by Mary Dunham.
The Magazine ANTIQUES, March 1933
NOWADAYS when old home establishments are broken up, one frequently finds, carefully preserved in a bureau drawer or chest, woven bookmarks, greeting cards, and diminutive pictures which, though actually wrought in threads of silk, seem at first glance to be delicate water colors on ivory. They have been treasured not only because of some sentimental association but also because of an inescapably dainty charm. Yet I dare say that the finder has often wondered whence they came and what their age might be. There is a history attached to these things, a history that awakens the imagination and kindles the collector’s ardor.
The ancient English town of Coventry was, for centuries, identified with silk weaving, especially the manufacture of ribbons. Here, at the opening of the twentieth century, stood the well-known factory of Thomas Stevens, who, acting in the adventurous spirit that was quickening all branches of industrial enterprise, began to make innovations in the general character of ribbon design. He produced silk-woven bookmarks, greeting cards, and mottoes with ornamental designs and appropriate wording.
They seemed to strike a responsive chord in the retail trade. A traveling salesman's sample book of these early patterns is said to have survived, but its contents would probably be so varied as to defy classification. It was, however, but a short step from more or less abstract patterns to pictures in silk. These pictures, woven in a continuous series of repeats and cut apart for mounting, were in their day highly prized in many a cottage, in inn parlors, in the rooms of university students, and in the homes of sportsmen. Today they are finding increasing recognition as collectibles.
The weaving of these pictures was a direct outcome of contemporary improvements in the jacquard loom, and of the great impetus given to all forms of textile design by the great exposition held in the Crystal Palace in 1851. The loom had become so elaborate that anything, which an artist could paint, could be reproduced in fabric. Still it must be said that the best results were obtained with the finest threads and with patterns prepared by an artist accustomed to the technique of weaving and able to ensure the maximum effect from manipulation of light and shade. As a very glossy silk was used for the major figures, they could be placed in strong contrast to an almost mat background. By changing the direction of the threads so that they would catch the light at different angles, a quite extraordinary variety of effects could be achieved. While the weaving itself was, of course, largely a mechanical process of brocade making, the preliminary calculations and preparations involved the exercise of unbelievable technical knowledge, patience, and craftsmanly skill.
In examining Stevens' productions from the middle of the nineteenth century to the first decade of the twentieth, one finds that their subject matter falls roughly into the following classes: historicals; portraits; architectural scenes; contemporary life and sports. In many instances they reproduce in miniature some popular contemporary painting. It is their happy union of color and their strong appeal to sentiment that first made these little pictures so popular and that gives zest to acquiring them today.
My own collection has been made in England, where for several summers I searched the smaller shops both in London and in the country. Curiously enough I have never found any examples at the Caledonian Market. The little shops on Fulham Road, near the Wallace collection, on Baker Street, and on the Abbey Road best rewarded me, although in London I found only one dealer whose supply could be called representative. In Edinburgh I once found a collection of all of the historicals, many of them in duplicate. At the time I failed to recognize them as genuine, in mint condition though they were, as the mounts were new, of biscuit color instead of green or green faded to gray, and none had Stevens' name on the mount or his advertising label on the back.
Later, when I visited the works in Coventry, I found all of them illustrated in the firm's advertising folder. Here at the Stevens' works I bought the last silk pictures remaining in stock - two of The Water Jump and of The First Set. They are woven as ribbons and rolled up, as ribbon would be. It took but a moment to cut them apart, paste them on a mount, and attach a mat but there is no firm name on the mat, nor advertisement on the back of the mount, for Stevens of Coventry has long since ceased to weave these little pictures. The looms are now employed in making bands for sailors' caps, initials, names for garment labels, and similar products that do not here concern us.
It may be accepted without question that all the small silk pictures are genuine products of the Jacquard loom. But Stevens' firm was only one of several in England that wove pictures. There were other firms, likewise, in France, and at least one in the United States. When these pictures first came on the market, they demonstrated the latest improvements in silk weaving; they were inexpensive; small enough to be enclosed in a letter, they served admirably as souvenirs of a visit to the Crystal Palace or to the Centennial Exposition in
Philadelphia. Their number and variety were large but, as examples were not generally preserved, it is really difficult to find them today. Making a collection will hold one's interest for years, though it may never be possible to assemble a complete set.
