The fashion for mourning embroideries first arose in America, following the death of President George Washington in 1799, which sent the whole country into mourning. Schoolgirls stitched needlework memorials in his memory. Typical motifs included an urn on a plinth, angels, mourners and trees in a garden setting. Such images pervaded popular culture and inspired a fashion for creating family mourning pictures and reflected a culture of mourning that was prevalent in society at that time.
One of the mourning embroideries offered in lot 159 depicts an urn, inscribed with the name of the deceased, on a plinth. It sits in a landscape setting, under the branches of a weeping willow tree. A female mourner stands alongside, with a garland of flowers and roses. The weeping willow is a symbol of grief, but also, as it grows quickly, a more hopeful sign of rebirth. The elegant neo-classical urn is a fashionable nod to the classical world. The figure of a refined woman who values family was a respectable and common image of the day. The garland of rose blooms she holds, that will soon wither and decay, is a memento mori of the shortness of life. In such piece’s Christian concepts and symbols are combined with references to classical antiquity, which would have been recognised by educated people of the day.
However, a mourning embroidery symbolised much more than a memorial to a deceased loved one. Ornamental needlework of this type was learned in female academies or schools attended by well to do ladies. There they would have learned music, painting and embroidery, alongside literature, geography and other subjects. A family would proudly display a delicate mourning piece created by the daughter of the house, signalling not only her skill and accomplishment, but also their prosperity in sending their daughter for costly additional schooling. The materials used, such as silk and fine threads, were expensive, as were the bespoke elegant frames. The embroideries also indicated to visitors and potential suitors, that education was an important element in the lady’s life.
Different skills and hands were often used in the creation of a piece. In the first instance the maker first draws or paints the image onto the silk and thought would be given to the colour choices. It is then embellished with a variety of stitches worked in silk threads in a range of colours, to produce various textures, definition and tonality. It was common practice for features such as the face, arms, feet or the background to be painted on by another hand, such as a professional painter or a teacher, before the work would be professionally framed.
At a time in history when the lives of young women were seldom documented works such as these give us an insight into the values and attitudes of early 19th century society, including the education that was available to women, as well as being a potential source of genealogical family history.
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