This is an incredible work because it involves the use of two incredible art forms: blackwork embroidery and quilling. Blackwork has been done for more than five centuries. Though no examples of this type of embroidery from that long ago have survived, it can be seen in the costumes of royals in portraits going back to the 15th century and earlier. In his “Canterbury Tales,” the 14th century author, Geoffrey Chaucer, takes time to point out the blackwork in the collar of the Miller’s wife.
The central part of this piece is a depiction of Jacob’s ladder, the biblical ladder that in Jacob’s dream extends from earth to heaven, complete with angels ascending and descending on it as Jacob sleeps. This is done in blackwork, the embroidery on silk in the tiniest of black stitches. The background cream-colored silk was left vacant in the center so that one’s eye would be drawn to the angels.
The blackwork was so intricately done that in order to see the individual stitches on much of it, a magnifying glass is required. The wings of the angels were done in small running stitches, some of which are just dots of black silk. In the costumes, the blackwork consists of a trellis design, as well as tiny running stitches and longer stitches. The small bush near Jacob was accomplished by a myriad of teeny stitches that were placed next to each other to resemble a rope. These ropes were then joined in places so that a continuous pattern was achieved.
The mountains were done in small running stitches, usually going the same direction. Some of the clouds were done in the same fashion, but one was done in even smaller running stitches that appear to be almost small dots, rather than a longer stitch. The rock that serves as Jacob’s pillow was done in French knots as well as running stitches. Even as I gaze through a magnifying glass to marvel at the workmanship, I don’t know where to look first.
The other incredible part of the work is the fantastic border surrounding the blackwork picture. The origins of the art of quilling may go as far back as ancient Egypt. In the Renaissance, French and Italian nuns and monks used it to decorate religious items. Quilling became popular in the 18th century as a hobby for “gentle” women of the upper classes. According to the English-based Quilling Guild, an article appeared in a 1786 issue of “The New Lady’s Magazine” noting that “…it affords an amusement to the female mind capable of the most pleasing and extensive variety; and at the same time, it conduces to fill up a leisure hour with an innocent recreation…” It’s been some time since I’ve read Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility,” but the Guild says that the author mentioned quilling in the novel.
Quilling is the rolling, looping, curling and twisting of paper strips into various designs. The preferred paper was strips trimmed from the gilded edges of books. (As books were very expensive, this may partially account for the rareness of early quilling.) The accent of gilding in this work adds an additional decorative dimension and substance.
In addition to the quilling, the creator of this piece added cording that was overlaid in stitches of gold floss that make a triangular effect around the central rectangle. This additional cording adds still another interesting design element to this fabulous work.
The condition of this work is excellent, given its age and type. There is a small amount of discoloration on the silk in several places as the result of age, but it has no other issues.
The quill work is in excellent condition as well, with no missing or damaged parts. The original gold leaf from the pages of an expensive book has held up extremely well. The gold leaf is still luminous and an intense golden color to it.
The rosewood frame may very well be the first that was put on this piece. Sometimes these pieces laid in drawers for some time before they were framed. The frame certainly fits to a “t” the edges of the quill work. It has some minor flaws, including small veneer losses some losses of original color. However, considering its age, these are small issues. This handsome rosewood frame suits this exceptional piece of workmanship very well. The color of the rosewood is deep and rich, and it has acquired a pretty, soft patina.
This charming, unique and early piece measures 10 inches wide by 11-3/4 inches high, including the frame.
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