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UNFINISHED EMBROIDERED PICTURE OF REBECCA AND ELIEZER AT THE WELL
English, third quarter of the 17th c.

An extraordinary yet incomplete accomplishment, this embroidered satin picture highlights practices within a well-established seventeenth-century industry—that of professional embroiderers who decorated a variety of objects for elite clientele. Worked in polychrome silk and an assortment of metallic elements, this unfinished embroidery displays not only refined drawing and exquisite technical manipulation of materials, but also a special feature—the elaborate cartouche—all of which undisputedly classify this piece as a commercial product.

The print source for the central scene is an engraved plate from the Thesaurus Sacrarum Historiarum Veteris Testamenti (Dictionary of Sacred Stories from the Old Testament), published in Antwerp in 1585 by Gerard de Jode. Here, Eliezer, servant of Abraham, is depicted at the well with Rebecca—her hospitality in this encounter convinces Eliezer that she would be an ideal bride for his master’s son, Isaac. Eliezer kneels and drinks from the jar offered to him by Rebecca; at left is the well, embellished with mica and elongated silk purl ripples for an aquatic effect, and at right, Eliezer’s thirsty camels await refreshment. As in the engraving, both figures are dressed in classically inspired garb—however, this interpretation was updated with contemporizing details like fashionable coiffures and square-toed shoes. The richness and texture of their attire is due to the extensive use of couching. Rebecca’s gown is crafted from twisted silk threads mingled with silver strip couched with silver wire; Eliezer’s tabbed tunic makes judicious use of yellow and blue silk to couch gold- and silver-wrapped threads, respectively, each color chosen to enhance the metallic tones. His cloak—approximating a brocaded silk—masterfully combines a backdrop of couched silver metallic-wrapped threads with over-embroidered tent stitch floral motifs. Sensitive details such as the figures’ subtle expressions and the choice of Ceylon stitch, which resembles knit, for their stockings enliven this tender scene.

The unfinished state of this picture allows a rare glimpse into the progress of the embroidery. Focal points—the biblical vignette and the symbolic stag, unicorn, leopard, and lion—were attended to first using French knots, brick, long-and-short satin, couching, split, and speckling stitches. Small insect motifs, which bring whimsy to an otherwise formal arrangement, were likely worked as an intermediary step before the decorative floral vases and sprigs, which were saved for last and may have been reserved for slip appliqués. Complexity of stitches and range of materials also dictated which areas required serious concentration therefore the key areas of the composition were allotted the most lavish resources and time. Precisely drawn in black ink against a smooth ivory satin ground, the unworked motifs reveal the assured control of a practiced hand. Applying liquid pigment to an absorbent surface required expertise; for this reason, kits of ready-drawn fabric panels were available for purchase at professional establishments. If the foundation was acquired this way, an unfinished piece of domestic embroidery would show similarly fine-lined designs—however, the overall quality of this picture exempts any possibility that it was made in an amateur context.

A defining characteristic of professional work which further underscores this conclusion is the abundant use of metal. These reflective materials—delicate metallic-wrapped silk thread, broad and narrow metal coil, hammered wire, and purl—play off the lustrous ground. In particular, the ornate framing device is almost entirely composed of metallic components. Silk-wrapped purl in shades of green was couched following the leafy contours; the petal-lobes were formed from segments of blue, red and peach silk purl laid in a basket-weave pattern over gilded metal strips for extra brilliance. Thick coils of flat silver strip delineate the curling motifs and the frame is punctuated with gold-tone bosses of plain and spiraling coil called checked purl. Entwined with foliate flourishes, the prominent cartouche relates to a group of embroidered pictures with strikingly similar embellished oval frames. One of these compositions, found in Blair Castle, Perthshire, is signed in the lower margin: Jo. Nelham, Suger Lofe, Grayfriars, Newgate Market. John Nelham (d. 1694), a respected professional embroiderer and member of the Broderer’s Company, had a shop at this location between 1654 and 1666—whether or not he was responsible for crafting the entire output of oval-frame pictures cannot be determined, but it is reasonable to suggest that this particular theme originated in his professional sphere.

Unfinished pieces are found in important collections. An incomplete mid-seventeenth century embroidered satin picture was purchased by Sir William Burrell in 1921 (Burrell Collection 29/311); a sheet of inked and partially worked cabinet panels, ca. 1660, is among the rare embroidered objects in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1998.541).

19.75” H x 24.25” W

 
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