Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Drab Colors & Quercitron

Quilt with a ruffle of yellow-ground chintz
Spencer Museum of Art
University of Kansas
The long-lasting yellow dye may have been quercitron.

One fashionable chintz for furnishings and early quilts was known as drab style. My dictionary still defines drab as a light olive brown, but today's common meaning is dull or commonplace.

Detail of a whole-cloth quilt
from the Bidwell House Museum in Massachusetts

Camden, South Carolina, 1820
Wools in Drab or Bottle Green
 (Drab was olive green)

In 1812 drab style meant a color scheme of mustard yellows, olive greens and browns, a palette derived from a dye called quercitron, which can be printed with mordants similar to the way madder is printed. Different mordants produce different shades of green, brown and yellow.

Fabric sample from the Victoria and Albert Museum

Do a search for drab style in the Victoria and Albert database.
Describing quercitron’s color scheme as drab style confuses us because there is nothing dull or commonplace about it. Bright mustards set against dark brown grounds with shades of olive green and touches of blue can be quite vivid.

The quilt on the cover of the Massachusetts Quilts
book has a border of drab-style chintz,
 a fashionable early 19th-century look.

Cut out chintz framed by a floral
with the distinctive quercitron yellow background.
Unlike other natural yellow dyes, quercitron yellow was colorfast.

The colors came from a dye new to Europeans.  About 1785 Englishman Edward Bancroft visited Massachusetts and found Americans using yellow dye from the bark of the North American black oak tree. He obtained an English patent for black oak bark and coined the word ‘quercitron" from the Latin quercus for oak and citrina, probably referring to a yellow fruit. When Bancroft’s fifteen-year patent expired in 1800, British mills created a rage for the dye called "bark" in the trade. It was inexpensive; it was colorfast and the color combinations were novel.

Drab-style dress print in the center

Fabric historians have defined drab style in different ways. Peter Floud, once curator of textiles at London's Victoria and Albert Museum, limited it to green, brown, yellow and blue derived from quercitron. Florence Montgomery at the Winterthur Museum wrote that it is really the absence of reds and purples that defines drab.

Drab roses and red roses

Dyers could print cotton in querictron's shades first and then print in madder to obtain the full range of colors from yellow and green through red and purple, but this doubling of techniques was expensive. Montgomery noted it was rarely done. However, Heather Hansen in her 2011 thesis The Quest for Quercitron cites Bancroft's own writing:
"In many cases, madder colours are mixed in the same piece with those of the bark..."

Mixing quercitron and madder printing methods was probably common, but the wide spectrum of color might have been thought of as a full-chintz palette. "Drab-style" defined a print with only quercitron or bark colors.

Jeremy Adamson dated the English fad for drab prints to 1800-1812 but it seem to have continued in American quilts through the first quarter and into the 1830s and ‘40s.

The idea of yellow and brown color combination, whatever the dyestuff, is often found in early patchwork.

Read Heather Hansen's 2011 thesis The Quest for Quercitron: Revealing the Story of a Forgotten Dye. She's studied the dye extensively and Bancroft's dashing life (he was a spy and has been accused of murder.) She also includes many samples of drab-style prints.
Click here and download the PDF:

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Baltimore Prints

Detail of the Lassovitch quilt

The Baltimore quilts attributed to the workshop of Achsah Wilkins have many common fabrics, among them the fruit panel so popular with American quilters.

This panel is featured in a 1923 British book by Maciver Percival, The Chintz Book, described as a "Decorative Panel. Block-Printed Chintz. Sheraton Period." I noticed in Mary Conroy's 300 Years of Canada's Quilts that the Royal Ontario Museum has a quilt attributed to Yorkshire, England with the same panel "known to have been printed by Thomas Armitage, Bristol, England."

See more examples of quilts with this panel in this April post

Detail of the Lassovitch quilt
Another print often used in Baltimore is a be-ribboned bouquet of seven compound leaves.

