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Home > Publications > Historic New England Magazine > Fall 2000 > A New England Treasure

A New England Treasure

The figures of the strolling couple were copied from a French engraving, Pastorale No. 12, Le Soir, by Claudine Bouzinnet Stella, after Jacques Stella, 1667.



Originally, the golden grain being harvested by reapers was a brilliant yellow, but the fugitive nature of the dye has left the design a soft cream. No print source has yet been identified for this segment of the design.



Embroidered chimney piece with fishing lady motif. Boston, 1747-50. Wool on linen canvas, with silk and glass beads. 21" x 59".

SPNEA President Jane C. Nylander celebrates a rare and exquisite work of needlepoint.

In Boston, two and a half centuries ago, some wealthy young women embroidered pictures that are among the finest examples of needlework in early colonial America. Many of them are similar in style, sharing motifs of elegant figures, frolicking animals, and a bucolic landscape with a lady fishing in a pond. Collectively, they are known as "fishing lady" embroideries; many of them are in museum collections and all of them are highly prized.

SPNEA has recently been given the largest fishing lady picture yet to be identified. The anonymous donor of this masterwork is a descendant of the poet James Russell Lowell, in whose Cambridge home, Elmwood, the embroidery was displayed for much of the nineteenth century over a fireplace as its maker intended.

These embroideries were apparently made under the instruction of an experienced teacher, who may or may not have actually conducted a school. Patterns, instruction, and materials were available from specialty shops in Boston from an early date. An advertisement placed in the Boston News-Letter April 27/May 4, 1738 by Mrs. Susannah Condy indicates that she offered at her shop near the Old North Meeting House "All sorts of beautiful Figures on Canvas. For Tent Stick; the Patterns from London, but drawn by her much cheaper than English drawing."

Apparently certain patterns were more popular than others, for they appear repeatedly on mid eighteenth-century Boston embroideries. The fishing lady herself is the best known and most easily identified. The group of reapers and the promenading couple near a fence of our example, as well as the smaller figures of a mounted horseman, racing dogs, exotic birds, and leaping deer can all be found on other examples. Such designs were drawn directly on the canvas with pen and ink, may of them copied from engraved prints.

The beauty of these embroideries derives not only from their sophisticated design but also from the carefully placed diagonal stitches that cover the entire canvas and create an effect thought to resemble imported tapestry. As a result, this type of work was sometimes called "tapestry work," even though it is composed of tent stitch instead of the knots that would characterize a true tapestry. The beauty is further developed by sophisticated shading of colors and enhanced by occasional use of textural stitches such as queen's stitch or French knots, the use of shiny silk to relieve the regularity of the woolen threads, or of an occasional glass bead to highlight an eye or suggest a piece of jewelry.

The colors of the SPNEA embroidery have both faded and changed with time. There is now little trace of the yellow dye that was combined with blue to create green grass and foliage, hence we now see shades of blue in areas that were once green. We anticipate that when the piece is removed from the frame for conservation treatment, the original colors will be revealed on the back of the work. If that is indeed the case, we shall make certain to publish a picture of it in a future issue of this magazine along with additional information that may turn up as our research continues. The "Fishing Lady," SPNEA's newest treasure, will be included in a nationally touring exhibition Cherished Possessions: A New England Legacy, now being planned for 2003-05.

A New England Treasure