Stevens silk pictures were originally issued mounted and matted, and with a label or advertisement on the back of the mount. In many instances, of course, these mounts have completely disappeared or have been replaced with unmarked affairs. Pictures measure two and one fourth inches by five and seven eighths inches inside the mat. Historicals are larger. Portraits vary in size.
It seems probable that certain views were made by Stevens strictly for the American trade. I have never encountered them in England, and subjects such as The First Innings, Souvenir of the Wild West, Niagara Falls would have no sale outside the United States. To stimulate trade, Stevens and other firms were represented at the Philadelphia Centennial and at the World's Fair in Chicago. At the Centennial, Stevens sold handkerchiefs and badges bearing the portrait of Washington and various patriotic insignia. His version of Trumbull's Signing of the Declaration of Independence, "woven in pure silk at the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893," is not marked with the firm's name or label; but as a cut of it appears in the advertising folder, which illustrates all of the silk pictures for sale at that time, it is unquestionably the work of Stevens' looms. Trotting races are unknown in England, but Stevens' The Home Stretch is a close copy of the Currier & Ives print “The Brush on the Homestretch”, picturing popular American racehorses of the day. The silk version was obviously manufactured for the American trade.
The following list has been made from my own collection and the investigations made while I was enlarging it. I have included a few titles of pictures that I have never seen. My own interest has been centred mainly on subjects dealing with sports and social customs, and not on portraits or the portrayals of historical events. This predilection may be responsible for some oversights. Perhaps my list may be greatly extended and enriched by more zealous and dispassionate investigators.
Check List of Stevens Silk Pictures
ALBERT, KING OF SAXONY (portrait)
[Alexandra, Empress-Consort of Nicholas II] Czarina Of Russia (portrait)
[Alexandra] QUEEN OF ENGLAND (portrait)
ARCHER, FRED (portrait)
ARE YOU READY? (Number 1 of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat-Race Series)
AUGUSTA VICTORIA, KAISERIN OF GERMANY (Portrait)
BARRETT F. (portrait)
Baseball. See FIRST INNINGS
(Beaconsfield) THE LATE EARL OF BEACONSFIELD (portrait)
(Bismarck) THE LATE PRINCE BISMARK (portrait)
BURNS, ROBERT (portrait)
CALLED TO THE RESCUE (A lifeboat scene)
CANNON, TOM (portrait)
CHAMBERLAIN, RT. HON. JOSEPH, M. P. (portrait)
CHURCHILL, LORD RANDOLPH, M. P. (portrait)
CLEVELAND, PRESIDENT (portrait)
CLEVELAND, MRS. (portrait)
COLUMBUS LEAVING SPAIN. See also LANDING OF COLUMBUS
Coursing. See THE FIRST POINT, THE SLIP
COVENTRY, OLD AND NEW
Cricket. See THE FIRST OVER
CRYSTAL PALACE, FRONT VIEW
CRYSTAL PALACE, INTERIOR
CZAR OF RUSSIA (Nicholas II )(portrait)
DARLING, GRACE (portrait)
DEATH, THE (A hunting scene. Number 3 Of the Hunting Series)
DEATH OF NELSON
DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
ECCE HOMO (portrait)
(Edward VII) HIS MAJESTY KING EDWARD VII (Portrait)
EXPRESS TRAIN, THE (Number 3 of the Transportation Series, also titled THE PRESENT TIME; later issues in large size: mount 9 7/8 x 2 1/4 inches)
FINAL SPURT, THE (Number 2 of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat-Race Series)
