Archive for The Frick Collection

James Leman and Anna Maria Garthwaite: Silk Weavers of Spitalfields

Posted in Christine Cariati, Design, Fashion, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Textiles, XC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 5, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

James Leman, silk design, 1717
Watercolor on paper

James Leman (c.1688-1745) was one of the pre-eminent designers of silk textiles in the first half of the 18th century in England.  In addition to being a designer, Leman was also a silk manufacturer and likely a master weaver as well, a combination of talents that was common in the silk-weaving industry in Lyons but rare in England. James Leman, of Huguenot descent, was the son of Peter Leman, a master weaver. He apprenticed to his father in 1702 and took over the family business in 1706. Ninety-seven of Leman’s watercolor designs, bound in an original Spitalfields design book and dated 1706-1730, are in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. It’s hard to believe that these designs, the color so fresh and vibrant, and the patterns so modern, are 300 years old. Note that the yellows and oranges in the watercolors represent various colors of metallic threads.

Album of silk designs by James Leman in the Victoria & Albert Museum
Various dates, 1706-1730, watercolor on paper

The influence of the Huguenot emigres on England’s textile industry was enormous, because they brought their weaving skills with them. Until that point the English silk-weaving industry had been quite small—with the expertise of the Huguenot weavers, it blossomed. The Huguenots, Protestants from France, were subject to several waves of persecution in the 16th and 17th centuries. They left France by the thousands and contributed greatly to the textile industries of Britain, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. In reaction to the arrival of an early wave of Huguenot emigres in search of employment, King James I, who ascended to the throne of England in 1603, and was an admirer of silk garments, attempted to introduce sericulture to England. James commissioned a book on the subject and provided the landed gentry with a supply of mulberry seeds and trees. The experiment was not a success, and weavers had to continue to rely on imported silk, which, as the demand grew, Britain obtained from China, Persia and the Ottoman Empire.

The life cycle of the silk worm, 1831
lithograph, signed W.S. & J.B. Pendelton of Boston
from Jonathan Cobb’s Manual containing information respecting the growth of the Mulberry Tree

An interesting aside to the Huguenot story is that one of the most prominent Huguenot families to settle in England was the Courtaulds, who fled from France in the 1680s and later became silk weavers. A descendant of this family, Samuel Courtauld, who took control of the company in 1908 (the firm invented rayon, a synthetic silk, in 1910), achieved great renown as an art collector. In 1932 he founded the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, to which he bequeathed his collection upon his death in 1947.

James Leman, silk design, 1706/7
Watercolor on paper

James Leman, silk design, 1710
Watercolor on paper

James Leman, silk design, 1711/12
Watercolor on paper

By 1700 the center of silk manufacturing in England was in Spitalfields, now part of East London. Spitalfields has had an illustrious history. On the site of what was in Roman times a cemetery, England’s largest medieval hospital was constructed—The New Hospital of St Mary without Bishopgate—in 1197. The name Spitalfields is a contraction of “hospital fields.” The area went through many transformations, eventually becoming a textile center—first for laundresses, then for calico dyeing, then, in the 18th century, silk weaving. After the silk-weaving industry failed in the 1820s, the area declined and eventually became a center for furniture building, boot-making and later, tailoring. In Victorian times it became seedier still, and was famous for grisly murders by Jack the Ripper and the Whitechapel Strangler. The area is largely gentrified now, and when the historic Spitalfields Market area underwent a major renovation in the 1990s, the Roman cemetery became an important archeological dig and yielded many stunning artifacts, including sarcophagi with human remains.

Court dress, British, c. 1750
Silk, metallic thread
Costume Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The development of the silk industry in 18th century England paralleled that of the rest of the decorative arts in England—following a trajectory from  simplicity through the development of the elaborate English Rococo style, then back to Neoclassical. Over the course of the century, design influences went back and forth across the English Channel, each decade brought stylistic changes. At the beginning of the 18th century, designers began to leave behind the excesses of the later 17th century—patterns became less exotic and more naturalistic. In the 1730s french silk designer Jean Revel (1684-1751) invented a radical new technique, points rentrés, a method that enabled the weavers to create shading. These three-dimensional patterns were often woven on a plain silk background to better show off the larger, bolder, designs.

