Category: Lacemakers in the Museum

A lacemaker’s home in Milton Keynes. The reminiscences of Dame Joan Evans

‘the civilisation of an age may be recorded in the history of trivial things’

The lace case in the court of the Pitt Rivers Mueum

 

The lace pillow on display in the court of the Pitt Rivers Museum was donated by Dame Joan Evans (1893-1977).  The provenance is not certain, beyond the fact it came from Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire.  Evans had strong connections to this village, as it still was before 1967, and in particular the lacemaking Hancock family.

Portrait of Dame Joan Evans, painted by Peter Greenham for St Hugh’s College, Oxford. See ArtUK.

Joan Evans was an expert on medieval decorative arts, especially jewellery.  She became the first woman President of the Society of Antiquaries in 1959.  She was the only daughter of the third marriage (to Maria Lathbury) of the archaeologist and antiquary John Evans (1823-1908), and was thus the half-sister to Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941), keeper of the Ashmolean Museum and excavator of the Minoan palace of Knossos (deeply loyal to both, she would write their biographies).  She grew up in the house attached to her father’s paper mill, Nash Mills near Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire.  As her parents were often travelling in pursuit of their shared archaeological interests, Evans was effectively brought up by her nanny Caroline Hancock (b. 1864), who arrived when she was eleven months old and would stay with her for the next sixty-seven years, until Hancock’s death in 1961.  Evans’ autobiography Prelude and Fugue, started in 1933 but only published in 1964, was dedicated to ‘Nannie’.  (For more on the Evans dynasty of archaeologists see the Ashmolean’s John Evans Centenary Project.)

Caroline Hancock’s mother, also Caroline Hancock (1824-1919 née Major), was a lacemaker.  (For some genealogical information on the Hancock family, see Nick Hubbard’s website, which also reproduces this chapter together with photos of some of the places mentioned.)  Every year from the age of two Evans would spend part of the summer visiting her nanny’s family in Milton Keynes.  The chapter dedicated to these annual holidays is worth reproducing in full, because it is by far the most detailed description we have discovered of the domestic arrangements of a lacemaking household in the English Midlands.  There are a few points we would highlight along the way: the reference to the kitchen spices reminds us of the spiced cakes consumed at Catterns and Tanders: the engraved bobbins gifted by suitors in her early years (if the bobbins donated to Evans to the Pitt Rivers Museum come from this source, then those suitors may have included a ‘Mark’, a ‘Hiram’, a ‘Thomas’ and a ‘David’); the geraniums around the windows are a regular feature in descriptions of lacemakers’ instinctive desire for beauty; the charity offered to beggars is a regular injunction lacemakers’ songs.  Evans’ assertion, after the destruction of the Hancocks’ home by fire, that archaeology requires imaginative reconstruction, is a reference to her half-brother’s controversial rebuilding of the Palace of Knossos.

 

Nash Mills was not my only home, nor my father’s wife the only woman I called Mother. When I was about two it became evident that both Nannie and I would sometimes need a holiday. My mother, however, was not willing to undertake any responsibility for me while Nannie was away; and so it was decided that I should accompany her on a visit to her family at Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire. Any decision my mother made was apt to become a binding precedent, and for the rest of my childhood the visit of a month or more was repeated at least once a year.

It is long since I went to Milton Keynes, but my memories of that corner of the earth are still vivid. We went by train to Bletchley, and there we were met by Mrs Claridge, the wife of a small farmer in Milton, with a dog-cart and an old horse that stumbled. Being packed in with some difficulty, off we went, through Bletchley and Fenny Stratford; to Simpson, which had its footpaths raised above the roads and protected by white railings because of floods; through the lanes, till we turned into a high road, and went along by Miss Pinfold’s spinneys to the village. It was – and is – a rather featureless but pleasant bit of England. The villages, with unromantic dissyllabic names – Simpson, Broughton, Woughton, Woolston, Willen – seemed each to be just over a mile from the next. Each clustered round a cross-road and an inn; each had its parsonage and church, its two or three farmhouses, its individual life, centring round the annual feast, when servants were hired and the women were paid for their staple industry of lace making.

Nannie had been born at Woolston, but soon afterwards her parents[1] had moved to an old cottage at Milton. It lay at the end of a path at right angles to the road, on the edge of a great pasture called Barn Close. The barn belonged to the cottage, and was called Babylon; the cottage had no name. You went through a neat green gate, past a small triangular box-edged flower-bed, gay with Shakespearean flowers, along a brick path shaded by damson-trees to the door. It sounds, and seems, an appreciable distance; I suppose it may have been twenty feet. The door was always open, unless it were pouring with rain; inside was the kitchen, with a floor of chequered red and blue tiles, that seemed a natural transition from the bricks outside. One of the joys of Milton was that there was no hard-and-fast line between indoors and outdoors. At Nash Mills we were removed by four long flights of stairs from the garden, and by an unbreakable law I could never go out of doors, even in summer, without changing my shoes. At Milton there was no such rule, and in summer the brick path seemed part of the house and the kitchen part of the garden.

