Friday, November 06, 2015

19th Century Mourning Embroideries Currently on Display in “Georgia’s Girlhood Embroidery: ‘Crowned with Glory and Immortality’”

Included in the new exhibition “Georgia’s Girlhood Embroidery: ‘Crowned with Glory and Immortality’” (on view at the Georgia Museum of Art through Feb. 28, 2016; co-organized by Kathleen Staples and Dale Couch) are three mourning samplers, which are somewhat unusual. Exhibited just outside the gallery is Mary Jane Smithey’s silk mourning embroidery picture, which combines watercolor painting with embroidery done in silk floss on a plain silk background. Smithey’s work is characteristic of the type of mourning embroideries done during the Federal period and the decades immediately following. Samplers, on the other hand, were preferred for instructional, rather than commemorative purposes, yet, as the three examples in our exhibition show, it was not unheard of for a schoolgirl or even an adult woman to make an embroidered record of her loss using counted thread techniques rather than the graceful couched satin stitches that filled out the drawn-on outlines of most mourning embroideries.

Smithey’s embroidery shows two neoclassical urns, graced by mourning women, in front of a church in a pastoral landscape. One urn, by which Mary Jane herself seems to be depicted, honors her father, Robert Scott Smithey; the other urn, beside which an unidentified women sits, honors her maternal grandparents, William and Mary Hewlett. Completed around 1825, Smithey’s embroidery is a typical example of schoolgirl mourning embroideries. Either she or her instructor would have drawn on the design and painted in the faces and other details, as well as the background, while Smithey would have embroidered the larger features in couching stitch, French knots and outline, single, and split stitches using silk thread for the majority of the design and silk chenille for the leaves. Smithey’s embroidery reflects both the neoclassical style and the “cult of mourning” popular in her day. Unlike the memorial embroideries on display as part of the exhibition, Smithey’s embroidery was made in Richmond, Virginia, and brought to Georgia by her daughter in 1860.

Mary Jane Smithey's memorial to her father and grandparents

Caroline Broughton Fabian, a wealthy planter’s daughter from St. Simons Island, Georgia, also followed popular fashion with her mourning sampler, dedicated to the memory of George Washington and dated October 8, 1803. After Washington’s death, it became popular for schoolgirls to commemorate him in mourning embroideries as an exercise in patriotism. What is unusual about Fabian’s embroidery is its format. Most Washington memorials were done in the style of Smithey’s embroidery, instead of as part of a counted thread instructional sampler. Fabian’s sampler begins with the alphabet, as is usual for instructional samplers, but then goes on to include the following verse:

Columbia’s fair daughters forever shall mourn
While Genius stands weeping at Washington’s Urn.
Let hope still support you, fair daughters arise
In faith that your Washington’s soar’d to the skies,
Where still as your guardian he’ll ever preside
To virtue and goodness the pole star and guide.

Davida Deutsch identified this verse as being first anonymously published on July 15, 1800, in the New Hampshire Gazette, and its appearance on a south Georgia sampler is evidence of the wide diffusion of ideas and literature in the Federal period. Fabian goes on to note proudly that it has been 28 years since American independence, and that the sampler was made in the “State of Georgia.”

Caroline Broughton Fabian's sampler

The combination instructional sampler/memorial to the deceased is also found in a sampler by an unidentified maker that combines the alphabet with an embroidered epitaph to Joseph Smith, who died in 1840 in Decatur County, located in southwest Georgia. His family’s names are also included on the sampler (his wife Nancy Ann Smith, his son Francis Marion Smith, and his daughter Martha Washington Smith) as well as the initials of some yet to be identified relatives, making this sampler a family record as well. Smith's epitaph is flanked by two cross-stitched weeping willows, which symbolize mourning. It is probable that either Smith’s wife or his daughter made this instructional/memorial/family record sampler.

Unidentified family member, memorial to Joseph Smith

A more elaborate example of the memorial tribute sampler is the “Tribute to the Memory of Cosmo P. Richardsone,” made in 1852 in Savannah to honor the late Dr. Richardsone, who was known as the best doctor in Savannah. Upon his death, Henry Rootes Jackson, a politician and well-known poet, composed a poem in his honor. It is unknown who copied that poem onto this memorial sampler, but likely suspects are Richardsone’s widow, Elizabeth, or his daughter Margaret. The careful use of punctuation, unusual in samplers, suggests that it was copied directly from the original manuscript, and the use of brightly dyed wool thread instead of silk is typical of needlework done after 1850.

Unidentified family member, memorial to Cosmo Richardsone