Historic needlework featured at Florence Griswold Museum

'Cleopatra,' ca. 1810, unidentified artist; silk embroidery and paint on silk.
"Cleopatra," ca. 1810, unidentified artist; silk embroidery and paint on silk.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, young women took their needlework seriously. Their creations could be amazingly detailed, their handcrafting a thing of beauty.

Beyond the art of it, the results served as a reflection of the values of the time. The works that featured allegories, for instance, often dealt with such themes as patriotism, piety and virtue.

Back then, private academies taught girls and young women how to do needlework, moving from simple samplers to canvaswork to pictorial silk embroideries. The Connecticut River Valley, in fact, was heavily populated with such private academies.

Pieces created at those schools are showcased in the exhibition "With Needle and Brush: Schoolgirl Embroidery From the Connecticut River Valley" on view at the Florence Griswold Museum.

Needlework experts and antique dealers Carol and Stephen Huber guest-curated the show. "With Needle and Brush" mainly features pieces the Hubers have bought and sold over the past 30 years, with the exhibition highlighting works that were borrowed from private collections.

Ultimately, Carol Huber says, they wanted this to be an educational exhibit, and they've already heard from people saying how much they learned.

Among the many things visitors might learn: families featured their daughter's needlework inside their houses, as a showcase of sorts to potential husbands. The idea was that these creations proved a young woman's understanding of the principles of "politeness," meaning everything from understanding religious and literary themes to appreciating art and music.

Needlework has a connection, too, to Miss Florence Griswold, whose artist boardinghouse became the Florence Griswold Museum. She and her mother and sisters ran a girls' school where the students learned French embroidery, notes Florence Griswold Museum Curator Amy Kurtz Lansing.

While no samples of the Griswold-overseen embroidery are in "With Needle and Brush," the exhibition collects a wide range of Connecticut-created pieces. Among them is an 1807 one by Eunice Noyes, who, as a girl, lived for a time in the house next door to the Flo Gris that's now the Bee & Thistle Inn.

Two other needlework pieces are by Old Saybrook residents who created family-register samplers recording vital statistics of a family - names, birth dates, death dates. An 1818 sampler was done by Welthy Ann Carter, who was the daughter of a doctor and teacher of medicine. An 1830 one is by Betsey Marie Ingham, a descendent of one of Saybrook's first families.

"With Needle and Brush" features a range of works, with many reflecting a sophisticated skill. Kurtz Lansing says, "They are really intricate, which is amazing considering the youth of the makers. Young girls were performing these really complex stitches and doing it so elegantly and smoothly."

The Hubers will present an illustrated history of schoolgirl needlework at 2 p.m. Jan. 15 at the museum. The fee is $7, and reservations can be made at FlorenceGriswoldMuseum.org and (860) 434-5542, ext. 111. People who attend can bring one work of needlework for identification and discussion after the lecture.

"With Needle and Brush: Schoolgirl Embroidery From the Connecticut River Valley," through Jan. 30, Florence Griswold Museum, 96 Lyme St., Old Lyme; closed this Saturday (New Year's Day) but otherwise hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 1-5 p.m. Sun.; $9 adults, $8 seniors, $7 students, free ages 12 and under; (860) 434-5542, FlorenceGriswoldMuseum.org.

'Memorial to the Hulbert family,' ca. 1803, Maria Hulbert (1788-1810); silk, metallic thread, and watercolor on silk.
"Memorial to the Hulbert family," ca. 1803, Maria Hulbert (1788-1810); silk, metallic thread, and watercolor on silk.
Williams coat of arms, ca. 1810, unidentified artist; silk, spangles, metallic thread, and velvet on silk.
Williams coat of arms, ca. 1810, unidentified artist; silk, spangles, metallic thread, and velvet on silk.
'Jeptha's Rash Vow,' ca. 1810, unidentified artist; silk embroidery, ink, watercolor, gold foil, gold fringe, velvet and fabric on silk.
"Jeptha's Rash Vow," ca. 1810, unidentified artist; silk embroidery, ink, watercolor, gold foil, gold fringe, velvet and fabric on silk.

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