Just inside the door was a wooden table, where the food was prepared, that was scrubbed till it seemed made of no known wood. Above it was an old sweet-smelling corner cupboard, where Mother kept her spices. What cottage nowadays would have the spices Mother kept? Mace and cinnamon, cloves and caraway, nutmegs and black peppers, in a japanned box with radiating compartments; tins of ginger and mustard, dried herbs like fennel and lime (but mint, thyme, and marjoram were used fresh from the garden); sweet and bitter almonds in their skins, tins of currants, sticky blue paper packets of raisins, and vanilla pods in a long glass tube, which were simmered in the custard, dried and used again and again. On the top shelf was the sugar, in tall loaves wrapped in grey paper, that had to be cut with tong-like scissors and broken into lumps with a pestle in the mortar when it was wanted for use. Mother told me once that when she first married sugar cost a shilling a pound, and she had to use honey for sweetening.

Beneath the spice-cupboard was always kept a pail of cool spring water drawn from the well in the garden. Along the other wall stood a noble seventeenth-century chest of carved oak, where linen was stored; and opposite was the open hearth where the cooking was done. Alongside it was the bread oven, in my day only rarely used. It had its own ritual. First you took a faggot of small twigs and burned it in the oven; then you raked out the ashes and cleaned the oven with a wet mop; and then you put the loaves in on a peel, and the cakes in their round tins and the biscuits and ‘little men’ on a tin plate and then the door firmly shut. The ‘little men’ were made from the oddments of pastry. With arms and legs and currant eyes (and, if they were big enough, coat-buttons); they were for the delight of children. All the work involved in shaping them and sticking them with currants makes me realize how rich Mother contrived to be in the most precious commodity of all: time to spend on those she loved.

On the other side of the hearth a passage as long as the chimney was deep led into the living-room. The old windows had been replaced by larger modern ones, and though geraniums (the old-fashioned kind with purply-black spots on the leaves) and calceolarias blossomed on the sill, the room was full of light.

Somehow I was never bored at Milton, though in truth there was not very much to do. Books were few and for the most part pious; fiction was represented by The Story of the Robins, Christy’s Old Organ, Jessica’s First Prayer, and the first two volumes of an old three-volume edition of Richardson’s Pamela. But the garden was solitary enough and wild enough for there to be always something to discover in it: the bloom on a growing apple, that is like powder over the delicate pores of the skin; the early dewberries that grew in one part of the hedge, and the nightshade that climbed over another; the strange ancient smell of hot box; and the fuchsia buds that one could pop with one’s fingers. Musk in those days still smelt sweet, and columbines (which we called straw bonnets) still grew strong and stocky. One may learn to observe as well in lazy hours alone in a garden as among the apparatus of a scientific laboratory.

The end of the garden was called Calais, presumably because it was at the farther side of a wide path. In my day it was derelict; but Mother told me that until lately it had been under corn, and that the grain from it, ground at the mill at Woolston, had provided the flour for her bread.

Nannie’s father had been a carpenter and builder. Years before, when she was a baby, he had fallen from a scaffold and as a consequence of his injuries he had lost his sight. When I knew him as an old man, he sat much in a great chair of his own making by the fire in the living-room; a heavy, massive man, a little slow but very kind. He and I used to go for solemn walks together up and down the bricks, or sometimes he would let me lead him a little farther afield. His eldest daughter, Amy, was blind too, also as the result of an accident; when she was five she had fallen from a swing on to a stone floor, and the optic nerve had gradually perished as a result of the blow. But in her case blindness seemed hardly a disability; she was up and down the house, cooking, cleaning, washing; in and about the garden, digging and picking fruit; in the henhouse, feeding the hens and collecting the eggs; in the barn, to find a tool or whatnot; at the well, to draw water. When she sat down she was just as busy, knitting, crocheting, sewing, making rugs of rag. She had a vigorous character, and might have been a dominating woman but for the love she bore her mother, and her immense generosity of heart to all the world.

Mother was small and neat and nimble. She came of rather better family than her husband; the Majors had been farmers on their own land, and her mother had lived in a house with a French window opening on to the lawn. But the agricultural depression of the forties had hit the Northamptonshire farmers hard, and nothing of this prosperity remained but Mother’s tradition of gentility. She always wore a black lace cap with heavy side-pieces and a kind of crest in front; since her day I have only seen it in the Velay. Over it, if she were working in the garden, she would put on a heavily corded sun-bonnet of lilac print. She wore plain bodices, with a little frill of lace of her own making at the neck, and long full skirts; a print apron in the mornings, and a black silk one and a little three-cornered shawl in the afternoon. She smelt of lavender and fresh air. Her hands were the fine hands of a lace maker; it seemed as if it were by magic that she wove the delicate patterns on the lace pillow, appearing hardly to look at its crabbed pricked parchment pattern and its forest of fine pins. Her bobbins dated from her girlhood; their bone flanks were adorned with the names of the admirers who had given them to her, and some had love-mottoes. Their shanks were wound with bright brass wire in patterns, and the heavier ones for the gimp were dyed red and green. From each bobbin hung a circle of wire weighted with curious red and white glass beads, pressed into half-angular shapes. She excelled in making the fine net ground that had characterized Buckinghamshire lace in the eighteenth century. She had a tolerant contempt for the later Maltese patterns, though she admitted that they gave a better living to the lace maker; yet even so the profit was small, and the cost of the fine linen thread heavy.

