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 

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