John Hewson and the French connection

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.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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