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British, ca. 1600–30

Luxury items par excellence, sweet meat purses of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were valued for reasons both practical and extravagant. As decorative sachets—filled with powdered rose petals, perfumed batting or fragrant lavender—sweet meat purses were stored with clothing and linens in chests to repel vermin and impart a delicate scent. However, given as special offerings, sweet meat purses had a more elaborate significance. When presented to reigning monarchs on royal visits or similar occasions, such purses typically contained gold coins, sweet-smelling pomanders or other trinkets. Ornately embroidered purses, sometimes studded with pearls and gems, were often a considerable part of the cost of gifts, which may explain why so many were described in contemporary accounts. This exceptional sweet meat bag is similar in description to one given as a New Year’s gift to Queen Elizabeth I in 1588–89: "…ymbroidered all over with flowers, beasts & birds, of Venis gold, silver, silke."

Though professional embroiderers undoubtedly made some sweet meat purses, this exquisite example, with deftly manipulated silk threads and impeccable artistic execution, was probably made by an extremely skilled amateur. The embroiderer, working in fine tent stitch on canvas, sensitively shaded the scenery and motifs to suggest depth and added shimmering striations of metallic silver to the sky. Bejeweled with vivid color, each side depicts a landscape with fruit trees and flowering shrubs. On one side, a doe nurses her fawn in an idyllic setting; a falcon perches below a tree laden with ripe pears, while a duck swims in a brook. The other side shows an impressive grapevine and hillocks replete with foxgloves, quince and bulbous gourds—the animal inhabitants of this tranquil scene are a coiled serpent and a recumbent leopard. Pastoral vignettes are unusual for small-scale purses—more common are formulaic designs of flowerheads on coiling stems or appliquéd slip motifs. The atypical subject matter depicted here closely relates to pictorial needlework of the period, further suggesting an imaginative amateur as the source for this remarkable sweet meat purse.

Illustrated in Art of Embroidery, Lanto Synge (2001), p. 113.

4.5" H x 5" W

Sweet Meat Purse Detail

Sweet Meat Purse With Pastoral Scenes
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