Mother was a woman of tremendous courage. When her husband was blinded she had had to support the family, to dig and delve and cut wood and do the work of the husbandman as well as the housewife. She had even taken to butchering in a small way to make a little money. With her own fine hands she would kill a pig and cut it up, sell some, home-cure the hams, and make pork-pies and brawn and faggots and black puddings with the rest. When I knew her the family were in rather smoother waters, but the old habits of thrift still held. It was an exquisite thrift, with nothing sordid about it: based on the old feeling that the work of a woman’s hands in her own home had no value but the negative one of saving money. So every dress was turned and darned, and every scrap of stuff kept for patchwork or rag-rugs; and in cookery every morsel was made the most of. Our chief meal was naturally our midday dinner: a batter pudding baked or boiled, with gravy, and then the morsel of meat that had been stewed for the gravy and some vegetables from the garden. Mother was a great hand at making wines – cowslip, ginger, elderberry, damson, and the like – and I as the visitor would drink some out of a fine cut wine-glass, while the rest drank water. For tea, when I was there, there was often a cake; and for supper, bread and cheese or for a treat a pork-pie. English regional cooking is quickly being forgotten, and few now eat home-made pork-pies in the midland fashion: a dish that any gourmet could enjoy. I still have the recipe for it that Mother gave to Nannie, ending ‘but I need not tell you how to make short crust’. After supper Nannie and I would go to bed in the little bedroom at the top of the steep stairs, and sleep through the summer night on our vast feather bed till morning would come, and we would hear Mother calling to the chickens and Amy moving below, until she came to wake us with a smiling face and soft kisses to the adventure of another day.

Mother had the anima naturaliter christiana. Poor though she was, any beggar that came to her door was given a glass of water, a slice of bread or cake if she had it, and a penny. Every night we read a chapter of the Bible, verse and verse about, thus going gradually through it from beginning to end, genealogies and all. Every Sunday the whole family would go to church, Mother in her bonnet, holding her prayer-book, a clean handkerchief, and a sprig of southernwood. The worst crime was to be late; the only time we were ever hustled was to be ready before the Church bell changed its note and it was time to start.

Church, in itself, I never found particularly interesting. The church was a good plain fourteenth-century building, at that time defaced by having texts painted on tin scrolls fixed above its arches. The orchestra, that had used to play in Nannie’s father’s time, had given place to a squeaky harmonium and the service was decent and dull. It was the hats of the congregation that afforded my chief amusement. The congregation itself I knew well enough, but in the sunbonnets or plain sailor hats of every day. On Sunday everyone appeared in a home-made confection of the utmost interest. The bonnet, or hat, or ‘shape’, was bought in Newport Pagnell on a market day, and trimmed at home, generally out of an ancestral provision of trimmings. The result might be comic but was never banal: and if one had been in Milton long enough one came to know the pièces de résistance among the trimmings, and to recognize permutations and combinations that might have escaped the notice of a casual visitor. The old ladies ran to violets and jet, the middle-aged to wings and feathers, the younger to artificial flowers of great brilliance and improbability, and the children to garlands of buttercups and daisies and terrific ribbon bows; but an unpredictable element always remained.

Evening Church was a treat, chiefly because it meant sitting up late. The twilight lent charm to the building; the lamps of ruby glass, which I thought very beautiful, were lit, and the congregation, from being a congeries of more or less familiar individuals, passed into more solemn and less personal being. The very psalms were unfamiliar; and the walk home, holding Amy’s hand, delightful. Then came a late supper, of such digestible delicacies as pork-pie and pickled onions: and so sleepily to bed.

Mother’s religion was no matter of formal church-going: it entered into everything she did. I never remember her speaking ill of anyone, or doing an unkindness; yet she was never weak nor sentimental. She even had the courage, as an old woman, to face death; she would expend much exquisite darning on an old sheet and say it would do for her shroud, and never made a plan for more than a few days ahead without qualifying it by an ‘if I live’. From her, as at my father’s knee, I learned the wholesome beauties of common sense. Mother had endless tolerance for true eccentricity arising out of character; but for ill-considered foolishness she had one damning comment: ‘I call that a silly caper’.

With all her piety she was a good talker, full of country lore and old saws, some of which I have since found in Thomas Tusser’s Points of Husbandry [first published in 1557]. She could interpret every sign of weather: the sun ‘drawing water’ — that is, casting long visible beams to the earth — the too-golden sunset and the increased range of hearing that meant rain to come; the hour of the change of the moon: ‘the nearer to midnight, the fouler the weather’, and its aspect in the sky, ‘holding water’ with horns upturned, or ‘well up’ with them pointing earthwards. If the slugs were about, she noticed it and prophesied rain; and when the rain came she would foretell if it would last long or not by the cows in Barn Close; if they went into the shelter of the elm trees it would soon be over, and if they stayed out in the field it would last a long time. Each spring we studied the trees to see whether oak or ash budded first, for:

If oak is out before the ash,
Then you’ll only get a dash;
But if ash is out before the oak,
Then you’ll surely get a soak.

