By Alice Lynes, F.L.A.
Librarian in charge of the Coventry & Warwickshire Collection.
With notes for the collector and suggested material for further study
COVENTRY CITY LIBRARIES Local History Pamphlets No.2
Thomas Stevens And His Silk Ribbon Pictures.
The Coventry weavers who made silk ribbon pictures could scarcely have imagined how eagerly their products would be sought after today by collectors in Britain and America. Although several Coventry manufacturers were producing very fine examples of these novelties it was Thomas Stevens whose name was to become most closely associated with this type of work. Silk ribbon weaving had been carried on in Coventry for more than 150 years, and was providing a livelihood for nearly 45% of the population, when, for an accumulation of reasons, the industry crashed in 1860.
There was great distress among the weavers; thousands of looms were broken up and whole streets were left with empty houses. Relief schemes were started and many weaving families emigrated to America and to the Colonies. It is estimated that about 9,000 people left the city in two years. Several attempts were made to provide alternative work for the weavers, including the building of the Leigh Mills, for woolen goods, and a cotton-spinning factory, but it was one of the younger master weavers, Thomas Stevens, whose inventiveness and drive were to find a way of adapting an old industry to capture a new market.
Stevens was born at Foleshill in humble circumstances in 1828, one of a family of seven children. At that time Foleshill was a village outside the boundary of Coventry, and a large proportion of its people were engaged in weaving ribbon in their own homes for manufacturers in the city. As a youth Stevens learnt the art and craft of ribbon weaving with the Coventry firm of Pears and Franklin, in Upper Well Street. There is no evidence in the city records of his having served an indentured apprenticeship or of his admission as a freeman of the city, which would follow such a course. By his industry and thrift he was able to set up in business on his own account in 1854, in Queen Street.
He began with weaving plain and fancy ribbons, but was soon experimenting with a development of jacquard weaving to produce pictures. For this, the picture was plotted on squared paper, in the fashion of a cross-stitch embroidery design, and a large card then perforated to represent each colour appearing in every "line" of the picture. The cards, arranged in an endless chain and attached to the loom, controlled the manipulation of the warp threads. Each time the shuttle crossed the loom a different card came into use, changing the arrangement of the warp threads and, consequently, the pattern woven. When all the cards had been brought into operation, the design was complete and, unless an adjustment had been made to the loom, the pattern was repeated for the required length of ribbon. A bookmarker, about 13 inches long, woven at the exhibition held to mark the opening of the Market Hall in 1867, required 5,500 cards.
When the industry collapsed in 1860, Stevens determined to make use of his experiments by producing pictures in such variety as to appeal to all tastes and, by pricing them within reach of the most modest purse, to stimulate a demand that would keep his workers in employment. He is sometimes stated to have patented the process while he was still working at the loom, but, in fact, none of his patents were for pictures. The earliest productions seem to have been bookmarkers, although Valentines, Christmas and birthday cards and scent sachets were available at an early date, as also were badges for schools, Masonic and Friendly Societies, festivals and clubs, woven to order. It is evident from reports in trade journals that the bookmarkers were put on the market in August 1862. They ranged from small ones at sixpence each to large ones for use in pulpits at as much as fifteen shillings.
The pictures included portraits of celebrities and local scenes, scriptural texts, hymns and psalms, and verses from the poets. Stevens also introduced to the Admiralty a hat ribbon with the name of the ship woven in gold wire. This he patented; it was adopted and for many years the firm was the sole supplier to the Admiralty Contracts Department.
Business expanded rapidly, necessitating removal to a new factory in West Orchard. With a large warehouse in Much Park Street added soon after. These premises were soon outgrown and in 1875 the Stevengraph Works were built in Cox Street; the name Stevengraph being applied to the products. Branch offices were opened in London and the names of agents in various parts of the world are found on some of the firm's wares. Stevens' work was widely exhibited in such places as York, Edinburgh, Paris, Antwerp, St. Louis and Chicago. Looms were erected at the exhibitions and goods woven and sold on the spot, earning for their producer more than thirty medals and diplomas.
In 1878 Thomas Stevens moved to London to manage the business there. Leaving his two sons to look after the production side in Coventry, and it was soon after this that he began to present his wares in a new form - as mounted pictures. In September 1888, after being in indifferent health for some time, he underwent a throat operation and complications set in. He died on the 24th October and was buried in Coventry cemetery.
The firm continued under family management until the founder's son, Thomas Inger Stevens, died in 1908, when it became a limited company. Production went on until 1940, when bombs destroyed the Cox Street factory. As the popular demand for the Victorian novelties dwindled about the time of World War 1, the machinery was adapted to the weaving of labels, with work for the Admiralty continuing. Today, pictures as such are only woven as special commemorative pieces. The business is now incorporated, as the woven label division, with Brough, Nicholson and Hall, of Leek, Staffordshire.