Detail of the Jessup quilt attributed to Baltimore

This 63" square by Mary Gorsuch Hessop 1762-1832) includes a very large version of this print. The top is in the collection of the Smithsonian and includes Hewson prints in the center.

 Now I have another print to look for. I wonder if the leaves are not a Hewson print, like the vase and bird prints, printed in various sizes---one design, multiple sizes.

I wonder---wish Dr. Dunton was around to discuss this with.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Cut Out Chintz: Swags in Rococo Style

Cut out chintz quilt with inked inscription
"A. G. Wilkins 1820 / M. D. Davis 1890”

This bedcover, chintz appliqued to a machine-woven Marseilles spread, is attributed to Achsah Goodwin Wilkins of Baltimore. In the 1940s her granddaughter Mary Dorsey Davis talked to William Rush Dunton about family memories of Achsah, who had a chronic skin disease. Achsah's daughter had written a memory of her:

"She most frequently  beguiled her weary hours of sickness by designing and laying out fancy spreads in which she displayed beautiful taste . . . . I, as well as many of her descendants, have choice specimens of her handiwork which we prize highly.”

This photo from Dr. Dunton's book is NOT the Smithsonian's quilt but a
similar design supervised by Achsah Wilkins.

Achsah Wilkins's designs show how the curves and cartouches popular for rococo decor influenced quilt composition and style.

Rococo design abhored a straight line.

Marylanders had access to many European goods through the port of Baltimore but by the turn of the 19th century Baltimore boasted domestic workshops producing luxury goods done in the latest design ideas.

Pier table attributed to Baltimore's Finlay furniture shop.

Read more about Baltimore's painted and gilded furniture here:

Detail of the Smithsonian's quilt

Achsah Wilkins did not sew and her family said that black women actually stitched the quilts she designed. As Dr. Dunton wrote:

"this group of quilts and coverlets had been made under her direction by a group of young colored girls, possibly slaves, who had been trained by her."

Marylanders held slaves until the Civil War. The 1830 Census at the home of Baltimore's William G. Wilkins counted 2 slaves and 3 free blacks (1 female slave and 1 male slave, both ages 10 to 24 and 3 free black men from 10 to over 55.) Because the census did not list names aside from heads of household and because we do not know if Achsah's husband's middle initial was G. we cannot be sure that this is her household.

When we consider slave-made quilts we have to include those attributed to Achsah.

In his 1945 book Old Quilts Dr. William Rush Dunton pictured 13 similar Baltimore quilts in black and white, most of which had descended among Achsah's daughters.

I've found three color pictures of her quilts. One is the Smithsonian's.
See textile dealer Jan Whitlock's web site for this one, pictured in the Dunton book in plate 76, where it is attributed to Achsah and owned at the time by Mrs. Jacob Baer, her granddaughter.

Dena Katzenberg's 1981 catalog of an exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art she showed another coverlet attributed to Achsah Wilkins, this loaned by a great-granddaughter Mrs. Eric Lassotovitch.

 It is in plate 73 on the right here. Plate 71 is almost identical.

What a workshop Achsah had going!

Below more chintz quilts that would look up-to-date in a rococo room.

Charlton Hall Auction offered this quilt
attributed to Lavinia Eason, collection of Jennie Dreher

Detail showing the scrolls in the fabric and swags in the border.

Michigan State University owns this quilt that was once attributed to Abigail Adams although that is very unlikely. See more about it here:

Here's a quilt made in Maryland by Jane Knox Bitzel, #2008.040.003 in the collection of the International Quilt Study Center & Museum:
Quite similar to Dr. Dunton's plate 88 attributed to Achsah Wilkins.
Read my post about rococo design here:

Thursday, June 7, 2012

La Marveilleuse

Betsy Patterson Bonaparte

Aside from marrying into France's nouveau royal family Betsy Patterson Bonaparte was best known for her scanty gowns.

"Her appearance was such that it threw all the company into confusion and no one dar'd look at her but by stealth...Her dress was the thinnest sarcenet and white crepe...there was scarcely any wasit to it and no sleeves; her back, her bosom, part of her wasit and her arms were uncovered and the rest of her form visible. ...Several ladies sent her word. if she wished to meet them...she must promise to have more clothes on."---Margaret Bayard Smith

Shopping in a French market.
Young women wearing revealing new gowns,
an older woman on the left observes.

At her wedding: "All the clothes worn by the bride might have been put in my pocket. Her dress was of muslin, richly embroidered, of extremely fine texture. Beneath her dress she wore but a single garment."

Rake Aaron Burr liked the look.  He wrote his daughter Theodosia after the wedding:"Madame Bonaparte passed a week here. She is a charming little woman...dresses with taste and simplicity (by some thought too free)."

It may be that Betsy's muslins were gauzier, perhaps dampened a bit more and thus more revealing than those of other young women following French fashion. But she may have merely been the most famous representative of a dramatic break with the past.

Les Marveilleuses---the marvelous ones---
The term was also applied to the revealing garment of the
 marvelous set who wore them.

French women began the fashion for what we call Empire style after the French Revolution in the 1790s. Classical Greek drapery alluded to the idea of the Greeks as citizens of a free republic.The fashion was political and anti-revolution---red shawls and neck ribbons echoed the horrors of the guillotine. The look was most fashionable in the time of Napoleon, which is why it's called Empire.

A fop mistakes a fashionable woman for a prostitute... Some women wore "flesh-colored tights" under the dresses, but apparently some did not.

"Behold her, that beautiful adventurous Citoyenne (citizen): in costume of the Ancient Greeks... her sweeping tresses snooded by glittering antique fillet; bright-dyed tunic of the Greek women; her little feet naked, as in Antique Statues, with mere sandals, and winding-strings of riband, – defying the frost!" Thomas Carlyle in The French Revolution.

Detail from John Lewis Krimmel's The Quilting Frolic
 shows an American woman in 1813 in a version of La Marveilleuse.

The older generation raised in paniers and quilted petticoats was shocked.

The fashion was popular subject matter for British and French cartoonists.

Dolley Madison about 1817 by Bass Otis.
But everybody wore the dress.

Although one (or one's Mama) could be discreet.

Detail of another Krimmel painting A Country Wedding shows how lace, ruffs and shawls covered  up the details.

"Only to think, Julia dear, that our
Mothers wore such ridiculous fashions..."

Fashion began to change at the end of the teens and by the time of this 1857 cartoon a diaphanous dress was hard to imagine.
For more about la marveilleuse:

Friday, June 1, 2012

10 Betsy Bonaparte: Bored in Baltimore

Quilt made in Baltimore by Achsah Goodwin Wilkins (1775-1854), inscribed
“A. G. Wilkins 1820 / M. D. Davis 1890.”
Collection of the Smithsonian Institution

Betsy Bonaparte may never have heard of Achsah Wilkins but you can bet Achsah, a decade older, was familiar with Betsy. Everybody in Baltimore knew her name. She provided some rather frivolous drama in a city in high alarm though the War of 1812. Baltimore's 50,000 residents eyed British ships sailing at will in the Bay with very little American defense.

Baltimore, north of Washington City on the Chesapeake Bay
was the third largest city in the U.S.

Invasion anxiety was accompanied by cabin fever as the enemy closed sea traffic. With the tiny Federal Navy offering no help, citizens organized militia patrols and dug armed batteries along the hills east of town, now Patterson Park, on land donated by the second richest man in town (Baltimore kept careful track.) William Patterson had risen from a poor Irish immigrant to a wealthy merchant by successful gambles in the shipping business.

Earthworks battery in Patterson Park remained for generations.

A Pagoda observatory, recently restored,
 was built about 1905 on Hampstead Hill on the site of the batteries.

Wartime life at the Patterson's was full of drama far beyond British naval threats. Eldest daughter Betsy was back at home with her son, confined to the city by the War and her own personal battle with Napoleon. "I hated and loathed a residence in Baltimore so much that when I thought I was to spend my life there, I tried to screw my courage up to the point of committing suicide. My cowardice, and only my cowardice, prevented may exchanging Baltimore for the grave," she remembered. 

Triple Portrait of Betsy Bonaparte by Gilbert Stuart.
Dark curls, ivory skin and "black eyes" were
the standard for beauty a the time.

Betsy at 28 was still was America's Princess. She'd been a willful girl, described by Rosalie Stier Calvert as " most extraordinary..., given to reading Godwin on the rights of women, etc., in short, a modern philosphe." In 1803 she caught the eye of Napoleon's youngest brother Jerome Bonaparte. He was nineteen; she a year younger. Despite family disapproval in Paris and Baltimore, Betsy married Jerome. Delighting in her celebrity honeymoon she flaunted the new French fashion, filmy drapes of muslin over uncorsetted charms.

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte (1785-1879)

"Madame Bonaparte ... wears dresses so transparent and tight that you can see her skin through them, no chemise at all," wrote Rosalie, whose friend Thomas Law was given to writing topical poetry. She recorded a verse.
"Well! what of Madame Bonaparte
Why she's a little whore at heart.
Her lustful looks, her wanton air.
Her limbs revealed her bosom bare."

English china deriding Napoleon
Betsy's hopes of dazzling Napoleon were dashed when he refused to allow her to land in France. Jerome left her on the ship, promising to persuade his brother of their destiny. But Napoleon won that argument and she did not see Jerome again for decades. Pregnant Betsy landed in England, France's worst enemy, and gave birth to Joseph Napoleon Bonaparte. Jerome, a puppet on the Napoleonic stage, married the Princess of Wurttemberg despite his American wife.
Jerome as King of Westphalia,
a kingdom that dissolved in 1813
Betsy brought the baby back to her parent's house in Baltimore, obtained a divorce and---to put it in today's terms--- did not get on with her life. "After having married a person of the high rank I did, it became impossible for me ever to bend my spirit to marry any one who had been my equal before my marriage, and I repeat, that I would have starved, died, rather than have married in Baltimore."

Baltimore with its Washington Monument in the center

"Madame J. Bonaparte is in great distress at Jerome's divorce," British consul Augustus John Foster wrote his mother, "The ill-natured Americans don't pity her. They say she deserved it for her vanity... When Jerome first landed she declared she would have him, and that she had rather be Madame Jer. B. one year, though she was to be nothing afterwards, than marry anyone else."

The British burned the town of Havre-de-Grace, Maryland in 1813---
 an American view of Redcoats plundering baby bedding and other textiles.

Betsy's father had the last words about Betsy.  "Her folly and misconduct... has caused me more anxiety and trouble than all my other children put together," he wrote in his will, leaving her very little.
The war-enforced house arrest, her "vegetation in Baltimore," was over in 1815 and Betsy sailed for Europe. "It became impossible for me ever to be contented in a country where there exists no nobility." She published her letters many years later so one can get to know her and develop some sympathy for her father. Clover Adams, reading those letters in 1879, wrote her own father, "Finished yesterday Mrs. Bonaparte's letters, just published; do read it. Such a waspish old cat, I never imagined."

Baltimore's Battle Monument commemorates the 1814 Battle of Baltimore, which ended with the defense of Fort McHenry, an event also commemorated by Francis Scott Key in his Star Spangled Banner.

The image of this monument (one of several in the "Monumental City") is seen in the Baltimore album quilts of the 1840s and '50s.

Hollywood filmed the story of Betsy Bonaparte twice. Both times she was a blonde. I haven't seen the silent version but the 1936 Hearts Divided with Marion Davies as a plantinum blonde and Dick Powell as the Frenchman may be one of the worst historical movies ever made. (I may, like Betsy, be prone to overdramatizing.)

Look for this one on the Turner Classic Movies channel.

I just can't buy him as French.

Read Betsy's letters for yourself. The life and letters of Madame Bonaparte, editor,  Eugene Lemoine Didier, 1877:

In June we'll look at early Maryland quilts and other applique as well as clothing fashion.
Read more about Achsah's quilt in the Smithsonian here: