John Hewson and the French connection

Editorial Staff

Editorial Staff

August 2008 | The British-born John Hewson (Fig. 10) was one of the earliest and finest chintz printers in the United States, most widely recognized for the beautiful cotton he block printed with an amphora vase holding a bouquet of garden flowers (see Fig. 1). Having worked as a dyer and bleacher for Ollive and Talwin at Bromley Hall in Middlesex, he immigrated to Philadelphia before the American Revolution to start a business printing and dyeing fabrics to compete with those being imported from England. A dearth of surviving business records and textiles makes it impossible to distinguish all but a few of his prints, but fortunately his will and other family records, as well as his newspaper advertisements, have helped to piece together his story.1

Based on Hewson’s English heritage and training, textile historians have generally applied British sensibilities to his designs and seen them as further influenced by Dutch flower paintings, standard eighteenth-century embroidery patterns, and East Indian palampores. In 2004, however, I realized that a 1930s photograph of an eighteenth-century French wallpaper (Fig. 3) provides convincing evidence that Hewson turned to France for the image of the vase and flowers,2 perhaps not so surprising when one considers that many Parisians, including skilled wallpaper and textile workers fleeing the French Revolution and war with England in 1793, took refuge in Philadelphia. Manufacturers and artists often copied or combined patterns to form new designs, and Hewson was no exception. In addition to replicating the Louis XVI vase with flowers motif, he seems to have been influenced by the Chinese manner of wallpaper design, as well as by Indian palampores. He created desirable chintz fabrics that were distinctive from those that were regularly imported into Philadelphia and so ensured his success in the ongoing competition.

Hewson printed the vase with flowers in both the center of whole-cloth bedcovers and on smaller square panels that needleworkers incorporated into quilts. The motif was popular across the decorative arts starting about 1780,3 including in the arabesque wallpapers produced by the prominent Parisian wallpaper manufacturer Jean Baptiste Réveillon (1725-1811. However, very little is known about the paper that provided Hewson with his design. It is not recorded in any wallpaper sample books of the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries,4 and is known primarily through photographs (see Fig. 3) that document that Isabella Hunnewell Barclay, a dealer in French and English antiques, brought fourteen panels of it to New York City in the early 1930s. In 1933 it was among about one hundred wallpapers and pieces of furniture she exhibited at a fundraiser for the Architects’ Emergency Fund held in New York City, where it was identified as Italian of about 1790,5 no doubt because Barclay had acquired it from a house in northern Italy. Later she labeled it “Louis XVI, attributed to Pergolesi,”6 but the published designs of Michelangelo Pergolesi (w. 1777–1792) show no similarities to the ornament on the paper.7 Wallpaper historians now generally agree that the paper is French and in the style of Réveillon, but it cannot be documented to his manufacture.8 They speculate that it may have been made by Réveillon’s successors Pierre Jacquemart and Eugène Balthasar Crescent Bénard de Moussinières, who acquired his blocks, designs, paints, and paper with the factory in 1791. Hewson printed the vase with flowers in both the center of whole-cloth bedcovers and on smaller square panels that needleworkers incorporated into quilts. The motif was popular across the decorative arts starting about 1780,3 including in the arabesque wallpapers produced by the prominent Parisian wallpaper manufacturer Jean Baptiste Réveillon (1725–1811. However, very little is known about the paper that provided Hewson with his design. It is not recorded in any wallpaper sample books of the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries,4 and is known primarily through photographs (see Fig. 3) that document that Isabella Hunnewell Barclay, a dealer in French and English antiques, brought fourteen panels of it to New York City in the early 1930s. In 1933 it was among about one hundred wallpapers and pieces of furniture she exhibited at a fundraiser for the Architects’ Emergency Fund held in New York City, where it was identified as Italian of about 1790,5 no doubt because Barclay had acquired it from a house in northern Italy. Later she labeled it “Louis XVI, attributed to Pergolesi,”6 but the published designs of Michelangelo Pergolesi (w. 1777–1792) show no similarities to the ornament on the paper.7 Wallpaper historians now generally agree that the paper is French and in the style of Réveillon, but it cannot be documented to his manufacture.8 They speculate that it may have been made by Réveillon’s successors Pierre Jacquemart and Eugène Balthasar Crescent Bénard de Moussinières, who acquired his blocks, designs, paints, and paper with the factory in 1791.

Barclay sold her wallpaper to French and Company in New York City in 1949, and when that firm closed in 1968 Charles R. Gracie and Sons bought the paper at auction, eventually selling it in 1987 for use in a private residence.9 It is almost certainly the paper shown in Figure 2, which has recently come to light.10 In coloring, Hewson’s design presumably reflects the tastes of his clientele, with its polychrome vase and flowers differing from those in the wallpaper, which has relatively monotone vases in greens and grays, and flowers in warm reds, a combination not uncommon in late arabesque wallpapers.11 Significantly, the border paper shown with it in Barclay’s studio is recorded in a Réveillon sample collection dated 1789;12 and that border paper is known to have been available in Philadelphia in 1795, when a French émigré upholsterer there, George Bertault (w. c. 1792–1817), provided it to Henry Knox (1750–1806), the outgoing secretary of war.13 Such wallpaper borders, often with black, brown, orange, violet, and green coloring, are referred to as Pompeian and are frequently interpreted as of the Directoire period, but Bernard Jacqué has found evidence that such borders were hanging at the Tuileries from 1789 to 1792.14

In adapting the vase of flowers for his design, Hewson changed the Gre-co-Roman base of the vase, made minor changes at the top of the bouquet, and added varying numbers of butterflies. He placed the vase on a small plot of ground reminiscent of features he would have known from Chinese bird and flower wallpapers and on Indian textiles with the tree of life motif (see Fig. 7). Although few examples survive, Chinese wallpaper came into the American colonies decades earlier than French arabesque papers; it was also more expensive and prized, and demand for it only increased as the eighteenth century wore on.15

Aesthetically, Chinese wallpapers were dramatically different from European patterns: they are not ornamented with repeating motifs but are large realistic depictions of naturalized flowering trees, birds, and figures hand-painted without any point perspective or shading; in some patterns motifs appear stacked one above another as they climb up a wall.16 The earlier papers have more space between the elements, while those made later for the West have a much more crowded appearance.17 Hewson seems to have been influenced by many of these characteristics in his designs, stacking his arrangements of birds and trees and eliminating shading and point perspective. Judging by surviving examples, he allowed ample space between the motifs, but if a customer requested it, he also made custom orders that appear much more crowded.18 The connections to Chinese wallpapers do not stop here. Most of Hewson’s motifs were variations of a bird on a branch and flowering bushes, the motifs most commonly found on Chinese wallpapers. On the latter the birds are often painted so realistically that the species is identifiable;19 Hewson’s are not that precise, but they generally resemble parrots due to their blue, red, green, and yellow plumage. The ceiling paper in Barclay’s studio photograph20 shows a parrot in flight that is similar to, but not the same as, the flying bird motif on the quilt in Figure 5.

That quilt was originally a whole-cloth bedcover that was later enlarged with two pieced strips inserted in the vertical borders.21 As with the whole-cloth example in Figure 6, the original conception confirms the relationship between Hewson’s designs and those of Indian palam-pores (see Fig. 7), with their central organic motif, ornately printed borders, and delicate flowering bushes. A comparison of the bedcovers in Figures 5 and 6 also shows how Hewson changed his layout so that it looked better when actually on a bed. On the example in Figure 5 the base of every motif is oriented downward, as if the cover was designed to hang on a wall like wallpaper. Indeed, with its repeated motifs in rows there is no mistaking its resemblance to bordered wallpaper, which was probably Hewson’s inspiration for the design. It was likely one of his earliest conceptions for whole-cloth bedcovers, a hypothesis supported by the uneven quality of the printing, with nonaligned horizontal baselines, irregular spacing, and missing elements in an otherwise symmetrical design. It also differs from his other known printed bedcovers, such as the one in Fig. 6,22 in its smaller size, rectangular center, certain of the motifs, and inner border. Thus, Hewson appears to have eliminated this pattern and most of the motifs from his repertoire and developed the design represented by the example in Figure 6. Its composition is far more successful as a bedcover, in part because he changed the orientation of the motifs so that they all face toward the central vase and flowers, with the result that, when the spread was on a bed, the ornament that hung down appeared upright.

The largest number of extant Hewson textiles comprises the separate panels needleworkers incorporated into the center of quilts. In his day commemorative handkerchiefs and embroidered panels were occasionally used in this manner, but Hewson’s panels predate the practice of quilts with colorful printed chintz medallions, some shaped in octogans or ovals, that came into fashion from 1815.23

Hewson’s panels offered his clients a variety of other options, including one that may have been inspired by wallpaper use. The Chinese issued separate sheets of decorative elements, such as birds, flowers, tree branches, and butterflies, which could be cut out and pasted to wallpaper to cover seams or damaged areas, or to embellish emptier spaces.24 In France, too, objets en feuille, including printed medallions and architectural elements, were sold with plain wallpaper, so that buyers could customize designs on their own walls.25 In England the concept was manifest as “print rooms,” where engravings, often of monuments, ruins, or floral subjects, were pasted on a wall and surrounded by wallpaper frames to look like pictures.26 Judging by five appliqué bedcoverings that contain Hewson cutout motifs, his customers similarly excised individual elements from his panels and appliquéd them onto quilts (see Fig. 8).27 Such appliqué quilts were first made near the end of the eighteenth century and were rare until the nineteenth. It seems possible that Hewson arranged the motifs on his panels in the Chinese manner to leave sufficient space around them to allow them to be easily cut out for use as appliqués. A needleworker could also cut out a motif in a square and use it in a patchwork quilt, as Hewson’s second wife, Zibiah Smallwood (Fig. 9), did on the example in Figure 11. She used eight squares containing bird motifs as blocks for the corners of the patchwork borders framing her vase and flowers panel.

Given that Philadelphia led the country in manufacturing wallpaper during the second half of the eighteenth century, while continuing to import regularly, it is not surprising that Hewson was influenced by wallpaper designs.28 At this time women preferred en suite decor, so an upholsterer might well commission Hewson to print chintz for bedcovers and other textiles using the customer’s wallpaper as a model.29 From there it would have been easy to alter the motifs and borders and print his own designs to sell as is or customized as requested. In his quest to compete with imported fabrics, Hewson found innovative ways to fulfill Philadelphians’ demands for the taste of France, China, and India in their interiors. His ingenuity culminated in a unique stamp on cotton that marks his work to this day.

