I am thrilled to say I just came home from our trip to New York and Boston where 46 (including two brave husbands) of us “Casketeers” thoroughly enjoyed our time in Behind-The-Scenes tours of three museums, ending in a how-to-mount-fabric class and a lovely dinner in Tricia Wilson Nguyen’s beautifully restored 1912 home. Can you tell I loved my trip?
Before I go further, in case you are new to the word Casket used in reference to needlework, we are not talking about coffins in the modern sense. These boxes are similar to 20th c. jewelry boxes (think of the 1950-1960’s pasteboard jewelry box with a dancing ballerina on the inside). Interestingly enough, one of the things I learned was that early caskets were also made of some cheap material such as a modern pasteboard, and not of wood at all, so it is a wonder that they are still holding together today and there are so many extant. I was told that in England, a coffin has never been referred to as a casket, so that is obviously an Americanism. These pieces were akin to a girl’s senior project to show she had accomplished her needlework skills, and were stitched by girls from 11 to 17 years of age. There were many craftspeople involved in this work, including a draftsman for the design patterns which were hand drawn and sold commercially; thread and needle makers for the products used and another person mounted the finished fabric. Generally, they were stitched during the period of 1650-1700, some as late as 1724. Usual subjects were Biblical stories or the lives of 17th c. English Monarchs, such as King Charles I and his wife, Henrietta Marie of France, (m. 1625-he was beheaded in 1649); or that of the Merry Monarch, Charles II and his wife, Catherine of Braganza (m. 1662). His elder brother was James II of England. and they were both sons of King Charles I.
The only downside to this adventure is that we were not given permission by the museums to post our photos to blogs and other online media. We were able to photograph as much as we wanted (without camera flashes, of course) but did have this restriction placed on us, understandably.
We arrived Sunday, October 26, 2014 in New York City and stayed at the Courtyard Marriott on Third Avenue and 53rd Street, most of us were impressed with this hotel and would stay there again. A very large group got together at a nearby restaurant that evening and started making friends and talking about 17th c. Caskets, embroidery, history, etc. and it was a total joy for me to find so many people who talk the same “language.” I’ve always had this experience in my dolls house and miniature collecting life where you don’t have to explain yourself and why you are involved with dolls houses and miniatures. Sometime in August after I signed on to this tour, I had suggested we get together for this first night in NYC as there were people coming from four countries, many of whom had never been to the city, which can be quite daunting as a newbie. Luckily for our group, Renee Fields, a New York City resident, picked up the actual search for a restaurant and found a great eatery in Hillstone on Third and 55th St., within a two block walk from the hotel. We separated into several tables randomly, so that I was seated with several others, including two lovely women from Newfoundland (who taught me the correct pronunciation of their Canadian province), it rhymes with “understand?” with a lilt in the voice at the end of the word.
As I mentioned, participants were (approximate numbers)…4 from England, 9 from Canada, 5 from Australia and New Zealand, and the balance from the United States.
The following morning, excitement was high as we took our coach to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (aka The Met or as the Museum refers to itself, MMA) at Fifth Avenue and 81st Street. First, many of us attended Tricia’s lecture on 17th c. embroideries which she had given the previous week at the Winterthur Needlework Conference, near Wilmington, Delaware, entitled “The Diligent Needle.” I believe 13 people from our group attended that Conference and were able to listen to various lectures and take needlework courses, including Tricia’s class on how to make a 17th century needlewoven Posy, many of which were found inside of caskets. They are frequently shown in 17th c. portraits of women, to show their accomplishments and to display their graceful hands and fingers. These paintings frequently showed the delicacy of the hands denoting they were refined people and did not work in lowly jobs which would callous the fingers.
We were directed to Gallery 517, a very narrow hallway sized room found among the 17th-18th c. English rooms on the first floor, (walk behind the massive gate which is behind the main stairs on the first floor and turn right. Ask the guards where to go exactly). As an aside, I must tell you about the Studiolo Gubbio. Again, ask guards for directions as it is on your way to Gallery 517. This is also a tiny space in the early Italian Renaissance area. This room is completely made of Marquetry by Antonio Barrili in the 14th-15th c. The marquetry goes three quarters of the way up the wall and shows many inlaid sections depicting art, music, etc. It is magnificent! Just outside this room is an early chapel also done in marquetry. I never miss this area when I visit the MMA.
Back to Gallery 517 again, encased in glass is a very large (possibly three feet high) sumptuous mirror surrounded by magnificent stumpwork embroidery, as well as the tiniest “sweete bag” that I have seen. It might have been used as a casket “toy” as many small treasures were placed into caskets. There was also a coif shown, a woman’s cap, and this one was not stitched together for use, along with an old piece of blackwork with some of the work worn away. The museums’ artifacts may be seen on the Heilbrunn Timeline at http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ and it is well worth a search for needlework, stumpwork, etc. We were told that ultimately, everything in the museum’s vast collection will be included with information and photos, so it is worth looking at the website frequently.
