English, ca. 1720s
Much of what is now considered quintessentially early-eighteenth-century English style was inspired by the Far East. Glamour and mystery enveloped imports from the Orient; merchants brought goods from China, India and other ports along their trade routes, which had the effect of merging distinct categories of Asian exports into those of a single, faraway land. Mughal and Chinese luxury wares—carved ivory and jewels, lacquer, porcelain, and textiles—were consistently decorated with abstract or realistic flowers, foliage and scrolling vines. By the late seventeenth century, these exotic plant forms were subsumed into English design vocabulary and became familiar motifs with Eastern overtones, which is abundantly evident in this superb coverlet.
A significant number of Queen Anne period embroidered bedcovers survive in excellent condition and with prominent similarities. As a group, these coverlets have in common the following characteristics: they share a distinctive, symmetrical format of central medallion, corner quarterings and bordered edges; whether polychromatic or monochromatic, their surfaces are quilted with yellow silk in elaborate patterns; and they exhibit such fine, uniform embroidery that they were undoubtedly produced in commercial workshops. Most coverlets of this type forgo the multiple layers which define a true quilt. In this example, however, three layers of fabric—two of linen, and an interlining of woven wool—are bound together in a repeating arrangement of diminutive flowers enclosed in concentric circles, linked together by leafy lobes. Overall, the composition and palette are indebted to “Bengalla quilts”—Indian floor or bed spreads imported to Europe in the seventeenth century which were worked in straw-colored tussar silk. Here, the embroidery was completed in a single, luminous shade of blonde silk; though subtle in coloration, the motifs exhibit sophisticated gradations owing to expert application of technique and the lustrous properties of the thread. The radiance of long-and-short satin stitch, especially when worked over areas of applied cord for a dimensional, padded effect, emphasizes the undulating contours of the design. Wavy-edged and studded with French knots, the corner pieces and medallion are crowned with imbricated petal mounds and embellished with abstract floral designs against a lattice backdrop. Garlands of flowering tendrils—formed from highly-twisted, couched threads for a unique textural contrast—integrate the horned, spiked-leaf mounds, flaming wheel-spoke motifs, and various vegetal ornaments which fill the main field in a combination of baroque and chinoiserie sensibilities.
The process of embroidery remains evident in this meticulously worked bedcover: quilting lines and main motifs were drawn using two separate inks, and in a specific order. First, the quilt pattern was created with red ink (most likely vermilion, a common pigment) and then embroidered—the color is visible beneath the backstitched lines, enriching the yellow tones much in the way red bole enhances gilding. Finally, the remaining design was drawn in black ink on the pre-quilted fabric and stitched. A remarkably similar monochrome coverlet in the Winterthur Museum collection (1968.48a), which has the illustrious English provenance of Ashburnham Place, was created with this very same method.