Embroidered Casket, 1650 - 1680 (Accession
Number - 1972.54)
The embroidered casket dates from between 1650 to 1680. It
display an immensely rich collection of colours, materials,
stitches and imagery. Unfortunately we do not know the origins
of this casket. The fact that it has survived is no doubt
due to a high regard for the work of an ancestor.
The fashion for small needlework pictures flowered in the
Reign of Charles I, flourished during the Commonwealth and
the Restoration of Charles II and withered by the end of the
seventeenth century. Yet raised or embossed work, as it is
called, was not a new technique; it had been practised by
professional embroiderers on the continent of Europe for more
than a century.
The female characters in the seventeenth century costume depict
the five senses, a popular subject in embroidery of this period
and type. A mass of minute detail surround the figures in
the form of flowers, trees, insects and animals, all closely
set with the horror of empty space.
A lion and leopard, emblematic of courage and fidelity, are
seated beneath an oak tree in the English country landscape.
A parrot on a sprig of two cherries can be found on almost
every similar piece. There is a curious absence of scale and
no defined horizon. A rabbit appears equal in size to a caterpillar
whilst flowers grow larger than birds.
Sources of the Designs
The design of the casket would not have been devised by the
needleworker herself. The figures, animals and insects would
all have been copied from woodcuts or engravings intended
as book illustrations`. Print sellers like Peter Stent at
the White Horse in Giltspur Street, London may have offered
the service of drawing out designs onto fabric for working.
Peter Stentís trade card of 1662 in the Bodlean Library lists
over five hundred titles, many found on needlework pictures,
including The Five Senses.
The drawing of the design on this casket is quite crude in
some places, in particular the ovals on the sides depicting
four of the five senses. There is a noticeable difference
in comparison with the rather more elegant figure on the lid.
This may indicate that the embroideress drew them onto the
satin ground herself.
Materials and Techniques
The design has been embroidered onto a ground of cream satin.
The embroidery is mainly silk thread in a variety of stitches
including satin stitch, buttonhole filling, laid work and
French knots. Each figure has a lace-work collar. Ravelled
silk like chenille has been used to depict moss and a small
piece of mica is attached for the mirror. The spangles are
probably silver and the necklace made up of seed pearls. The
box has been lined with a reused manuscript to limit the risk
of frayed or loosened stitches. Although the salmon-pink silk
lining of the casket is very typical, it is rare to find an
embroidered panel inside the lid. It is also an exception
for the lid to be hinged on the shorter rather than longer
side. There is evidence that the casket was mounted on six
feet. These were usually spherical and often gilded.
Use of the Casket
Such cabinets and boxes were made up as receptacles of personal
treasures. Unfortunately the casket is not furnished with
any compartments that give us a clue to its use. Similar cabinets
and boxes contain evidence that they were used to accommodate
writing equipment, jewellery or cherished needlework. Others
are equipped with pin-cushions, needlebooks, tape measures
or less useful toys.
The casket was probably worked by a young girl as the culmination
of her needlework education. The practice and perfection of
embroidery skills would have taken precedence over the ability
to read in many households. Plain sewing was often the first
skill taught to girls followed by the sampler and progressing
to lace stitches and raised work using gold and silver thread
combined with coloured silks. The popularity of embroidered
pictures among amateurs reflected the fact that embroidery
was of less importance for dress in the middle decades of
the seventeenth century. A girls needlework skills had therefore
to be directed towards some other end.