A RARE AND IMPORTANT RAISEDWORK AND NEEDLEWORK MIRROR
English, third quarter of the 17th c.
A mirror was a luxury object in seventeenth-century English interiors; not only was the specially prepared glass precious, but frames were an equally important expression of material wealth. For women of the leisure class, a mirror was an indispensable aid in deportment and self-presentation. Whether suspended above a dressing table or carried in the form of a small, portable looking glass, access to a reflective surface was an elite privilege. Also attesting to the ease of gentrified life was the domestic embroiderer’s penchant to embellish household items. This spectacular mirror frame—a masterpiece of needlework—complements the inherent value of the quicksilvered glass as well as demonstrates the remarkable abilities of the maker.
Decoration of a mirror frame was the culmination of a young woman’s proficiency in needlework—a skill that was above all practical but could be used to incredibly artistic effect. The silk satin ground would have been supplied with the main motifs already drawn. The placement of castles, figures and the leopard and lion in the corners—features so characteristic of Stuart embroidery composition—support this practice. A profusion of flowers, insects and animals constitute a medley of smaller motifs; scattered with little regard to proportion or relationship, these were probably copied from popular pattern sources. Symbolic themes, including the seated lutanist (an allegorical representation of music) and the familiar pairing of kingfisher and parrot, alluding to masculine and feminine ideals, add subtle layers of meaning. Though the designs were preexisting, the choices in execution were entirely the needleworker’s domain. Here, the motifs are worked in polychrome silk, silk-wrapped cord and purl in textural stitches—detached buttonhole, satin and long-and-short stitches, French knots, speckling, mosswork, chenille work, and couching—with wondrous variety. Naturally occurring materials were cleverly employed as well: peacock feather filaments add iridescence to the occasional insect, a tuft of fur forms a squirrel’s tail and mica and seed pearls add luminous detail. That there is extensive use of raisedwork in this frame underscores its virtuosity and rarity: the three-dimensional technique was complex and only briefly popular in the seventeenth century. To create the desired contours, raised motifs were worked over soft, covered pads and finished with a flat surface on the reverse; the separate components were then couched in place on the ground fabric with cord or gimp to conceal the joins. Faces and hands were often carved from boxwood and covered with embroidered or painted silk, as in this example.
Costume depictions in embroideries of this period
were lavished with the most enthusiastic, inventive
embroidery, and the properties of raisedwork
afforded a richer display of fashions. Here,
details of dress are exquisitely worked and show
careful observation. In the setting of a pleasure
garden with an Italianate fountain and grotto,
a handsomely attired couple gesture to each other
across the mirror. The dashing cavalier, hat
in hand, wears a doublet and long-legged, ribbon-trimmed
breeches. A pearl-studded sword and shoulder
belt, draped cloak and bucket-top boots strapped
with butterfly spur leathers enhance his outfit.
Holding a delicate bouquet, the lady wears a
satin gown entirely embroidered with miniature
floral sprigs. The tight V-shaped bodice is cinched
with a pearl-encrusted girdle, and the long,
voluminous skirt opens in front to reveal a glimpse
of crimson taffeta lining. Both figures have
needlelace collars and cuffs and long, curly
thread locks; her skirt and fluttering shawl,
as well as his cloak, have flexible wire armatures
that allow the garments to stand away for a heightened
dimensional effect. In all, these figures illustrate
the sartorial elegance of the age.