for the detailed watercolor townscape in the background.
Designed for display in the homes of daughters of prominent people, family coats of arms were important products of Miss Patten’s school in Hartford in the early Nineteenth Century. The large padded eagle holding a floral garland, ears of wheat or fronds and an inscription ribbon identify the anonymously executed “Williams Coat of Arms” as a symbol of status and wealth.
Among the works on view painted at the Pierce school is an elaborate watercolor on silk memorial to the Butler family. Created by an unknown maker, it depicts family members who were likely involved in international trade.
Eunice Noyes, aged 16, of Lyme, Conn., painted part of a classical historic vignette, “Blanch & Henriques,” probably drawn from a print, while studying at Lydia Rouse’s school in Hartford. The faces, painted by the schoolmistress herself, suggest that this is a depiction of the marriage proposal of King Henry IV to Blanch II of Navarre.
Samplers and other simpler items were staples of public schools, whereas silk pictures were the province of private schools and academies. “Silk embroideries were the apogee of a girl’s education,” say the Hubers, pointing out that silk pieces often required six to 12 months to complete, at which point they were taken home for exhibition in the family’s “best” parlor.
The appealing images and skillful handwork that went into the pieces in this exhibition continue to impress and attract current viewers. The exhibition proves, moreover, that Connecticut Valley schoolgirl needlework belongs among the ranks of fine art, suitable for major museum showings. The exhibition will be followed by a fully illustrated book with essays and entries by the Hubers and other experts, to be published by Wesleyan University Press in 2011.
The Florence Griswold Museum is at 96 Lyme Street. For information, 860-434-5542, extension 111, or www.flogris.org .