The story of the firm of Stevens illustrates the capacity of Coventry men to adapt their crafts to the requirements of their day. Few, probably, will see any connection between the woven labels on almost every article of clothing they buy, and the little Victorian pieces which now provide a fascinating study for a growing number of collectors, but which were once an everyday product of the Coventry weavers.
It is the mounted pictures that provide a special interest for collectors. These vary in size, some being as small as 1 ½” x 4" and others as big as 7 ½ x 13". Subjects are very diverse; they include portraits of Royalty and other celebrities, such as George Washington, Buffalo Bill and Fred Archer, the jockey; scenes from history, as the Death of Nelson and the Signing of the Declaration of Independence and well-known buildings like Kenilworth Castle, the Crystal Palace and the Forth Bridge. There is a series of sports, including football, tennis, cricket, rowing, hunting, and horseracing and cycling.
Fashions in travel are recorded by a picture of The First Train built by Stephenson in 1825 and by The Present Time, with a train traveling at 60 miles an hour; by The Good Old Days, showing a mail coach and For Life or Death, a horse drawn fire-engine. Legends illustrated are Lady Godiva, Leda and the Swan and Dick Turpin's Ride to York. Variants of the same subject, such as changes of colour, provide a further point of interest for the collector.
Difficulties are often encountered in identifying the maker of a particular specimen. The only certainty is when the name of the manufacturer is woven into the ribbon, (although it should be mentioned that this has sometimes been removed), or when it is printed on the front of the mount. The labels backing the pictures and much rarer, the paper to which the bookmarkers were attached also provide valuable evidence for the collector but being capable of substitution, are not wholly reliable. Dating the pictures is very difficult. This can sometimes be done by the subject, as in the case of Queen Victoria and her Premiers, which shows the Queen surrounded by eight Ministers, with their dates, and pictures of the Houses of Parliament, Balmoral and Windsor Castle and the Royal Arms. The latest date being 1886, it is obvious that it was produced in readiness for the Jubilee the following year. The backing labels can be a Useful guide, although they were not necessarily added at the time of manufacture.
The pictures and bookmarkers were woven in a continuous length, then cut up and mounted as sales required, which may have been considerably later. The information they give includes a list of the subjects for sale and facsimiles of the medals and the number of awards received; the more there were the later the picture may be assumed to have been woven. In some cases the date of the medals can be discerned, providing a further clue, as also do the addresses at which the firm was operating. Another guide is the registration or design mark, which was put on certain articles manufactured in England between 1842 and 1883. In the case of ribbon pictures this was usually woven into the ribbon at the mitered end of bookmarkers, printed on the back labels or embossed on the mounts. It was a small diamond-shaped device bearing various numerals and letters, in combinations, which denote the date. It should be remembered that this is the date the design was registered, and not the date of the manufacture of a particular specimen. Since the Jacquard cards are practically indestructible, a subject that sold well could be repeated almost indefinitely, so there could be a wide gap between the two dates.
It is hoped that this short account may stimulate further exploration of a fascinating byway of Coventry's history. Readers wishing to pursue the subject should find the following suggestions useful.
SILK RIBBON PICTURES
Much can be learnt from examining the pictures themselves. There is a permanent exhibition in the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum of a selection from the Museum's Collection of nearly 1,000 bookmarkers and pictures by Stevens and several other firms. Other specimens may be seen by application.
BAKER, Wilma Sinclair Le Van. The silk pictures of Thomas Stevens: a biography of the Coventry weaver and his contribution to the art of weaving, with an illustrated catalogue of his work. New York, 1957.
DARBY, Michael. Thomas Stevens and the Coventry ribbon industry. (Text of a lecture given to the Warwickshire Local History Society), 27.2.70)
THE HISTORY OF RIBBON WEAVING, more especially in relation to its connection with the city of Coventry, from the earliest record to the present time. Coventry, 1867. Deals principally with the work of Thomas Stevens and includes a price list of bookmarkers. Bound in Silk and ribbon industry of Coventry (a collection of pamphlets).
NEWSCUTTINGS on Thomas Stevens and the Stevengraph Works). 1872-1901. illus. in (Lowe, Alfred. Coventry newscuttings), 1883, 1887-8, 1893-4, 1900-1901.
SPRAKE, Austin and DARBY Michael. Stevengraphs:
The reference book on Thomas Stevens' mounted silk woven pictures and silk woven bookmarkers. Guernsey, 1968.
STEVENS, Thomas. Retail list (of) Stevens' Coventry illuminated silk bookmarkers, Valentines, scent sachets, etc. Coventry, (1869).
STEVENS, Thomas. Catalogue of Stevengraphs. Retail list, 1876-7. Photocopy. Prices quoted in dollars.
Much additional material on the wider aspects of the Coventry ribbon industry is available in the Coventry and Warwickshire Collection.
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