Fabric in the style of Jean Revel, c.1733-35
The Art Institute of Chicago

In the 1740s, the pendulum swung again, the English “flowered silks” style emerged with more naturalistic botanical detail, in clear, soft colors on plain backgrounds. By mid-century French influence returned and through the 1750s and 1760s more background pattern re-emerged, designs became more stylized, the fabrics became stiffer with more metallic threads. By the 1770s, as styles of dress become more informal, patterns became smaller and were often combined with stripes. By the end of the century, Neoclassic patterns dominated.

As a manufacturer, James Leman employed other silk designers: two of the best known are Christopher Baudouin and Joseph Dandridge.

Christopher Baudouin, silk design, 1718
Watercolor on paper

Joseph Dandridge, silk design, 1718
Watercolor on paper

Moving towards the mid-eighteenth century, another extremely important English designer began working in Spitalfields, Anna Maria Garthwaite (c.1688-1763). Garthwaite was born in Leicestershire and moved to London in 1730, where she worked freelance, producing many bold damask and floral brocade designs over the next three decades. She was interested in naturalistic floral patterns and adapted Revel’s points rentrés technique. Hundreds of her designs in watercolor have survived and are preserved in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum. Fortunately, several excellent examples of clothing made from her textile designs survive, and there is at least one contemporary portrait in which the sitter is wearing a dress made from a documented Garthwaite design.

Anna Maria Garthwaite, Waistcoat, 1747
Silk, wool, metallic thread
Costume Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Robert Feke, Mrs. Charles Willing of Philadelphia, 1746
Oil on canvas
Fabric design, Anna Maria Garthwaite, 1743

Anna Maria Garthwaite,1742
Silk brocade
The Fashion Museum, Bath

Anna Maria Garthwaite, 1742
Blue and silver brocaded silk

Below is a silk brocade dress, made of fabric from Garthwaite’s design, in the Museum at FIT, followed by a William Hogarth painting at The Frick Collection. I am making no claim that the sitter’s gown is a Garthwaite design, but I was struck by the similarity.

Anna Maria Garthwaite, n.d.
Silk damask gown
Museum at FIT, New York

William Hogarth (1697-1764) Miss Mary Edwards, 1742
Oil on canvas
The Frick Collection

All of these 18th-century brocade and damask fabrics were woven on a drawloom. These were hand looms with a system of cords that would lift certain warp threads so that when the weft thread was passed through, intricate repeat patterns could be produced. The cords were handled by a “drawboy” who sat on the top of the loom. This method was laborious, slow and took quite a bit of skill, and attempts were made improve the equipment and speed up the process. Philippe de Lasalle (1723-1804) made inroads with his invention of the semple, a device which replaced the drawboy. The semple was also removable, so it could be transferred from loom to loom, thus saving a lot of set-up time. These and other improvements led to the invention of the Jacquard loom. In 1801, Joseph-Marie Jacquard, (who at the age of twelve had apprenticed to his father as a drawboy in Lyons), devised a system of perforated cards that mechanized this procedure, and the textile industry was changed forever. In fact, the Jacquard loom was the essentially the prototype for the  computer.

The British silk industry had been able to prosper and compete with the older, more established French textile industry because they benefited from various pieces of legislation aimed at protecting the British textile industry. By the 1820s, after the repeal of long-standing embargoes on imported textiles, the English textile industry collapsed and France once again dominated the field.

Wider Connections

Silk Designs of the Eighteenth Century from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, edited by Clare Browne
The Book of Silk
, by Philippa Scott
Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century Fashion in Detail, by Avril Hart and Susan North
Textile Production in Europe, Silks: 1600-1800, Metropolitan Museum of Art

In God’s Light: Bellini’s St. Francis (in Ecstasy)

Posted in Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Painting, XC with tags , , on July 15, 2009 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

BelliniStFrancisdetailGiovanni Bellini, St. Francis in Ecstasy, 1480 (detail)
Oil and tempera on poplar panel
The Frick Collection, New York

Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in Ecstasy, in the Frick Collection, has been my favorite painting since I first saw it when I was around 13 years old. When I stood in front of St. Francis for the first time it really hit me: art has power. Bellini’s painting reached out to me in a way no other painting had until that moment. It was incredibly beautiful—the composition, the color, the landscape, the compelling figure of St. Francis—everything was in perfect sync. Even on that first viewing, I knew it was rich with meaning, both tangible and symbolic, and that it would draw me back again and again. It made me want to be a painter.

