Mary Linwood (1755-1845), Hanging partridge, after a painting by Moses Haughton the elder, crewelwork embroidery, 62 x 72 cm, privately owned.
Last week I took a visit to Tate Britain’s Folk Art exhibition. About two-thirds of the way round is a little nook dedicated to Mary Linwood, who during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, made a living selling copies in needlework of old master paintings. I immediately thought: ‘I bet Mary Linwood is discussed in Rozsika Parker’s The Subversive Stitch.’ Turns out I was right.
Using household accounts, women’s magazines, letters, novels and works of art themselves, The Subversive Stitch traces through history how the separation from the fine arts of the craft of embroidery came to be a major force in the marginalisation of women’s work. So below is extract taken from the book (p144-6) explaining how Mary Linwood’s needle painting fits into this narrative, and how a woman’s embroidery was seen merely as an extension of her sex.
It was perhaps women’s sense that their work should have some moral and emotional impact on society that led to the development of needle painting – the exact reproduction of oil painting in stitchery. Once embroidery was indistinguishable from oil painting it was granted entry into the public sphere with public exhibition. Mary Linwood is the best known needle painter. She developed a method of imitating oil painting with specially dyed worsteds worked on thick cloth in small, short and long stitches. An exhibition of her work toured the country and became a regular tourist attraction in London. One hundred needle paintings were on display including Joshua Reynold’s Girl and Kitten, Raphael’s Madonna della Sedia and Thomas Gainsborough’s Woodman in a Storm. Linwood placed them in a carefully constructed environment: for example a lioness after Stubbs was hung in a cave strewn with bones. The enthusiastic reviews were concerned not with the quality of embroidery but with the quality of femininity on display. The Ladies Monthly Magazine, 1798, praised the exhibition as:
An effort of ingenuity and indefatigable industry, this Exhibition is equal, if not superior to any that has been produced in this country. The taste and judgement, the variety and gradation of tints cannot possibly be exceeded in effort by the pencil. The Lodona from Maria Cosway, is a most happy display in excellance in drapery… There cannot be a more excellant school for the study of all ladies, who are desirous of attaining proficiency in this wonderful art of needlework.
The Morning Post thought that the greatest praise it could offer Miss Linwood was to record that not only ladies but ‘Great numbers of Noblemen and Gentlemen go to Miss Linwood’s exhibition.’ And typically, The Library of Anecdote paid attention to Miss Linwood’s person rather than her pictures: ‘The ladies of Great Britain may boast in the person of Miss Linwood of an example of the force and energy of the female mind, free from any of those ungraceful manners which have in some cases accompanied strength of genius in a woman.’ The reviews amply illustrate the way a woman’s embroidery was seen as an extension of her sex and judged accordingly. It need hardly be said what a constraint that was on the embroiderer, or to what an extent it devalued the work once that particular brand of femininity ceased to be demanded of women. When Mary Linwood died in 1845 so did interest in her work. The British Museum refused the collection and it was dispersed.
Mary Linwood is also credited with the invention of ‘black and white’ – embroidery that emulated prints and drawings with fine silk and sometimes human hair. Country houses were the usual subjects of ‘black and whites’. The Library of Anecdote, 1839, described how Mary Linwood discovered the technique: ‘by copying such prints as struck her attention, with rovings of black and puce coloured silk on white sarcenet. The needle in her hand became the spear of Ithurial; she but touched her ground work and her figures assumed form, and started into life.’ In other words, it was all a happy accident, a natural spontaneous production involving no effort. ■