Art Embroidery, part I

Updated: Sep 12

My taste in hand-stitched textiles is fairly eclectic, but if there is one style that I am particularly passionate about, it’s art embroidery (also known as art needlework), c. 1870-1914. Over the next few weeks, I will examine some quintessential works associated with designers and practitioners of the Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts movements.

But let’s begin with the question: What is ‘art embroidery’ and why should it have become so popular during the second half of the nineteenth century?

In August 1880, the New York magazine Art Amateur noted:

Art needlework has become the fashion and has superseded in one form or another almost all other fancy work, but it is much to be hoped that this fact will not prove its ruin in the long run. It was not as a new kind of fancy work that it was established. It must not be forgotten that embroidery is one of the most ancient of the decorative arts, and that its revival at the present time is only a part of the general revival of true art.

Since the Renaissance, the decorative arts had occupied an inferior position in Western art. In bridging the gap that separated the “greater” from the “lesser” arts, the exponents of art embroidery sought to elevate the needleworker’s craft from a trifling pastime, brought into disrepute by the ‘uselessness and ugliness’ of fancy work, to a serious art form.

The leading pioneers of art embroidery believed that Berlin work, the most popular form of fancy work throughout the early Victorian period, had brought about ‘the total collapse of decorative needlework’. Berlin work was a type of canvas embroidery worked in wools, mainly in tent- or cross-stitch, from a pattern printed on squared paper, each square of the printed design representing one square of the canvas. By 1840, around 14,000 different designs, including flowers and pictorial images based on famous paintings, were available from fancywork shops or given away in women’s monthly magazines. Framed picture panels, carpets and upholstered furnishings, as well as clothing and accessories were covered in Berlin work.

Berlin work chart, c. 1860.
Berlin work slipper, c. 1870.

The revival of decorative needlework in Britain can be traced back to the artistic developments of the 1830s. Catholic emancipation and the rise of the Oxford movement had led to the reintroduction of numerous Roman Catholic practices, including the use of embroidered vestments and church furnishings, which in turn gave impetus to the Gothic Revival. In tandem with the latter was the economic and aesthetic debate on British design and industry. Among the topics hotly disputed was the indiscriminate use of three-dimensional patterns used to ornament two-dimensional surfaces. Conscious of the need to improve standards, formal guidelines for a modern design vocabulary were developed and later enshrined in Owen Jones’s The Grammar of Ornament (1856).

‘Greek no. 8’, pl. XXII from Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament (1856).

Gothic Revival and Design Reform led to a number of developments that were key to the resuscitation of decorative needlework, or art embroidery as it was labelled from the early 1870s. These developments comprised a renewed appreciation among scholars, designers and practitioners for the technical mastery and artistic expression found in the work of medieval craftsmen and women. From the outset of his career, the architect and designer George Edmund Street (1824-1881) had taken a special interest in Opus Anglicanum or English work, famed throughout Europe from the late twelfth to the fourteenth centuries, and encouraged others to ‘undertake works which may exhibit the industry, intellect and good taste of the worker’. Street’s views on the design and execution of embroidered furnishings were to have a profound influence on the revival of decorative needlework in the hands of William Morris (1834-1896) and his contemporaries.

A second factor was the development of a cultural district of museums and colleges in South Kensington devoted to art and science. The South Kensington Museum (later renamed the V&A) was established in 1852 under the direction of Henry Cole (1808-1882) to educate and inspire designers, manufacturers and consumers in art and design. Treasures, including embroidered textiles, were made available to a wider audience and given status as works of art. At around the same time, Cole took charge of the Government School of Design or the National Art Training School, founded in 1837 to improve the education of designers. Several well-known makers and designers of art embroidery studied there, including May Morris (1862-1938).

The development of art embroidery also coincided with a renewed interest in the decorative arts of the Middle East, India and the Far East through the advent of international expositions, commencing in 1851 with the Great Exhibition, followed by Paris (1855, 1867, 1878), London (1862), Vienna (1873) and Philadelphia (1876).

Next time, I will explore what set art embroidery apart from Victorian fancy work.

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