Saturday, March 28, 2015

A Striking English Quill Work Portrait, 1700-1720

An object of outstanding beauty and exhibiting many talents, this quill work portrait of an attractive, elegant young woman is in the collection of Historic Deerfield ( Created between 1700 and 1720, it features the use of silk, ink and paper. 

This English portrait combines needlework, watercolor and other types of fashionable decorative treatments such as the gilt edged paper which was fashioned into to scrolls and tendriling leaves and flowers. This treatment mimics the elaborate gilt portrait frames of the era.  Catching the parlor light this would have been a perfect Rococo centerpiece, displaying artistry and wealth.

The maker and the sitter are currently unknown, but given the level of skill shown throughout, it probably occupied a place of pride in the family’s treasures. Further, despite the artistic challenge presented by the nose, the visage of the sitter is meant to convey a delicate and genteel aura. She wears pearls at her neck, her hair is loose and uncovered. The anatomical correctness is a bit “off."  Since posting this, I have discussed the portrait with friend and colleague Susan Holloway Scott, best selling historical fiction novelist, ( who pointed out several features of our unknown sitter: her garment does not feature the squared neckline of a mantua, but rather the wide, off-the-shoulder oval of the earlier period. Also the full sleeves, the under-smock cuffs, the pearl necklace, even the flowing hair all look earlier, closer to the 1660s or 1670s. Over her shoulders, is a voluminous (fur?) wrap, frequently seen in oil painting of the period.

Given what we know about the tutelage of young women in embroidery, white work and so on, it would make sense that the maker used an earlier painting/print as a guide. Susan suggests that the work of English painter Peter Lely (or an engraving after his work) may have been the design source for the young woman who completed this piece at a later date. There are, of course, many variables and it is hoped that we may be able to pinpoint the source for the student or perhaps a group of similar quill work pieces, allowing us to identify them with an instructor or locale. Until that time, it detracts nothing from this very special object.

Peter Lely, Portrait of a Lady in Blue holding a Flower, 1660. Oil on canvas, 126.7 x 102.5 cm. Dulwich Picture Gallery, London
This is a special find in a special gallery. “Celebrating the Fiber Arts” is a rotating, ongoing installation at Historic Deerfield (

Courtesy, Victoria & Albert Museum
Many thanks to Ned Lazaro, Collections Manager & Associate Curator of Textiles, for his ongoing assistance.

All images are courtesy of Historic Deerfield unless noted otherwise; photos by Kimberly Alexander 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Régence, Regency, Jazz Age What Color Was It? (Part 2)

Part 2, Vibrancy

 Singing in the Rain MGM 1952

As if to reinforce the notion of jarring modern color, on a fluke the other night we watched the movie ‘Singing in the Rain.’  So bumping along with the film, focusing on it and a book at the same time suddenly my eye caught the ’Gotta Dance’ sequence.  Saturated dyes and pigments of chartreuse, lemon, fuchsia, orange and electric blue traveled across the screen coloring everything with the same color palette used by Arnoux.  

Of course this was a dream sequence in a movie musical from the 1950s, so careful with putting too much stock in accuracy, but… while these 1920s colors were jarring, at the same time they were reminiscent of the colors I saw years ago in Bath on Regency under gowns. In that exhibit the pastel colors of the regency women were in fact electrically vibrant colors muted by the shear muslin over gowns.  The muslin gauze tempered the brilliant colors like a painter’s glaze. This was not a world of pastel dyed garments, but a pigment charged palette vying for attention with the driven hues of the Regency interior.  


Those examples shattered my notion of the Grecian refinement that I tended to associate with clothing of this period and it has stayed with me over the years. The Arnoux’s pochoirs reflected the insouciance that we regard as a hallmark of the Jazz Age, but it also put me in mind of that earlier exhibit and the randiness of the early 19th century suddenly looked more modern for it. 


The French Régence, the English Regency and the Jazz Age were not and are not the same period, but how striking some of the similarities, a generation maturing during a series of wars and revolutions, feeling distanced from the previous generation and breaking from that generation not only in the silhouette clothing, but the color palette of that clothing. 


The images from the 1920s captured the essence of a moment pervading the inner war years and transferred it to an earlier period. Historically, the 1920s colors may have been wrong based on available dyes during the 18th century and even the early 19th century but it reminds me to be vigilant to the possibilities of the improbable.


Jeff Hopper is a Consultant, Historic House Steward and Social Historian

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Régence, Regency, Jazz Age What Color Was It? (Part 1)


On opening night of the exhibit Cosmopolitan Consumption (Information here), several visitors asked if the original color of some of the objects was brighter or stronger. Luckily on the underside of a number of the objects sections of the original color was intact and in one case a snippet of original fabric remained in an unfaded state.  Aside from a quick view of the bottom of an object, the ongoing advances in the scientific research of historic colors has greatly enhanced our understanding of the use and palette of color over time. That is great for the original object, but how do we actually see these colors from one generation to the next.  Each generation predisposes itself to how it views the world. This predisposition is one way that conservators and curators can see some ‘improvements’ and restorations with the naked eye. An example of this is the way in which faces are painted or over-painted, the Flapper or Bright-Young-Thing face on the Georgian portrait. Oops how did that happen?  Hmm.  One of the most difficult premises for an artist is to distance their self from their time period.

Dice in another version also on Ebay 3/15

A chance encounter with a new color palette from an artist whose work I know jolted me the other day when I saw a series of pochoirs rendered in the 1920s by Guy Arnoux, but based on scenes from the French Régence (1715-23).  I enjoy Arnoux’s cartoonesque style, which is firmly rooted in the early 20th century, but often illustrates the past. A technical note, pochoir is a refined coloring technique that employs stencils and gouaches to illuminate prints.  There is a vibrant quality to the technique that appeals to my eye. 

Hunting vibrant

The technique was employed in the first quarter of the 20th century by the haute couture French fashion journal La Gazette du Bon Ton. That being said, the series that I came across on EBay that was shocking in its color palette.  I knew the series; Jeux et Divertissements. I have a couple of the prints from the series that I found in an antique shop years ago. I considered the examples I own as being the standard color range, but on this other group, the colors were intensely modern, at least for the 1920s. The coloration might be jarring to our modern eye and our understanding of the correct colors of the 18th century, but it might have been less so to the 1920s’ eye.

Hunting soft or faded Palatte


Jeff Hopper is a Consultant, Historic House Steward and Social Historian