Each summer the crop of apples, plums, and gooseberries was judged with as much connoisseurship as the wine-grower expends upon his vintage.

The window of the living-room looked out upon the path that led over the stile across Barn Close; here Mother would work in the afternoons and see every creature that passed by, and guess what took them there. In those days there was only a tiny shop in the village, and the tradesmen from Fenny Stratford regularly called: not merely baker and butcher and grocer, but draper and haberdasher and tailor too. Each was treated in some sense as a visitor, a little conversation was made, a little news exchanged, a little refreshment perhaps offered; and then a polite farewell, and Mother’s pleasant voice saying, ‘Thank you for calling’. Sometimes a strange drummer would come, and hope by briskness and flattery to make us buy something we did not need; but Mother could make short work of him.

‘The Broad and Narrow Way’, colour lithograph c 1883. Images on this theme circulated widely on the continent.  For the details of the ‘people in bustles and top hats’ see the British Museum website.

Amy and Nannie and I did much together. Amy was clever in letting me share in household tasks and in making me feel that I was really helping her; and when it came to choosing the colour of her cotton and threading her needle when she sewed I really was of use. I loved dusting the ornaments in the living-room: the china spaniels with lustred green spots, the pair of pottery birds’-nests full of eggs, which the green serpent was creeping up to steal; the brass candlesticks and the pink glass vases full of dyed grass. That was the moment for studying the pictures: the framed sampler by Rebecca Jackins, and the wonderful coloured print of The Broad and Narrow Way, with people in bustles and top hats painfully toiling towards salvation or cheerfully descending to a Hell too garish to be grim. On hot summer afternoons, when a blessed torpor descended on the house, Amy used to read the New Testament, tracing the raised capitals of her text with work-worn fingers, and letting the beauty of its language be music to her ear. When it was cooler, she and Nannie and I would sally forth for a walk through the fields. The country was not exciting; it undulated in wide shallow valleys, so that one was hardly conscious of the valley, but only of the elm-crowned ridge beyond that limited the horizon. The fields were large, in those days as much arable as pasture: the land poor, the arable full of weeds that I found more interesting than the corn, and the pasture seeming as rich in thistles as in grass. The trees were nearly all in the hedgerows, and mostly elms, with a few ash and oak. The hedges themselves were the most varied part of the landscape, mostly of hawthorn, but studded and draped with holly and elder, wild rose and bramble, ivy and traveller’s joy. The very economy of the landscape drove one to enjoy its details; I can remember learning there more of trees and plants – ash-keys and crab-apple blossom, the caterpillar-like attachments of ivy and the innumerable varieties of wild-rose and blackberry – than I ever did in less barren country. Amy, who had seen none of these things since she was five, seemed none the less to know them all: whereabouts in the hedge blackberries or crab-apples would be found, where wild violets might be hidden in the ditch beneath: and her quick fingers would tell as we passed through the cornfields whether they were sown with corn, or oats, or true barley, or the kind called ‘Hairy Jack’. She could not see the colour change as the straws dipped before the breeze, but she could enjoy the fairy music of the waving oats and the heavier murmur of the bowing corn. Our walks lay all round Milton, and each had its peculiar enticement: a raised causeway of planks over meadows flooded in the winter, a bridge over a slow stream with banks fragrant with meadowsweet and thyme, spinneys where white violets might be found at Easter, a lane with a wide water-filled ditch, with little bridges over it to the cottage gates, a hill-top with a view over to the pinewoods of Bow Brickhill. There were, too, friends whom we might go to visit: Uncle John, who lived at Woolston, who once gave Nannie a Georgian mahogany work-table that we carried all the way home through the fields and over the stiles; an old lace-making friend of Mother’s at Willen, who gave us flowers; and Mrs Holmes, the kind farmer’s wife, who would take us into her dairy and show me how to skim the cream. Apart from these recognized friends, and a few more who lived nearer at hand – Mrs Oakley at the Swan who had beautiful grey corkscrew curls, and Miss Bayliss, who was very kind to Amy – we did not see much of the rest of the village. Mother was a good neighbour, but fastidious in admitting people to intimacy; and indeed the village, that to Squire or parson might have seemed a homogeneous society, had as complicated a scheme of social gradations and as delicate a sense of social nuances as Victorian Mayfair. The parson was a great gentleman – a Wykeham-Twistleton-Fiennes – above these difficulties in virtue of his birth and his generous Christianity; but even so we had a feeling that he felt more at home with Mother than with some people.

I have failed, I know, to recapture the particular aroma of Milton, though sometimes some chance scent or phrase or sound can still transport me there. I cannot give anyone else knowledge of its peace and charity, its old-fashioned mirth and thrift, its limitations and its great heartedness, for they belong to a past chapter of the life of England, that is nearer to the England of the Canterbury Tales than to the England of today. Nor in Milton now can I find even the outward semblance of what was home. For 1909 was a very hot, dry summer, and one day (when we were not there) a long-smouldering beam in the great old chimney burst into flame and fired the thatch. Mother had broken her thigh, and was helpless and bedridden; Amy did what she could, but it was pitifully little. Mother was safely carried out, and some of the furniture from the kitchen and living-room was rescued; but all else disappeared in smoke and fire. The cottage has never been rebuilt. Years later I revisited it. Mother’s flower garden had been overwhelmed in the ruins; the bricks were overgrown; the garden had become a potato field. Only by digging a little in a rubbish heap did I come on a fragment of the familiar chequer of the kitchen floor. How shall an excavator without other knowledge know the fine character and beauty of a civilization thus discovered? I have lived to find a home and a life I have known in ruins; and by virtue of this experience I have lost my faith in any kind of archaeology that does not attempt imaginative reconstruction.

[For the location of the Hancock cottage see Nick Hubbard’s website.]

 

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Global Histories of Lace: From the collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum

Under large glass case to one side of the ground floor of the Pitt Rivers Museum stands a lace maker’s pillow on a lace maker’s ‘horse’, a specially constructed wooden stand. A half-finished sample of lace is pinned to the pillow, a mass of bobbins handing from the pins used to create the intricate pattern. This lace maker’s pillow seems to be a small piece of English history marooned amongst the shrunken heads, baskets, pottery and shields of the Museum’s ethnographic collection. If one traces the history of English lace and lace making traditions through the Pitt River’s collection, it becomes clear that the history of lace and lace making follows the contours of European history itself, the fortunes of England’s lace makers rising and falling together with the religious schisms, economic policies, and changing political alliances between British and Continental rulers over time. Styles of lace we now identify as ‘English’ emerged from the courtly traditions and trade routes of Early Modern Europe, and quickly differentiated into local variants, such as Honiton or Bucks Point, shifting and changing with both domestic and international fashions. However, using the Pitt River’s collection to study traditions of English lace and lace making also reveals the contours of Britain’s own expansionist dreams: Silk lace from in South East Asia and palm needles from Amazonia are just a few of the objects in the Pitt-Rivers collection which serve to remind us that everywhere the technique traveled it became part of local practices and identities.

English lace maker’s ‘horse’ and pillow on exhibit in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.

Interest in lace and making lace was spread across the globe together with the imperial ambitions of the major European powers. The technique was carried to North America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa by emigrants, while Spanish, French, and British educationalists and missionaries taught Native Americans, Amazonians, Indians, and Sri Lankans the technique as part and parcel of their proselytizing efforts. Some of the geographic connections are exotic and reveal the way in which the technique and its instruments were taken up and adjusted to local conditions. In the Museum collection, for example, we find a pottery figure of a woman making pillow lace from Bello Jardem, Pernambuco State, Brazil (1945.2.16 – given by Dr Martins Gonçalves, British Council student, Slade School, Ashmolean Museum). From a similar area are eight bobbins(‘birros’) made of the fruit of the Tucuma palm, Amazonia used for making pillow lace (1961.7.56.1) given to the museum by Dr F. N. Howes, Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew.

By a complex set of connections, the Pitt Rivers Museum acquired lace from in and around Galle on the south coast of what was then Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The lace was collected by Mrs Bland at the beginning of the twentieth century, it then came into the possession of Flora Shelford who lived in Old Headington and who donated it to the Pitt Rivers Museum in August 1919 (Accession number 1919.27.89). In a letter to Mrs Bland, Marion Evans of the Government Training College in Galle wrote ‘Fifty years ago, Honiton was made in Colombo … You will find good quality typical (i.e. Torchon) Ceylon lace in Galle Convent Industrial School, where they are also making a beginning with fine laces; in Moratuwa we have duchess and Valenciennes laces – in Kurunegola good Torchon and a little finer pillow lace – Spanish designs. In Kandy you will find bold pillow lace in the Convent School: but the Church Missionary Society has lace of a better quality…’ (letter from Marion Evans to Mrs Bland 19th April 1908 in Related Documents file linked to Accession Number 1919.27.89). In the same letter Marion Evans speculates as to whether local objects have inspired designs, such as mangoes and whether influences from Eastern Art (capitalized in the original) might eventually extend the range of lace styles.