FINISH, THE (Racing. Also titled THE STRUGGLE)
FIRE ENGINE, THE See also FOR LIFE OR DEATH
FIRST INNINGS, THE (Baseball)
FIRST OVER, THE (Cricket)
FIRST POINT, THE (Coursing). See also THE SLIP
FIRST SET, THE (Lawn tennis)
FIRST TOUCH, THE (Football)
FIRST TRAIN, THE (Number 2 of the Transportation Series. See also THE GOOD OLD DAYS; THE PRESENT TIME. The engines differ in date)
Football. See THE FIRST TOUCH
FOR LIFE OR DEATH (Fire engine. An earlier model than THE FIRE ENGINE)
FORTH BRIDGE, THE (Completed in 1890)
FRANZ JOSEFH, EMPEROR OF AUSTRIA (portrait)
FREDERICK III, EMPEROR OF GERMANY (portrait)
FULL CRY (Hunting. Number 2 of the Hunting Series)
(George V) H. R. H. PRINCE OF WALES (portrait)
(Gladstone) THE LATE RT. HON. GLADSTONE, M. P. (portrait)
GOD SPEED THE PLOUGH (In the earlier state there is a flight of birds over the church)
GODIVA, LADY (portrait on horse)
(Godiva, Lady) THE LADY GODIVA PROCESSION
GOOD OLD DAYS, THE (Royal Mail coach. Number 1 of the Transportation Series)
GRACE, DR. W. G. (Full-length portrait, in cricket costume)
HOME STRETCH, THE (Trotting)
HOWELL, R. (portrait)
Hunting Series. See THE MEET, FULL CRY, THE DEATH
IMMACULATE, THE (Virgin Mary) (portrait)
LANDING OF COLUMBUS
LAST LAP, THE (Bicycle racing. The earlier bicycles are high wheel, later diamond frame)
MADONNA AND CHILD (portraits)
(Majestic) THE H. M. S. MAJESTIC
[Mary, Queen] H. R. H. THE PRINCESS OF WALES (Portrait)
MATER DOLOROSA [Virgin Mary] (portrait)
MEET, THE (Hunting. Number 1 of the Hunting Series)
MEETING OF WELLINGTON Awn BLUECHER AT WATERLOO
MERSEY TUNNEL RAILWAY
MOLTKE, PRINCE (portrait)
Nelson, Horatio. See DEATH OF NELSON
(Nicholas II) CZAR OF RUSSIA (portrait)
OSBORNE, J. (portrait)
(Parnell) THE LATE CHARLES STEWART PARNELL (Portrait) (Parnell died in 1891)
PEEPING TOM (portrait) (Signboard of the inn)
PRESENT TIME, THE (Number 2 of the Transportation Series)
Racing. See ARE You READY? THE FINAL SPURT, THE FINISH, THE HOME STRETCH, THE LAST LAP, THE START, THE STRUGGLE, THE WATER JUMP
SALISBURY, MARQUIS OF, K. G. (portrait)
SLIP, THE (Coursing)
SMITH, JEM (portrait)
SOUVENIR OF THE WILD WEST
SPANISH BULL FIGHT
STANLEY, H. M. (portrait)
START, THE (Racing. Number 1 of the Racing Series)
Steeplechase. See THE WATER JUMP
STEPHENSON, GEORGE (portrait)
STRUGGLE, THE (Racing. Number 2 of the Racing Series; also titled THE FINISH)
SULLIVAN, JOHN L. (Full-length portrait, in ring costume)
Tennis. See THE FIRST SET
TURPIN'S RIDE TO YORK (The toll-gate leap)
(Victoria, Queen) HER MOST GRACIOUS MAJESTY, THE QUEEN. JUBILEE PORTRAIT
VICTORIA, QUEEN, AND HER PREMIERS (portrait group)
Virgin Mary. See THE IMMACULATE, MADONNA AND CHILD, MATER DOLOROSA
WASHINGTON, GEORGE (portrait) (Badges and handkerchiefs)
WATER JUMP, THE (A steeplechase)
Waterloo. See MEETING OF WELLINGTON AND BLUECHER AT WATERLOO
WILHELM 1, EMPEROR OF GERMANY (portrait)
WILHELM 11, EMPEROR OF GERMANY (portrait)
WILLIAM OF ORANGE CROSSING THE BOYNE
WOOD, C. (portrait)
Portraits of jockeys were very popular, possibly as souvenirs of a race meeting. Notes and Queries 159:176 states "Fred Archer's portrait has a biography at the back giving the date of death 8 Nov. 1886. It is stated that the portraits could be supplied in the following owner's colours: Lord Falmouth, Mr. Manton, Duke of Westminster and Mr. Peck." I think that Barrett, Cannon, Howell, Osborne, and Smith, whose portraits are listed above, were jockeys.
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