John Hewson and the French connection

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.

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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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