Review: Sampled Lives exhibition, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Sampled Lives: Samplers from the Fitzwilliam Museum
Fitzwilliam Museum, Trumpington Street, Cambridge CB2 1RB
Free entry, until Sunday 8th April, 2018.

Accompanying catalogue: Carol Humphrey, Sampled Lives: Samplers from the Fitzwilliam Museum. Accomplishment, Identity, Education and Employment (Cambridge: The Fitzwilliam Museum, 2017). Pp 242, illustrated.  £19.99 (paperback), ISBN 9781910731079.

Sophia Ellis, Band sampler with pictorial panels, 1785 (exhibition catalogue No. 62). Image courtesy of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Curated by the Honorary Keeper of Textiles, Carol Humphrey, this is a fascinating small exhibition of 123 samplers from the Fitzwilliam Museum’s collection which are not usually on general display. Dating from the early 17th to the 20th century they are attractive in their own right as material objects and a testament to the expertise and artistry of their often very young (under ten years old in some cases) female makers. Most of those makers are anonymous, destined perhaps to be known only by the initials or name they stitched into their pieces. In a few cases, especially where that name is unusual, a short life has been reconstructed from the archive, though even here the sampler is pretty much the only surviving evidence of a female life. What the exhibition does very successfully is take this evidence and use it in a fresh way: as the equivalent of a life-writing text to illuminate the under-recorded lives of girls and women. This is therefore a very helpful extension of sources not just for scholars of textiles but for all members of the Women’s Studies Group who research women’s lives.

The samplers have been arranged not only chronologically but also in groups that illustrate the themes of accomplishment, identity, education and employment which are more fully explored in the sumptuous fully-illustrated catalogue. Most of the makers are, as far as can be discovered, of gentry or middling-sort families. Their work is a testament to the embroidery skills that were a key element in a female identity, used to make and embellish clothing and household linens. Some of the later examples are interpreted, however, as portable CVs demonstrating a working woman’s employable skill with the needle. Similarities between samplers are pointed out and traced not only to printed pattern books and popular texts but also to female networks such as the pupils of teachers Judith Hayle and her daughter Rebecca Thomson of Ipswich (fl. 1691-1711), late-17th- and 18th-century Quaker circles, and the charity school of St Clement Dane’s in central London.

The technically elaborate earlier 17th-centry spot motif samplers gradually gave way to the simpler (in stitching terms) pictorial samplers with alphabet and text often intended to be framed and hung on the wall of the family home, maybe as a dutiful gift to parents. The former had included clues to a girl’s or her family’s political alignments (heraldic and royalist symbols for example), whereas the latter can be thought of as extending this to a more personal interpretation of a girl’s emerging female identity and sense of self. For example, nine-year-old Sophia Ellis’ 1785 sampler (see illustration) incorporates standard motifs (as the ‘Solomon’s Porch’ in the centre, Adam and Eve in the band below, and the urns of flowers and geometrical trees) alongside symbols of loyalty at a time of war in America (the two grenadiers and the crowned lions). She has demonstrated her ability to both read and write, now expected in gentry and middling-sort females, with her top bands of upper- and lower-case alphabets and a moral motto which is again typical in framing a female sense of piety and quiet obedience. However, in the bottom band has allowed her imagination to run riot with a charming series of more frisky pastoral images.

GILLIAN WILLIAMSON

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