A Strange Little Picture
When I caught a glimpse of this picture in the dark depths of the picture storeroom at Shrewsbury Museum in Rowley’s House, my first thought was: “Surely that’s not a piece of Jacobean stumpwork over there, is it?” Lifting it out into the light, I soon realised that it was not 17th Century embroidery, but was a most unusual imitation of the style; with paper filigree replacing metal thread embroidery and cut ribbon work instead of silk stitchery. As I put it carefully back onto the shelf, I noticed a nearly label pasted on the back. It was nearly illegible, but a date caught my eye among the writing – 1860.
I could not stop to examine the picture that morning, but I knew I wanted to spend time looking at it closely and recording it, and that most of all I wanted to share this quaint and curious little image with my readers on Tortoise Loft. Shrewsbury Museum have very kindly given me permission to do that, and I want to thank them.
The label is in very faded ink but I have made out most of the writing. It says:
This Picture was given to me in Shrewsbury August, 21st 1860 by Mrs
John Lawrence [?th]at was a Cousin’s Widow who got it from my deceased aunt Margaret Bowdler who resided with her and who brought it from her Father’s House at Munslow – and is the only relic preserved.
It is said [underlined] to have been in the family 300 or 400 years.
Kirkham – Lancashire
Mr Edw\d Hughes of Shrewsbury has portions of ?Furniture made from very old timber – grown on the Marton Estate.
I don’t know if the mention of old timber refers to the frame? There are various branches of the Bowdler family in Shropshire, going back to medieval times. It would be interesting to know where Aunt Margaret’s family lived. Munslow is a parish near Church Stretton, including the village Ashford Bowdler, There is also a Hope Bowdler just south of Ludlow. There are several places called Marton in Shropshire, but I don’t know of one near Munslow.
Let’s have a look at some details of the picture.
The paper filigree (a craft sometimes called ‘quilling’) is made of paper with gold-leaf edges. The heyday of this craft was the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Bookbinders would sell the strips already gilded and cut, ready to be rolled or crimped and glued into place. A few coils are missing, but the glue used must have been good – the vast majority are still firmly in place. One of the four corners of the design has much less paper and more ribbon flowers than the other three. I wonder if the maker of the picture was running short of gold-edged paper? In the opposite corner, red ink or paint has been used on the board beneath the pattern. The dark marks around the top-left edge appear to be damage rather than deliberate tinting.
The flowers and leaves are neatly cut from coloured ribbon and glued into place. You can see from this damaged red and white flower that the petals of the main flowers were assembled on a circle of paper before being fixed to the backing board.
The cornflower is a common motif on seventeenth century embroidery, the carnation, and roses too, are very typical. This leads me to wonder if the artist adapted the design from an old piece of embroidery. Perhaps it was the original of this piece that was in the family for many generations? I would be surprised if this picture itself was more than 100 years old in 1860, but the craft of paper filigree was known in Jacobean times, so maybe…?
On the central figure, you can see the only stitching used in the piece – a few stitches to catch down the silk hair and the scraps of metal-thread braid used on the costume. Some of the ribbon has a fine pinstripe, some has neatly graduated shades (used to good effect on the cloud above the figure’s head, along with ink wash), and there is a white ribbon with a patterned weave used on the dress. All the other ribbon is in plain colours. Some red ink can be seen on the face and costume, as well as the black ink. There is also some paint, or ink, that is a light blueish-grey, used on some of the filigree papers and in spots on the ribbon-work. The figure’s hands are cut from pink paper, and there are two small birds near her head which appear to be cut from printed paper. The birds have been further coloured with red and black ink. Apart from the paper filligree, all the other details are made from ribbon. The edge of the board is also covered with ribbon.
I am fascinated by this little picture (it measures 28cm wide and 35cm high, excluding the wooden frame). I have never seen anything else quite like it. Can anyone shed any more light on it? Who made it? Where? When?
All the pictures in this article are Copyright Shropshire Council, Shrewsbury Museums, 2012. Used by permission. Unauthorised reproduction prohibited. For further information please contact Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery.