Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Phillips Needlework Picture c. 1670s

This piece really deserves to be read about if you are interested in the question of 'was 17th century embroidery done in the colonies'.  It is one of the few pieces with good provenance for being worked in the 17th century here in New England.  You will recognize the obvious 1670s English reference for design in the piece, but it is worked in wool on a linen ground.  The piece has remained in the family and is being sold with a $800,000 to $1,200,000 estimate.  I am not sure that a museum will be able to purchase this piece, but it really does belong in one here in the area.  We shall see what happens.  Skinner always exhibits the auction pieces before the auction and if you want to brave the snow - come see it!

Skinner Lot 30 March 1, 2015 Auction
More views are online 

The Phillips Family Needlework Picture, Sarah Phillips (b. Rowley, Massachusetts, 1656), Boston, Massachusetts, c. 1670, worked in red, blue, yellow, black, and white wool and silver and gold metallic threads on a blue/green linen ground, composed of two figures flanking the "Tree of Life" at center, the prodigal son at lower right, a brick building facade with mica "window" at right center, a cloud and partially obscured sun at upper left, and a rainbow at upper right, further stitched with a shepherd and his flock, leafy trees, flowers, a pomegranate, several birds, insects, and animals including a dog, a squirrel, a rabbit, a recumbent lion, a beaver, and a recumbent stag, under glass in a molded wood frame, (survives in a remarkable state of preservation, with minor losses, some discoloration), 17 1/4 x 24 1/4 in. 

Provenance: Preserved by the Phillips family for more than three centuries, the Sarah Phillips needlework picture has a long and well-documented provenance. Sarah Phillips (1656-1707) was a daughter of Reverend Samuel Phillips (1625-1696) who immigrated to America from Boxted, England in 1630 on the ship Arbella with his parents Reverend George and Elizabeth Phillips settling in Watertown, MA. Reverend George Phillips (c. 1593-1644) was the first minister of Watertown, MA. Reverend Samuel Phillips graduated from Harvard College in 1650 and settled in Rowley, MA in 1651. He married Sarah Appleton that same year and with her had eleven children including Sarah (1656-1707). Sarah was reportedly educated at a private school in Boston where she likely stitched her needlepoint picture in the late 1660s or early 1670s. 

Sarah Phillips married Stephen Mighill (1651-1687) in 1680 and had at least three children together. The needlepoint picture descended through their son, Nathaniel's (1684-1761) family passing to Nathaniel's son Nathaniel (1715-1788) then to his daughter Hannah Mighill Perley (1753-1812), then to her daughter Hannah Perley (1772-1858). Hannah Perley is documented as having owned Sarah Phillips' needlepoint picture in Thomas Gage's The History of Rowley published in 1840. On September 5, 1839, the town of Rowley celebrated its second centennial anniversary of its settlement. Much of the festivities occurred in a pavilion erected in the town to host a dinner and several orations on the historic occasion. In this pavilion were also displayed "relics" of Rowley's past including "A piece of embroidery of curious workmanship, wrought by Sarah Phillips, (daughter of the Rev. Samuel Phillips, the second minister of Rowley,) more than one hundred and sixty years ago, attracted much attention, and is now owned by Miss Hannah Perley, the said Sarah Phillips being grandmother to the said Hannah's grandfather…" It may have been the needlepoint's exhibition in Rowley that prompted the penning of its short history on the picture frame's wooden backing board reading "This picture was/wrought at a boarding/school in Boston by/Miss Sarah Phillips/ daughter of Rev. Sam./Phillips." Shortly after the celebration, it seems, the needlepoint picture was transferred to Hannah Perley's cousin Hannah Lancaster Sawyer (1754-1851), a great-granddaughter of Sarah Phillips. 

In December 1842 the picture was purchased from Hannah Lancaster Sawyer for thirty dollars by the Honorable Jonathan Phillips (1778-1860). Jonathan Phillips was a direct descendent of Sarah Phillips' brother Samuel (1658-1722) and a celebrated Boston philanthropist. There is no doubt that the needlework picture purchased by Jonathan Phillips in 1842 is the Sarah Phillips needlework. In a letter written to Jonathan Phillips on December 3 by Ann Tracy, a relative of Jonathan's facilitating the sale, Tracy describes the picture and ponders its symbolism and iconography: 

"With how lordly a bearing do those portly sheep trample mid-air as if they were walking on this terrible earth! And that powerful beast - placed in the region of the clouds, & of the rainbow - is the showing fight to his neighbors, or scampering away in fear, while he throws a look of fierce menace, if not of defiance, behind him? We are permitted, in common with yourself to gaze, awe-stricken upon our far-off ancestor with his Spanish cloak, & in his knightly attitude, rejecting, with the extended arm of eloquent rebuke the fruit which the Lady Eve is plucking for him, in her Parisian costume of the Old-Court style of elegance. Can you or Mrs. P. resolve the problem which troubles our doubts respecting the building? Is it, with its nice pediment & supporting pillars, intended to represent the "bower of bliss" provided for the first pair --- or, have the able-bodied birds surmounting it, made no mistake in taking it for a shelter for themselves? Certainly the most natural & affecting presentation is that of the poor Prodigal, still clad in his splendid garments, partaking of the husks which his valorous swine are devouring" 

Phillips family oral history states that upon Jonathan's death in 1860 the needlework picture was given to his only son William (1819-1873). Jonathan's will supports this noting that "All the remainder of my estate, real, personal, and mixed, I give and bequeath to my son William Phillips, to be at his free and absolute disposal forever." Phillips family history also states that upon William's death in 1873 that the picture was given to John Charles Phillips (1838-1885), a fact also supported by William Phillips' will noting "I give unto John Charles Phillips now of New York, merchant, son of Reverend John Charles Phillips, now of said Boston, all my plate, pictures, statuary, engravings, books, household furniture, watches, jewelry, wines and ornaments." After John Charles Phillips' death in 1885 the picture descended to his son the Honorable William Phillips (1878-1968) a distinguished career United States Diplomat. In 1939 William Phillips' wife, Caroline, lent the Sarah Phillips needlework picture to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts where it was photographed and documented, removed from its old frame and remounted by the museum's textiles department. It was subsequently exhibited at the museum during the winters of 1945 and 1946. The needlepoint picture has remained in the family of William Phillips to this day. 

Note: This is one of a very few pictorial 17th century American needleworks known, though of course it follows English design somewhat closely. In a letter to Mrs. William Phillips, dated January 19, 1945, Gertrude Townsend, Curator of Textiles at the Museum of Fine Arts, remarks on "the use of the bluish wool ground, instead of white satin, and wool instead of silk, for the stitchery, is a deviation from the English custom. The result is delightful." The letter goes on to include Ms. Townsend's hope that the Museum be granted "the privilege of exhibiting this embroidered picture with our other New England embroideries," and finishes the letter referring to Sarah Phillips's work as "one of the few important surviving examples of seventeenth century work which can be attributed to New England." 

Prior to publishing her exhaustive work Girlhood Embroidery: American Samplers and Pictorial Needlework 1650-1850 (Knopf, New York, 1993), Betty Ring also examined Sarah's work. She writes in Volume I, "Pictorial embroideries, like samplers, were surely made by seventeenth-century colonial schoolgirls, but only two authentic examples are known" (p. 30). In a footnote on the same page, Ring refers to the present lot specifically: "Unpublished is a pictorial embroidery of wool, silk, metal, and mica on a greenish-blue wool... It features a couple in seventeenth-century dress beside the Tree of Life and a rendition of the prodigal son amid many birds, beasts, and flowers. Inscribed on the reverse: 'This picture was wrought at a boarding school in Boston by Miss Sarah Phillips daughter of Rev. Sam. Phillips.' This fully documented and wonderfully colorful piece was loaned to the MFA [Museum of Fine Arts, Boston] in 1946." On page 31, a needlework, probably made in Boston, by Rebeckah Wheeler of Concord, is pictured (fig. 30). Like Sarah Phillips's needlework, Rebeckah Wheeler's consists of little raised work, and is stitched in wool threads which, Ring tells us, like Gertrude Townsend reported in 1945, is different from similar English work of the time, which was most often in silk.

In Jonathan Fairbanks and Robert Trent's work New England Begins, Linda Wesselman discusses Rebeckah Wheeler's sampler as entry number 318 (Vol. 2, pp. 311-12). She mentions the lack of raised work also, as being in distinct contrast to English needleworks of the period. More, Wesselman describes the "personal translations of pictorial sources" -animals, insects, etc.- apparent in Rebeckah's work, citing two European pattern books from the early 17th century to which Rebeckah had access as source material, and to which Sarah Phillips, at her school, likely had access as well. From a purely compositional standpoint, Rebeckah's needlework follows the English model - fully worked, with vertical figures overlapping horizontals creating the sense of a three-dimensional space, and the result is more restrained and less imaginative. Sarah's sampler shows no such restraint, and profound imagination. Her figures, while carefully arranged to create an overall balance to the work, float freely and give the picture a sense of whimsy. 

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