Lace maker, Sri Lanka

 

As we see from the letter, the names of different styles and qualities of bobbin lace were common knowledge amongst most middle-class women in Britain, but lace itself had already become a global fashion item and a global commodity. Elsewhere in its collections, the Pitt Rivers has bobbins and samples of lace, sometimes done in silk, from Malacca in Malaysia. This was again through Mrs Bland, of whom Flora Shelford wrote ‘My brother-in-law and I have been winding up the house in Letchworth and came across a collection of lace specimens …  My sister did a great deal, as you may know, to revive the native industries in Malacca, and lace was one of these…’ (Flora Shelford letter to Balfour August 1919, Related documents File connected to accession book entry 1919.27.68). As in the case of Mrs. Bland’s efforts in Malacca, the formation of such ‘native  industries’ were often sparked by efforts of female missionaries and colonial officer’s wives to supply local women with a small income. A similar story is found in Travancore, South India. Here, the missionary Mrs Mault established the Nagercoil boarding school for the daughters of Christian converts in 1898 (Haggis 2000). Although the school prepared young women for the university entrance exams, lace-making was an obligatory part of the curriculum. Marketing the lace through throughout British cantonments in Southern India, it not only supplied the pupils with a small income, but eventually came to provide ‘the major financial underpinning of women’s work in the mission’ (2000:115). In Travancore, Christian philanthropy and bourgeois ideals of gendered behaviour become inextricably linked through the medium of lace making. As historian Jane Haggis notes, ‘the missionary wives saw the lace industry as another opportunity to instil those ‘habits of order, cleanliness, industry’ seen to be at the heart of a good Christian home’ (2000:116). Lace making supplied women with an income, and young women with the means to stave off marriage and continue their educations, and kept them from the ‘influence of wicked associates and sinful examples’ (2000:113) while supporting the Christian cause. More importantly, they could do this while staying at home: ‘Sewing and lace making fitted the missionary wives’ idea of ‘respectable’ and ‘useful’ skills for Christian housewives (2000:116). It appears, then, that the ‘utopian commodity consumption’ had been exported to the colonies. Along the way, however, it had garnered the additional virtue of becoming a tool of social and spiritual emancipation. Indeed, in one story recounted by a Travancore missionary, the skills and income of a native ‘lace lady’ (lace maker) enabled her to educated her daughter into a ‘Native Lady dressed in the costume of a Hospital Nurse – with polished, ladylike manners, speaking English with perfect ease and correctness’ (2000:117). Thus, the craft was construed as an instrument of enlightenment in the colonial setting: here, lace making was ‘English’, and ‘Englishness’ was marked out not by the presence of ancient cultural ‘survivals’, but the abandonment of indigenous ways of life in favour of civilized modernity.

While bobbin lace making was a European tradition, the Pitt River’s collection sheds light on how the craft was also a mobile technology which travelled across the entire globe with changing flows of people, materials, and ideas. Lace could therefore be made in an ‘English’ style (or ‘Flemish’ or ‘French’ style), but was also global, taking on and forming local identities as it moved across the world, local variants such as Honiton or Beds Maltese being made using silk in South East Asia and palm needles in Amazonia.

Sources:

Haggis, J. 2000. Ironies of
Emancipation: Changing configurations of ‘Women’s work’ on the ‘mission of
sisterhood’ to Indian women. Feminist Review, 65(3):108-126.

Envisioning Lace at the Ashmolean

In a corner of the Ashmolean’s Textile exhibit hangs a rare portrait of a working lacemaker by the Danish painter Bernhard Keilhau (1624 – 1687). Dressed simply in a white shirt, plain open bodice, skirt and apron, she is depicted as working a large bolster pillow balanced on her lap, a scarf hastily tied around her head. Unusually for a portrait of a lacemaker, she is neither looking down at her work, nor at the viewer, but seems momentarily distracted by something or someone beyond the frame. A pupil of Rembrandt, Keilhau depicted the lacemaker as part of a larger composition of genre scenes which epitomised the five senses. Within this composition, the lacemaker is thought to be an allegory of sight[1].

The Lacemaker. Berhard Keilhau (1624 - 1687) WA1966.65 (c) The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation.

The Lacemaker. Berhard Keilhau (1624 – 1687) WA1966.65 (c) The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation.

Good eyesight is, of course, essential for any artisan. And yet, lace is profoundly connected to the visual in other way, too. First of all, it relies on the visual for its impact: what gives lace its particular material resonance is the manner in which it plays and manipulates the notion of surface, always begging the question whether it is the weave or the spaces in between which constitute the pattern. Lace is always partially concealing and partially revealing the surfaces it edges or covers. Secondly, because lace is such a delicate textile, visual sources are often the only way in which can study historical pieces. Along with pattern books, looking at paintings and portraits is our primary way to understand how fashions for lace changed over time, how lace was worn, and its visual impact as part of historical costume. Identifying and dating lace from visual sources, however, is never straightforward. Not only because painters often took some artistic license when portraying lace on garments, but because lace was often collected, inherited, and re-used on garments over time – even by the wealthy and the nobility. Seen through the subsequent fussiness of Victorian styles and 20th century machine-made laces, it is easy to forget that until well into the 18th century such fine laces were considered a form of transferable wealth on par with gold or gems.

