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STENCILED-AND-PAINTED COTTON PANEL
British, ca. 1840s

The rising interest in botany and horticulture in the nineteenth century and Victorian notions of proper female accomplishment are colorfully displayed in this singular stenciledandpainted panel. By the early decades of the century, both gardening and the nursery trade were thriving commercial forces. Manuals, treatises, seed catalogues, botanical illustrations, and periodicals offering a wealth of information and advice on topics related to these pursuits targeted an audience of specialists and amateurs alike. During this period of increasing urbanization and industrialization, as well as scientific exploration and empirical study, the garden offered respite, beauty and the opportunity to show off the most fashionable specimens. At the same time, in the context of hardening notions of gender roles, both gardening and botanical painting were deemed particularly appropriate for women. Numerous publications informed the “softer sex” on how to design, plant and maintain gardens; one small guide of 1836, for example, equated a welltended garden—the responsibility of the wife—with a happy marriage. In addition to a thorough familiarity with ornamental flora and their cultivation, women of the leisured classes were expected to be skilled in the arts of drawing and painting the “beauties of nature.” Beginning in the late eighteenth century, instruction manuals appeared, some with illustrations in black and white to be colored at home, and well-known botanical illustrators included highranking and wealthy women among their pupils.

The artistically sensitive and talented woman who painted this panel, possibly a runner, depicted a variety of species that were widely popular in the 1830s and 1840s and often recommended in contemporary gardening books. In the symmetrical composition, thick, twining clusters of pink and blue morning glories amidst dense foliage form gentle mounds along the borders, while sprays of sweet peas, iris, bluebells, flax, roses, fuchsias, honeysuckle, geranium, aster, St. John’s Wort, and more morning glories fill the centers. The artist used both stenciling and painting in her meticulous rendering and shading of the flora. The morning glory blossoms and leaves are stenciled, while the stems connecting them and the abundant tendrils are painted; the sprays are either painted or stenciled, or done in combination. The insect denizens of this garden brought indoors— flitting Tortoiseshell butterflies, a damsel fly, an Eyed hawk-moth, a scarab beetle, a nectar-seeking bee and wasp, and creeping caterpillars—are all delicately painted. An English publication of 1829, The Art of Drawing and Colouring from Nature, Flowers, Fruit, and Shells, included a section on painting and stenciling on velvet, and featured illustrations of many of the flowers seen here as possible subjects of study.

Stenciled-And-Painted Cotton Panel (detail)

The most intriguing aspect of this piece is the inclusion of words and phrases, in both English and French, disguised among the curlicue tendrils of the morning glories—a clever, if deliberately inaccurate, botanical conceit. Hidden along one side of the panel, the slender shoots spell out: “Dear me,” “ma chere,” “courage,” “My Eye,” “where the bee sucks there suck I,” “quite comme il faut, n’estce pas? oui,” “J’en suis fatigued,” “Elizabeth,” “E Smith,” “fine,” “very well done,” and, in the center, “Finis.” Nestled among the phrases and foliage are two tiny, women’s faces framed by dark, curling tresses, an eye, and diminutive figures including a horse and rider, a cow, a dog, a cat, and a piglet, some identified by name.

It is tempting to conjecture that the piece was intended as a token of affection to another woman. Although difficult to determine, it is possible that the selection or combination of blossoms express the highly developed symbolic language of flowers that characterized the overt sentimentality of the Victorian period. Although their meanings vary among the many published texts, honeysuckle was often equated with bonds of love, bluebells with constancy or gratitude, sweet peas with attachment or departure, aster with variety, morning glory with uncertainty, and fuchsia with confiding love. Whether given away or kept by the artist— perhaps “E Smith”—the exceptional condition of the panel, including the intact details on the insects, indicate that it was little used, if at all. Working within the expectations and limitations of mid-nineteenth century feminine gentility, she created a vividly beautiful textile that was rightfully treasured.

Provenance: Ex-collection Tasha Tudor.

74.5”H x 23.5”W

 
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