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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.