Antiques: Judging a book by its cover
16:21 15 July 2010
When this embroidery was shown to our textile specialist, Claire Browne, it was rated as a work of art in its own right. Worked with silk and couched with metal threads on a satin ground, it was in exceptional condition, both in terms of the fresh, vibrant colours and the overall state of the materials. The amazing thing is that it was discovered in the bottom of a black plastic bag full of fabrics destined for patchwork and had lain there for many years before being discovered.
Edward Burne-Jones is the immediate thought when one looks at the figure and, indeed, this is whom it is thought the embroiderer was inspired by, as it is felt that the facial features of the maiden depicted are of a type favoured by Burne-Jones in the 1870s and 1880s.
Furthermore, the inner border panels of scrolls and the outer border of acanthus leaves are reminiscent of the work of the Kelmscott Press in the 1890s. This combination of a well-executed design inspired by a key member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the world famous Arts and Crafts bookbinders and printers, established by William Morris, augment its desirability.
However, what elevates its importance and collectability much further lies behind the monogram in the bottom right hand corner, FHW. Research has revealed that these initials could be those of Mrs F. Harcourt-Williamson, editor of The Book of Beauty: A Collection of Beautiful Portraits with Literary, Artistic and Musical Contributions by Men and Women of the Day and the embroidery pictured here is thought to have been designed for the cover of this book in 1896. This book was produced in a deluxe edition of 300 copies and featured portraits of society ladies, poems and essays. One such book is held by the National Art Library. The size of this book supports the view that this work was conceived for the cover, as the measurements (42 x 33cm) correlate perfectly, as does its age. It is probable that this cover was intended for a presentation copy for Mrs Harcourt-Williamson or commissioned by her. Given the consummate skill of the embroiderer the exponent could well have been a member of the Royal School of Art Needlework. The embroidery is included in Bonhams forthcoming textile sale in Knowle on 27th July, estimated at 800-1,200.
Gerry Berwyn-Jones BA(Hons) MRICS is a senior valuer and auctioneer for Bonhams International Auctioneers and can be contacted on: 01564-732966 or e-mail: gerry.berwynjones @bonhams.com