Artwork at its best inspires and influences other art forms; a great piece of literature can be turned into an award-winning movie, or a painting can inspire a book. Join me as I trace the roots of an embroidered fire screen in the Winterthur collection from the English schoolgirl who created it to the poet who inspired it.
The story begins in 1769 with the publication of a poem, “The Beggar’s Petition,” by Thomas Moss. The poem begins:
“Pity the sorrows of a poor old man!
Whose trembling limbs have borne him to your door,
Whose days are dwindled to the shortest span,
O, give relief, and heaven will bless your store.
These tattered clothes my poverty bespeak,
These hoary locks proclaim my lengthened years;
And many a furrow in my grief-worn cheek
Has been the channel to a stream of tears.”
In 1788, Francis Wheatley (1747–1801), an English portrait and landscape painter, depicted this scene from the poem in his painting entitled The Benevolent Cottager. In the same year, William Nutter (1759–1802), an English engraver and draughtsman, executed an engraving of the painting. Nutter chose to include the eight lines of poetry that had inspired the painting. A London-based printer, Bull & Jeffryes, then published the engraving as a colored print, thus making the painting accessible to the general public. The print clearly identifies the painter, engraver, and printmaker. The author of the poem, however, is not specified. Jane Austen refers to the poem in the opening pages of Northanger Abbey, published in 1818, as an example of a poem commonly memorized by young women of the day. Then (somewhere between 1790 and 1819) a schoolgirl from the Petford family of Alcester, Warwickshire, England, creates a beautiful needlework picture depicting a scene from the poem. The fire screen is brought to America in the 1830s, and, in 2009, it makes its way into the Winterthur collection.
Can you imagine the maker of our beautiful needlework picture reading Jane Austen’s novel and studying the print of The Benevolent Cottager? Perhaps she was inspired to create this beautiful needlework.
So the story of our remarkable needlework picture can be traced from the poet who wrote the poem to the artist who created the painting to the engraver who produced the engraving to the printer who published the print, and finally, to the author who included the poem in a novel.
Post by Dayle Thorpe, volunteer in the Textile Collection department