Endnotes: Boston needlework

Eleanor H. Gustafson Furniture & Decorative Arts

Bonham's first New York auction of American furniture and decorative arts yielded a rare 18th century American canvas-work picture at a great price
Needlework picture, Boston, mid-eighteenth century. Wool and silk on canvas, 10 ½ by 8 ¼ inches. Photograph by courtesy of Bonhams.

We were prepared to pay considerably more, so were happily surprised,” says American needlework dealer Carol Huber about her successful bid on this charming Boston canvas-work picture, offered at the first auction of American furniture and decorative arts held by Bonhams in New York in mid-January. When she saw it in the catalogue, she thought the presale estimate of $6,000 to $8,000 was “very low,” and, indeed, others must have thought so too, for the bidding was active, with several people in the room and on the phone taking part; the hammer ultimately fell at $27,450. Similar pieces sold in the last decade have gone for much more-including a pair Huber and her husband, Stephen, bought in 2001 for more than $100,000. She tucked the needlework into her tote bag and took it straight up to their booth at the Winter Antiques Show, where a thrilled collector snapped it up “at a modest profit.” Before the new owner takes possession, the Hubers will oversee conservation of both the needlework and the ebonized frame, which is thought to be original.

The picture is one of a small group of canvas-work scenes believed to have originated in Boston in the mid-eighteenth century-wrought by girls who either lived in the city or went to boarding school there. The tireless needlework scholar Betty Ring wrote in her seminal Girlhood Embroidery of 1993: “Bucolic scenes in canvas work became fashionable in England during the first quarter of the eighteenth century…. [Examples] appeared in Boston by the early 1730s.” A few such pictures are large so-called chimney pieces, like the one by Mary Pickering of Salem, Massachusetts, that Ring illustrated (which is now in the Pickering House in Salem); but others are much smaller, like this one, which measures 10 ½ by 8 ¼ inches, and simpler. Elements that link this group include human and animal figures set among grassy knolls, red-spotted blackbirds in flight, and trees laden with yellow fruit. Often, as here, there is an oversized bird-usually a parrot-that adds a further note of whimsy to the composition.

Pamela Parmal, the David and Roberta Logie Curator of Textiles and Fashion Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, stopped by the Hubers’ booth while visiting the antiques show and studied the needlework. “The colors are amazingly fresh,” she says, and “the drawing of the men’s faces is akin to that in several other of these pictures.” Parmal is deep into Massachusetts needlework in preparation for three major exhibitions slated, successively, for 2010 and 2011, when the museum’s new American wing opens, and she hopes to be able to shed further light on this important group. Her research so far has had some provocative implications. Were the patterns drawn by girls or their teachers, as is generally supposed, or were they put on the canvas by professional pattern makers in England, and later in Boston? Or both? Were all the examples in this group stitched in Boston, or were they imitated in other towns? How long did the style stay in vogue? We look forward to Parmal’s answers.