As part of the Lace in Context project, David Hopkin and I became interested in understanding how lace is identified from visual materials, and what challenges this poses to scholars and collectors of lace. By bringing lace makers into the museum, we wanted to start a dialogue amongst practitioners, artists, and academics about how lace is portrayed in the visual arts, and how it might be ‘read’ back for purposes of identification. On the 7th of June, we invited Oxford’s Isis Lacemakers, as well as Gwynedd Roberts (Honorary Curator at the Lace Guild Museum) to view the Ashmolean’s collection of portraits. We were lucky enough to recruit the artist Teresa Whitfield to come and speak to us briefly about her work rendering lace in pen and ink, as well as to accompany us around the gallery. Tracing the way lace had been portrayed in portraiture across the European continent, we found not only varying approaches to depicting laces, but also a great difference in the importance artists from different countries and period gave lace in their portraits.

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The British tradition of wearing and making bobbin lace can be traced back as far as the mid-16th century and was well-established by the reign of Elizabeth the First (Yallop 1992). The technique, however, is even older: the earliest known pattern books Le Pompe (1557) and Nüw Modelbuch, allerly Gattungen Däntelschnür (1561) were printed in Venice and Zürich, respectively, and point to Italy as the origin of the technique (Sciama 1992). From there, both the fashion for lace and the knowledge of its manufacture spread along trade routes from modern-day Switzerland to France, Flanders, and then across the channel to Britain. The fashion for large ruffs – well known from contemporary portraits of Queen Elizabeth – and then for copious amounts of lace neckties, collars, and cuffs worn by both men and women until the early 19th century, led to a real expansion in the production of lace throughout Europe. A beautiful example of lace from this early period can be seen in the portraits of the Tradescant family housed in the ‘Ark to Ashmolean’ exhibit in the Museum’s new lower ground floor. Painted over a number of years between 1630-1650s, they depict Hester Tradescant, the second wife of John Tradescant the Younger, and her stepchildren. A family of gardeners and garden designers to the nobility, the Tradescants amassed the collection of rarities which would later form the basis of the Ashmolean. Housed in their residence at Lambeth, affectionately known as the ‘Ark’, their cabinet of curiosities was open to the public for a fee[2].

Hester Tradescant and Stepson. Attributed to Thomas de Critz (1607-1653) WA1898.14

Hester Tradescant and Stepson. Attributed to Thomas de Critz (1607-1653) WA1898.14

Frances Tradescant. British Artist (c. 1638) WA 1898.17

Frances Tradescant. British Artist (c. 1638) WA 1898.17

Equally impressive are the lace ruffs and cuffs are found on two Dutch portraits from the same period exhibited as part of the Museum’s Dutch Art collection on the second floor. In one portrait by Jan Cornelisz Verspronck (1606-1662), a young woman in rich, black brocade is depicted wearing lace cuffs, a lace-lined ‘bertha’ covering her square décolletage, and an enormous ‘millstone’ ruff. Her hair is covered by a delicate matron’s cap edged with more lace. Standing out against the stark, black background of her dress, the abundance of lace not only framed and highlighted the only visible parts of her body (the hands, the face, and her chest), but – along with her fine gloves and massive gold bracelet – also underscored her high social standing. Even more striking is the neighbouring portrait of a wealthy middle-class woman from Haarlem. The portraits of the Tradescant family and this portrait from the Dutch Golden Age belong to a period when fashions for heavy, dark textiles, as well as standing collars and ruffs, demanded bold, often geometric needle and bobbin laces. Indeed, until the 18th century, it was the richer forms of Italian laces such as Venetian needlepoint and Milanese bobbin lace which dominated fashions until lighter needle laces from Argentan and Alençon in France, and bobbin laces from Binche, Valenciennes, and Mechlin in Fanders gained popularity both in Britain and on the Continent.

Portrait of a Lady. Jan Cornelisz Verspronck. (c.1606/9-1662) WA.2004.102

Portrait of a Lady. Jan Cornelisz Verspronck. (c.1606/9-1662) WA.2004.102

Two portraits in the Ashmolean reflect this change in fashions. The first is a portrait of woman by the French painter Jean-Francois de Troy (1679-1752). One of the leading history painters of the day, Le Troy is new best known for the series tableaux de modes, in which he accurately depicted the fashions and pastimes of the aristocracy (Casely et. al. 2004). The second is a portrait of a gentleman by the French painter Etienne Aubry (1745-17881) made in about the year 1777. Dressed in a dark, slim-cut coat fashionable for its time, and a scarlet waistcoat, the gentleman wears a wig and a simple cravat augmented by a slim lace frill. Both portraits show not only how radically fashions for laces changed, but also a fundamentally different approach to the visual depiction of lace by portrait artists: while the painters of the Dutch Golden Age took produced meticulous depictions of fat lace collars, cuffs, and ruffs, French painters of the 17th and 18th century preferred a far more impressionistic approach, using a few, light brushstrokes. This probably reflected both the different material nature of 18th century styles of lace, as well as a move towards intimacy, narrative, and sentimentalism in French art.