1 For more about Hewson and his textiles, see Kimberly Wulfert, “The Man of Many Vases: John Hewson, Calico Printer,” Folk Art: Magazine of the American Folk Art Museum (Fall 2007), pp. 58–69.
2 The photograph appeared in Richard C. Nylander, Elizabeth Redmond, and Penny J. Sander, Wallpaper in New England (Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, Boston, 1986), p. 73, Fig. 13b, where it was said to date from 1940 to 1950, but it was probably taken in the 1930s because it shows a view very similar to that in a photograph in Walter Rendell Storey, “The Lore that Belongs to Wallpapers,” New York Times, November 26, 1933.
3 Bernard Jacqué, “Luxury Perfected: The Ascendancy of French Wallpaper 1770–1870,” in The Papered Wall: History, Pattern, Technique, ed. Lesley Hoskins (Abrams, New York, 1994), pp. 59–60; and Hans Ottomeyer, The Metamorphosis of the Neoclassical Vase,” Vasemania, Neoclassical Form and Ornament in Europe, ed. Stephanie Walker (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2004), p. 20.
4 Based on the records of the extensive eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French wallpaper collections at Historic New England, Boston; the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, both in New York City; the Musée des arts décoratifs, Paris; and the Musée du papier peint, Rixheim, France. My deepest gratitude to Pilar Garro, formerly of the wallpaper collections department at Historic New England, for assisting with this search and for providing expert advice on many occasions.
5 Storey, “The Lore that Belongs to Wallpapers.”
6 Label on the photograph in Fig. 3, copy negative 13213-B, Rose Nichols Collection, Historic New England. Barclay credited Nancy V. McClelland (1876–1959), an interior decorator and wallpaper expert who eventually became her partner, for her specialization in French wallpapers; see Isabella Barclay to Parke-Bernet Galleries, September 10, 1959, published in French XVIII Century Furniture, sale 1922, Parke-Bernet, New York, October 30 and 31, 1959.
7 See Michelangelo Pergolesi, Designs for Various Ornaments/Michael Angelo Pergolesi (London, 1777–1801); and Eighteenth Century Architectural Ornamentation, Furniture and Decoration by M. A. Pergolesi and Other Eminent Artists (Boston and New York [1804]).
8 A riot at Réveillon’s factory on the eve of the French Revolution caused it to be closed on April 27, 1789. Whether he returned to work again has not been established. The consensus is that he did not, but there is room for doubt since the factory was not completely destroyed in the riot and may have begun operations again in the fall of 1789. Réveillion rented the factory to Jacquemart and Bénard in May 1791 and they purchased it in May 1792. See Véronique de Bruignac, “Arabesques and Allegories: French Decorative Panels,” in The Papered Wall, p. 84.
9 For the sale to French and Company see Barclay’s Ledger 47593, stock no. 80551, French and Company, box 57, Special Collections and Visual Resources, Research Library, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. Brian Gracie, chairman of the Gracie firm, told me in a recent telephone conversation that Charles R. Gracie and Sons purchased the paper at the French and Company auction in 1968 and about its sale in 1987.
10 Richard Nylander and Pilar Garro suggested I contact the antique wallpaper dealer Carolle Thibaut-Pomerantz of New York and Paris, who sent me the photograph in Fig. 2 and others of the paper, which she called Décor Réveillon, c. 1785, hanging in a private residence. In a telephone conversation on January 16, 2006, she indicated that the owner had purchased the paper from Gracie and wanted anonymity.
11 Bernard Jacqué, “Wallpaper in the Royal Apartments at the Tuileries, 1789–1792,” Studies in the Decorative Arts, vol. 13, no. 1 (Fall–Winter, 2005–2006), pp. 10–11. I consulted the following about the origin of the paper: Richard Nylander, coauthor of Wallpaper in New England; Véronique de Bruignac-La Hougue, the wallpaper curator at the Musée des arts décoratifs; and Philippe de Fabry, archivist at the Musée du papier peint. Steve Larson of Adelphi Wallpapers contacted Bernard Jacqué, curator of the Musée du papier peint, about it for me in 2004. See also Pierre Kjellberg, “Tous les motifs qui assurent depuis deux siècles le succès du papier peint Louis XVI,” Connaissance des Arts, vol. 152 (October 1964), p. 118. I am most grateful to Isabelle Etienne-Bugnot of Paris, a former quilt magazine editor, for translating conversations and written materials for me.
12 Nos. 968 and 969, Billot Album, dated 1789, Musée du papier peint. My thanks to Philippe de Fabry for this information contained in e-mails dated March 19, 2007, and February 20, 2008. A detail photograph of the medallion landscapes, which were cut out from the borders and pasted onto plain paper, is in de Bruignac, “Arabesques and Allegories,” p. 85, no. 109A, where it is referred to as a Pompeian scheme.
13 Nylander et al., Wallpaper in New England, pp. 72–73.
14 Jacqué, “Wallpaper in the Royal Apartments at the Tuileries,” p. 12.
15 Catherine Lynn, Wallpaper in America: From the Seventeenth Century to World War I (W. W. Norton, New York, 1980), pp. 102, 104, 89; and Gill Saunders, “The China Trade: Oriental Painted Panels,” in The Papered Wall, p. 42.
16 Ibid., p. 101; Francoise Teynac, Pierre Nolot and Jean-Denis Vivien, Wallpaper, a History, trans. Conway Lloyd Morgan (Rizzoli, New York, 1982), pp. 61–62.
17 Saunders, “The China Trade,”p. 49; Teynac, Nolot, and Vivien, Wallpaper, a History, p. 64.
18 For an example, see Wulfert, “Man of Many Vases,” p. 62.
19 Saunders, “The China Trade,” p. 49.
20 The ceiling wallpaper is Réveillon’s no. 992, e-mail from de Fabry, March 19, 2007. De Bruignac-La Hougue provided me with a reference to a photograph of it from the Maison Follot sale, Papiers peints anciens, Sotheby Parke Bernet, Monaco, Monte Carlo, February 7, 1982, Lot 267.
21 Conover Hunt, “A Rare Printed Quilt by an American Patriot,” Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine, vol.109, no. 4 (April 1975), pp. 286–288.
22 Two other whole-cloth bedcovers are recorded: one, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is illustrated in Wulfert, “The Man of Many Vases,” p. 60; the whereabouts of the other is unknown (ibid., p. 69, n. 24).
23 For examples of c. 1815 printed medallions made for quilts, see Florence M. Montgomery, Printed Textiles: English and American Cottons and Linens 1700–1850(Viking, New York, 1970), p. 356; and Linda Eaton, Quilts in a Material World: Selections from the Winterthur Museum (Abrams, New York, 2006), p. 83.
24 Saunders, “The China Trade,” p. 49.
25 Jacqué, “Wallpaper in the Royal Apartments at the Tuileries,”pp. 19–23.
26 Lynn, Wallpaper in America, pp. 56, 65; Charles C. Oman and Jean Hamilton, Wallpapers: An International History and Illustrated Survey from the Victoria and Albert Museum (Abrams, New York, 1982), p. 31.
27 For examples of cutout chintz appliqué quilts with Hewson prints, see Wulfert, “The Man of Many Vases,” p. 62; and Eaton, Quilts in a Material World, pp. 97, 84–85, 119.
28 For the information about wallpaper manufacture and importation, see Lynn, Wallpaper in America, pp. 110–111, 121, 161.
29 Ibid., p. 150, records that upholstery was matched to the walls in the 1790s; see also p. 111 for a 1790 advertisement seeking calico printers and paper stainers to make wallpapers. Lynn points out (ibid., p. 30) that the same wood blocks could be used to print either.

KIMBERLY WULFERT is an independent researcher who writes and lectures on textile history, with an emphasis on the life and works of John Hewson.