While on holiday in England we had the opportunity to visit Witney, a pretty market town in the Cotswolds. Many of you may know about Witney Antiques from articles on various blogs. They sell beautiful antique furnishings and have a fantastic collection of samplers and embroideries, mainly English, which one can go to see without feeling the need to make a purchase. The owners, Joy and Steven Jarrett, are happy to share their knowledge with visitors. My husband and I spent a delightful hour and a half talking with them about many topics, not just samplers and antiques. They are a delightful couple!
Our first visit was on the third day we were staying in the Landmark Trust property in Canons Ashby. We made it a day out and visited Sulgrave Manor as well on that day. My intent was to go, look and learn, not to purchase. However, the magic of pieces of embroidery stitched by girls long ago soon captured both my imagination and my heart. Most of the pieces were well out of our price range, but Joy could see how much I longed to own a small piece of history and she found a few for me to look at that were more affordable.
After considerable deliberation, I chose the one you see below.
What drew me to it was the short verse at the top. It reads;
“What’s in thy mind
Let no one know
Or to thy friends
No secret show
For when thy friend
Becomes thy foe
Then all the world
Thy mind must know.”
When I was a girl I made the mistake of sharing a secret with a friend and learned this lesson the hard way. I could imagine that little Mary Parsons had learned the same lesson in the same way and decided to stitch the words on her sampler so she would remember the wisdom of the poem always.
I was charmed by the neat rows of letters and numbers and the satin stitch zig-zag outline all along the edge of the work.
The maze and the ship at the bottom seem an incongruous pairing for a sampler stitched by a girl from Yorkshire – there being no ports near Dewsbury in Yorkshire! The sampler is dated 1780, which makes it just a bit younger than my country, the USA!
After that initial visit we moved on to London for five days and every day I would think about the other samplers I’d seen in Witney. On the day we drove from London up to Leamington Sap to stay with friends, we decided to stop again in Witney so I could have another look at the samplers I’d seen but hadn’t purchased.
In the interim, Joy had one of the samplers restored but not framed and the other she’d started to have restored but discovered that it wasn’t going to be possible. (more about that later!)
You can see us pouring over the restored sampler as she explains the fabric and the stitches used. Joy was so generous with her time and knowledge and I can’t thank her enough!
This is the other sampler I fell in love with and mulled over while in London, because of the different lettering styles. It occurred to me that these various forms of lettering are not dissimilar to the fonts we have on our computers today. We choose them carefully to express ourselves and these girls did the same thing with their needles and threads.
The border of what I think are acorns is lovely as is the verse which reads;
“All you my friends who now expect to see
A piece of working that’s performed by me,
Cast but a smile on this my first endeavour
I’ll strive to learn and be obedient ever”.
Ann Creaker took time to choose the colours for her letters carefully and the inclusion of the deep red shows a bit of fun in her stitching, I think. This piece isn’t dated but, with an relatively unusual last name, it’s remotely possible I’ll be able to discover something more about her with research.
The last sampler I purchased because it wasn’t possible to restore it. When I saw this sampler on my first visit I noticed there was a sparkle about it – the fabric seems to shimmer a bit in the light. I asked Joy about it but she didn’t know why it sparkled. When I returned, she showed it to me again and explained that her restorer had looked at it and the embroidery had been glued to the board. Aarrgghh! I hear you say! Yes, glued. We know NEVER to glue embroidery to anything but, in years past, that was considered the best way to make a piece lie flat and no one apparently considered whether or not it was a good idea in the long run.
Fortunately, the fact that the piece is glued to the board means it couldn’t be restored and, as Joy said, she would now have to “bung it into an auction”. I said “Please don’t do that, I’ll happily purchase it. I love the colours, the lettering, the designs and I’m not a purist collector – I’m a beginning collector – so this was a great find for me”. (and I’m quite delighted to have a sparkly sampler!)
In 1799 Susanna Snow embroidered this piece and used what today appears to be purple thread. I don’t know if it’s changed colour in the intervening years, but the purple stands out against the golden browns and soft blues.
I love the border of fat flowers all around the edge, intertwined with curving vine. She’s embroidered baskets of fruit, birds, trees and flowers, all very stylised, above the lettering. There are four different kinds of lettering in the piece, not including the verse. This clearly was a work that took a long time to complete.
She included three different kinds of trees, some kind of large flower with five blossoms on it at either end, two purple flowers in the centre and a little blue crown, right in the middle. The verse reads;
“O send out thy light and thy truth let them lead me
Let them bring me unto thy holy hill and to thy tabernacle
Pal. 43. 3 Light is sown for the righteous and gladness for the upright in heart
Preserve me Lord amidst the crowd from every thought that’s vain and proud
Ps. 97.11 And raise my wondering mind to see How good it is to trust in thee.”
Susanna Snow has embroidered her name and the date in large bold letters at the bottom, which tells me she must have been very proud of her work. She’s taken time to underscore her name and the date with a line of wave shaped stitching. Below that are images of two churches, flowers, crosses and a vase in the middle with what appears to be a tulip.
All three of the samplers now have special UV glass in them, so they will be safe from bright light and sit grouped together on a bookcase in my studio. I didn’t hang them on the wall because I want to pick them up to study them easily.
I feel so very fortunate to have been able to visit Witney Antiques and for the generosity of Joy in sharing her knowledge. Never did I consider becoming a collector of any kind. I have things, but not collections. I now understand why so many people fall in love with these pieces of needlework that come to us from the past. Over the next year I’ll be doing research to learn as much as I can about the girls who embroidered these pieces, what was happening in the places where they were stitched at that time and, of course, the stitches used.
To coincide with the London season of fine art and antique fairs commencing 24th June – July 7th 2016, WITNEY ANTIQUES has decided to hold an exhibition of historic samplers in their Oxfordshire showrooms and extend a warm welcome to all.
The exhibition will run from:
Sunday June 26th 2-5 pm and Monday June 27th to July 17th 2016 from 10am – 5pm daily.
‘ Now While My Hands Are Thus Employed’
Three Centuries of Historic Samplers
A full colour catalogue illustrating around fifty samplers will be available from June 1st 2016. The catalogues published by Witney Antiques of their needlework are a fantastic resource for anyone interested in historic embroidery. The photographs are stunning!
Many of these historic pieces are from private collections and all will be for sale.
The exhibition will cut across all levels of society, embracing both the affluent and the poor, and stands as a testament to the skill and perseverance of the young and their talented teachers. Whether worked with a view to future employment, for pleasure, or in order to be the mistress of a large household, they illuminate the lives of girls and young women going back over 300 years.
Our stock of rare 17th Century embroidery will also be on view.
Admission is free.