We were broken up into manageable size groups to go to the Anthony Ratti Textile Conservation Department on the lower level, where there were two rooms displaying about 20 pieces of 17th c. stumpwork and/or embroidered pieces. Embroidered mirror surrounds were shown in the first room and the embroidered caskets in the second room. The staff was so gracious in allowing these pieces to be shown to our group. The pieces were, of course, selected by Tricia Wilson Nguyen for our delectation.
Tricia’s research and knowledge is invaluable and I tried to engage her in conversations regarding the pieces, the fabrics, trims, etc. and she was able to explain so much. I only wish I recorded every conversation and any lectures she gave. I had my iPad Mini with me and ultimately ran out of space because I bought one with fairly small memory storage, never expecting I would need more.
After our needlework tour, I filled my time with visits to see my old MMA haunts, as I practically grew up in museums, first the Brooklyn Museum which has a fine collection of 23 restored rooms from New York houses that were torn down. This is where I first became enchanted with history and art. When I was old enough to take the subway into Manhattan, I frequently visited the MMA and fell in love with their many historical rooms from the 16th to 19th centuries, all of which delighted me. Of course, I visited my old friends, the Dutch 17th c. genre artists including Vermeer, Frans Hals, Pieter de Hooch, Gerard TerBorch, Gerard Dou, etc. I must have had previous lives in the 16th c. Elizabethan world as well as 17th c. Netherlands because I am completely fascinated by these periods and places. I’ve been to both countries many times and it is never enough as there is so much to explore and learn.
Tuesday morning was our trip to the Cooper Hewitt Museum at 9 East 90th Street. This museum is currently closed for restoration, but they graciously allowed our group to tour their conservation room, where we saw another excellent display of stumpwork caskets, mirrors and other early needlework objects. The museum will be reopened sometime in mid-December, and is an excellent place to view art. In the afternoon, we bussed to Boston and stayed at the Midtown Hotel, which was a disappointment after the lovely accommodations in NYC. It worked out fine, but it was dowdy. I was told the bus was legally able to park across the street which might have been a reason the hotel was selected. It was within walking distance of the Prudential Center, which held many stores and restaurants, so it was actually very well located. Had a wonderful lobster dinner at the Summer Shack, located nearby. I was told by some fishermen in Maine that a female lobster is the sweeter and I specified that, and it was indeed sweet and tasty.
Wednesday morning, we visited the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) where I made a beeline for the 17th c. Dutch paintings and was gratified to find many of the Dutch genre paintings I love so much. In the conservation department, we were shown many wonderful caskets, mirror surrounds and a stumpwork pillow which opened up to show very finely stitched rectangular sections with a mirror in the center. I asked if their largest casket could be opened and it was so gratifying to see the inside of this fabulous piece. Inside the very highly domed lid was a 3/4 length bust of a doll, likely a wax figure, and she was magnificent.
Seeing all these examples of stumpwork and silk embroidery has raised the bar for my expectations for my own needlework. I will probably do the mirror surround as shown here in an earlier posting, and if my eyes cooperate (I will need cataract surgery within the next couple of years), I expect to turn out some fine embroidery.
Later in the day, we were driven to a section of Boston near the docks to see where these modern day caskets are actually made. We met Richard Oedel of Fort Point Cabinetmakers who talked about the making of the wooden cabinets which has to be very carefully researched and made because tolerances for drawer openings have to be precise. It was very enjoyable to learn about his work and research. His place of business was in a huge building containing Boston’s Decorative Design Center so it was interesting to roam around and see fabric design houses such as Scalamandre, Brunschweig & Fils, etc.
Thursday morning we were taken to the Lexington Historical Depot for a class in how to mount the silk fabric on a 3″ x 5″ trinket box. It was an interesting challenge using wheat paste on laid paper, with silk used for lining of the box. I had the misconception that one had to attach each panel of the casket fabric by stitching and am thrilled to learn it is not correct, that is what all the silver or gold taping is about. As I am new to the course, I felt very behind in the material offered in Tricia’s courses. Many of the women there were third year students so knew many of the answers to my questions.
Thursday evening, we visited Tricia’s beautiful home, had a wonderful catered dinner and a tour of all four floors of her home where we saw many antique examples of samplers and stumpwork. She displayed much of her own stitching including what she calls “Needlework Nibbles,” classes she offers online. Do check her website, http://thistlethreads.com and search out all she has to offer, including classes, a blog, materials for sale, etc. This is where the information is shown on joining her class for the stumpwork casket, so if interested, do take a look. It is simply amazing what she has learned and amassed over the last twenty years, plus having a husband and two children. In 2010, she headed up the Plimouth Jacket project and there are pictures on the site. She is indeed an extraordinary woman! My sincerest thanks go to Tricia and Susan Albury from Hanging by a Thread in England who arranged the travel aspect of the adventure.