Genealogical research on our collection objects often yields surprising insight into the craftsmen, the consumer, and the context in which they mingled. In preparation for our recently opened exhibition, Embroidery: The Language of Art, we explored the family trees of several of our female artists. Unlike most objects from early America, needlework is rife with fodder for such investigations: silken stitches often spell out familial relationships, dates, and locations. Winterthur even has several examples where needlework served as a “family register,” noting over a span of time the life and death dates of individuals who were significant to the maker. For example, Mary Evan’s sampler, begun when she was 10 years old, includes her own death date of November 11, 1888. She intentionally left a blank spot in the composition for a family member to bring the record full circle. Mary’s descendants cared for this register for a century, at which time they generously donated it to Winterthur to share with our visitors.
This January, Winterthur acquired, at auction, a canvaswork picture associated with a group of needlework made in the Boston, Massachusetts, area. This piece, which retains its original frame, depicts a genteel couple at a tea table in a gently rolling landscape dotted with a house, windmill, and even a beehive. Attached to the back of the frame were a number of notes that referenced late 19th- and 20th-century individuals. With this information, we were able to determine how the object moved within the family over the generations. Several gaps in the line were left, which we pieced together using wills, census records, family and local histories, and even newspaper notices. The Perrin, Bradlee, and Crowninshield names were repeated over the centuries, an enduring link to deep, proudly held roots in the Boston area.
In fact, this discovery even led to a surprising connection to one of our exhibition staff members, Amy Marks Delaney, who helped bring the Embroidery: The Language of Art –exhibition to life. When Amy heard about the newly acquired needlework, she quickly realized that she was a descendant of the same Perrin family! While her ancestor was Mary Perrin’s uncle and the object may never have been in the care of that particular family line, Amy’s unexpected link to the Perrin needlework is, nevertheless, a great example of the connections across time and space that genealogy can bring to life.
Provenance of Mary Perrin Needlework Picture
Mary Perrin (May) 1737–1815
To her son
Perrin May 1767–1844
To his daughter
Mary Perrin May (Bradlee) 1815–1877
To her daughter
Alice Bradlee (Chase) 1846–1925
To her niece
Katharine Bradlee Crowninshield (Davis) 1874–1935
To her daughter
Katharine Bradlee Davis (Hammond) 1910–
Elizabeth Crowninshield (Hammond)
Estate sold at Northeast Auction 1993
Collection of Anita & Erwin Schorsch
Purchased by Winterthur at Sotheby’s auction January 2016
An associated book, Embroidery: The Language of Art, is available for purchase at the Winterthur Bookstore.
Post by Lea C. Lane, Elizabeth and Robert Owens Curatorial Fellow