Portrait of a Gentleman. Etienne Aubry (1745-1781) WA 1986.76

Portrait of a Gentleman. Etienne Aubry (1745-1781) WA 1986.76

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For the people portrayed in these pictures, however, the choice of what to lace to wear was not solely dictated by fashion. Bans on the import of foreign laces in England, France, Spain and other countries, show that even in the Early Modern period cloth, clothing, and fashion were seen as having the ‘power to materially articulate national identity’, leading anxieties about the economy to be ‘written over as a narrative of uncertainty and anxiety about national distinctions’ (Hentschell 2002:546). As a precious commodity, the trade and manufacture of lace was a subject of interest to parliament throughout the Early Modern period and the Restoration. Dealers of English lace competing with fine lace made in France, Belgium and Italy for customers appealed to consumers to buy with their patrimony in mind. Indeed, lace and lace manufacture became linked to civic patriotism precisely through appeals to the consumption habits of the nobility and the growing bourgeoisie. Thus, a Mrs. Dorothy Holt appealed to the ‘Ladies of Great Britain’ in a pamphlet of 1757 to ‘help circulate and distribute to the best Advantage, that Money which will arise from this their Native, English, Valuable and most Ornamental Manufacture; which will wear better than French point, Brussels lace, or Minonette’ (Holt 1757, emphasis in the original). Believing that the control of foreign trade was paramount to ensuring national prosperity, the Parliament imposed heavy import duties were imposed on foreign made lace in the 17th century and only lifted in 1860.

HoltLadies

By the start of the 18th Century, lace making had become a major rural industry in England. The fortunes of artisans and lace traders were not only determined by changing fashions and the fluctuating trade policies of Parliament, but also larger questions of foreign policy and power-shifts on the Continent itself. Characteristically, lace makers in England saw their wages rise when the French went to war: Lace makers in the East Midlands, for example, enjoyed relative prosperity during and after the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). Even in such periods of commercial success, however, only a minute portion of the overall profits of the trade ever made it into the hands of the lace makers themselves. From 19th century sources, we know that the reality of a lace maker’s life was often harsh: Working from home, women were often forced to work for 8 to 10 hours daily, as well as running the household. It was during this time, that earlier calls for the patriotic consumption of English lace and civic philanthropy towards lace makers were joined by the socialism of William Morris and Ruskinian celebrations of craft, which advocated the preservation of handicrafts believed to be disappearing under the pressures of industrial manufacturing. Both Morris and Ruskin shared what Peter Mandler (1997) has called an anti-establishment, ‘rural nostalgic’ view of Englishness, and sought to protect rural crafts from the encroachment of urban, industrial.

This passion for the simple authenticity of craft was shared by another mid-19th century artistic movement, namely the Pre-Raphaelites. In the Ashmolean’s Pre-Raphaelites gallery hangs a portrait of Mrs Coventry Patmore from about 1856. A wide band of lace graces her low neckline, gracefully accenting her pale, sloping shoulders which would have been highly fashionable at the time. Mrs Patmore was the wife of essayist and poet Coventry Patmore, an influential friend of the Pre-Raphaelites. Their marriage was the subject of Patmore’s popular series of poems ‘The Angel in the House’; a phrase which has now come to encapsulate the cultural ideals of domestic femininity to which Victorian women were expected to aspire. Lace and lacemaking were often extolled as offering women a virtuous way out of poverty by members of the establishment. Yet, it is difficult to determine what kind of lace Mrs Patmore is wearing in the portrait. It is painted rather clumsily and does not seem have any discernible rhythmic pattern. What is certain, is that it does not resemble any kind of lace made in Britain at the time. In the 19th century, a widespread passion for antique lace meant copies of old laces were made, as well as much older pieces taken apart and re-fashioned to contemporary tastes (Leader 2010). This means it could very well have been a piece of antique lace. Or simply a phantasy put together by an artist not very familiar with the material itself. Regardless, it perhaps best illustrates the problems of trying to read and identify lace from visual sources.

Mrs Coventry Patmore. John Brett (1831-1902) WA1998.217

Mrs Coventry Patmore. John Brett (1831-1902) WA1998.217

Sources:

Caseley, Catherine. 2004. Ashmolean Museum: Complete Illustrated Catalogue of Paintings. Oxford: The Asmolean Museum.

Hentschell, R. 2002. Treasonous Textiles: Foreign Cloth and the Construction of Englishness. Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 32(2): 543-570.

Holt, D. 1757. An Address Humbly Offers to the Ladies of Great Britain Relating to the Most valuable Part of Ornamental Manufacture in their Dress. London: A.Millar, J.Whiston and B. White, and R. and J. Dodsley.

Leader, Jane. 2010. Identifying Lace. DATS in partnership with the Victoria and Albert Museum. Available at http://www.dressandtextilespecialists.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Identifying-Handmade-lace.pdf.

Sciama, L. 1992. Lacemaking in Venetian Culture, in Dress and Gender: Making and Meaning, R. Barnes and J.B. Eicher (eds). Oxford and New York: Berg.

Yallop, H.J. 1992. The History of the Honiton Lace Industry. Exeter: University of Exeter Press.

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[2] http://www.ashmolean.org/ash/amulets/tradescant/tradescant00.html

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