A Strange Little Picture

(C) Shropshire Council, Shrewsbury Museums

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.

(C) Shropshire Council, Shrewsbury Museums

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.
Rich\d Bowdler
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.

(C) Shropshire Council, Shrewsbury Museums

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.

(C) Shropshire Council, Shrewsbury Museums

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.

(C) Shropshire Council, Shrewbury Museums

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.

(C) Shropshire Council, Shrewsbury Museums

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.


17 Responses to “A Strange Little Picture”

  1. Someone had a whole lot of fun creating this. I love it. It’s like a sampler for lots of different skills 🙂 Thanks for sharing.

  2. I remember trying quilling once – it’s a very concentrated pastime. Thank you for preparing such great photos for us!

  3. suetortoise Says:

    Compared to plaited braid and detached buttonhole stitch, using quilling and collage might seem a quick and easy option!

  4. Sue, I wondered about the frame. Was it papier mache? Or wood? Very cool to see the mix of techniques and materials, thanks for showing this to us.

    • suetortoise Says:

      The frame is carved from heavy wood, it looks old. There are signs of filler on the carving in places, whitish chips of what may be gesso, or something like that. The back is plain with two sturdy metal hanging rings. The glass has a number of little bubbles in it, so is obviously blown glass.

  5. I have to wonder if a Victorian chose to reproduce an inherited piece using the skills that were accesible to her.

    • suetortoise Says:

      That was my original thought, certainly. But the more I look at it, the more I wonder if it is genuinely 17th century.

  6. Tricia Wilson Nguyen Says:

    HI – I think this may be 17th century and am very excited you posted it. I just posted about some filagree myself on my site – http://www.thistle-threads.com/blog. I am running an embroidered casket course and one area of girls accomplishments that most don’t know about is the collage with pieces of gummed silk – which look exactly like what you see above for the woman and flowers. There are at least two 17th century caskets I know of covered in this technique and if you didn’t get close, you would think they were embroidered. HIstoric Deerfield has a piece of 17th century embroidery with a filagree border around the inner frame like this as well.

    I will contact the museum and see if a better picture of the piece can be contracted at some point. This is a great ‘missing link’ piece. Thank you for taking the time to post it. A reader of my blog saw it and left the site in the contacts

    Tricia Wilson Nguyen

  7. coralseas Says:

    elisabeth in CT thought that you might be interested to read this post about filigree work on the Thistle Threads blog asked if someone would pass the information on to you.
    I hope you learn more about your interesting picture.

  8. suetortoise Says:

    I didn’t dare believe it was really that old at first, but I did hope! I understand that the museum will be contacting the V&A about it, so I hope I’ll have more news to pass on soon.

  9. I love this little picture and have featured it on my blog along with other items from the collections of Shropshire Museums.

  10. Hello Sue,
    I think that your 17th century rolled paper picture is beautiful. Just to let you know that this type of gilded, rolled paper work was also very popular in Italy and France for the ornamentation of religious pictures and relics from the 17th century through to the 19th century. The French would use these wonderful rolled paper designs to surround the teeny remains of Saints bone’s or Saints clothing, The french names is Reliquaire. I understand that nuns and monks first started this method of rolling small strips of paper, because they wanted to find a use for gilt edge pages of old Bibles. I love your blog and I would love it if you would like to stop by my on line antique shop where I sell some ancient textiles and antiques from the 16th century to the 20th century.
    Victoria, Trinity Antiques

    • suetortoise Says:

      Thank you for your comment. I found some examples of the European paper filigree work on the web while I was researching this picture. This one has no obvious religious imagery and a has a very English feel. I hope Shrewsbury Museum will be able to find out more about it before too long.

      • Oh no, She is definitely not European. Most definitely English and I would think early 17th century. I adore that naivety but to me it looks as if maybe some Victorian restoration has occurred. In areas where the original materials had perished. But it is intriguing. We shall wait with baited breath for the Museum’s opinion. But very often they only know from items that they have handled. I would keep up with the research yourself. I am sure you will get to the bottom of the mystery. If you like this era of needlework I can highly recommend The Feller Needlework Collection 1. A superb book . Also, I have some Jacobean textiles and rolled paper items currently for sale in my antique shop. Please stop by any time for a browse. All the best, Victoria

  11. Wow…great…Thanks for sharing this lovely piece of infos with close up views 🙂

  12. suetortoise Says:

    The picture is now in Ludlow Museum’s conservation stores, to prevent further deterioration. More news when I get it. https://suetortoise.wordpress.com/2013/05/18/update-on-the-bowdler-picture/

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