I have a drawer full of post cards of it, most of them now faded and tattered (no matter, this luminous painting, in spite of technological advances, has resisted all attempts at reproduction, no photograph captures the light that emanates from this masterpiece and the color is always off—too cold, too blue, too yellow, too dark.) Every time I visit the Frick, I buy another post card, as witness to the fact that I was fortunate to see it again and because I always want to take a little piece of it home with me. When I lived in New York, I would drop in for a few minutes whenever possible to spend some quiet moments in its light. Now, when I visit New York, it’s always the first stop on my itinerary. (Obviously the Frick is filled with treasures—but St. Francis is always the first and last painting I visit.)

BellinStFrancisGiovanni Bellini, St. Francis in Ecstasy
acquired by H.C. Frick, 1915

Some years ago, I was surprised to notice that the title of the painting had been changed to St. Francis in the Desert. At first, I was tempted to seek an explanation, but then decided I didn’t really want to know—perhaps there was some scholarly reason, the curators deciding that the setting in the desert, with all its powerful symbolism, took precedence; or perhaps there had been some error in translation that was now corrected? What I feared is that the word ecstasy was deemed too potent, too provocative. Below is the definition of ecstasy, and it seems exactly right to me:

Ecstasy: The state of being beside one’s self or rapt out of one’s self; a state in which the mind is elevated above the reach of ordinary impressions, as when under the influence of overpowering emotion; an extraordinary elevation of the spirit, as when the soul, unconscious of sensible objects, is supposed to contemplate heavenly mysteries.

BelliniHandGiovanni Bellini, St. Francis in Ecstasy (detail)

Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430-1560), a master of Venetian art, was from a family of painters. He studied in the workshop of his father, Jacopo Bellini, and in 1483 succeeded his brother Gentile Bellini as painter to the Republic. His brother-in-law was the great Andrea Mantegna. Giovanni Bellini was one of the first Italian painters to master the oil painting techniques perfected in Northern Europe by the early Netherlandish painters, Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden.


bellenishepherdGiovanni Bellini, St. Francis in Ecstasy (details)

In St. Francis, as in his other sacred paintings, Bellini imbues the landscape with spiritual meaning. For Bellini, landscape did not only set the emotional tone and dictate the composition—it was symbolic of God’s presence in all of nature. Set in this profound landscape is the figure of St. Francis, slightly to the right of center, leaning back, arms open, gazing upward toward the mysterious light in the upper left-hand corner. The laurel tree, symbol of Christ’s cross, trembles and glows in this light and leans into the picture, towards St. Francis. The painting is filled with symbols of Christ’s Passion—the skull, the crown of thorns, the Bible, the grapevines. Every rock, animal and flower holds symbolic meaning for the Franciscan scholar. St. Francis stands barefoot, his sandals removed—he is standing on sacred ground.

BelliniLecternGiovanni Bellini, St. Francis in Ecstasy (detail)

St. Francis is believed to have received the Stigmata in September of 1224 on Mount Alverna in the Apennines, where he retreated to pray and fast in preparation for Michaelmas. St. Francis wanted to bear the signs of the Passion so he could better understand Christ’s suffering, and to show gratitude to God for the sacrifice of his Son for humanity’s redemption. Brother Leo, witness to the event, described the moment: Suddenly he saw a vision of a seraph, a six-winged angel on a cross. This angel gave him the gift of the five wounds of Christ.

In Bellini’s painting, we see the signs of the Stigmata, but they are subtle—I see this painting not as a narrative of the event, but as a portrait of St. Francis in communication with the divine. There are two sources of light in this painting—one, the diffuse naturalistic glow that bathes the entire landscape. Every particle of air, every creature, rock and flower, vibrates with a translucent inner light. Then there is the supernatural light emanating from the upper left hand corner—this is not the powerful light that Brother Leo describes that transmitted Christ’s wounds to St. Francis—this is a spiritual illumination. St. Francis is basking in God’s light and presence—this is the “still point in the turning world” that T.S. Eliot evokes in the first of his Four Quartets, Burnt Norton:

After the kingfisher’s wing
Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still
At the still point of the turning world.

stfrancisTorsoGiovanni Bellini, St. Francis in Ecstasy (detail)


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