Zara Anishanslin, author of Portrait of a Woman in Silk, Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World published by Yale University Press, profiles Anna Maria Garthwaite, the most celebrated textile designer of the eighteenth century.
Readers are invited join the Zara Anishanslin next Wednesday 25th January from 11:30am to 1:30pm for a reading and book signing at Dennis Severs’ House in Folgate St. If you wish to attend please mail firstname.lastname@example.org by 23rd January.
Anna Maria Garthwaite’s house
Two unmarried sisters, one a widow and one a spinster, moved from York to Spitalfields at the end of the seventeen-twenties. It seemed an unlikely time of life for them to relocate, as both were in their early forties. But they were hardly alone in their choice. When the sisters arrived in Spitalfields, it was experiencing a building and population boom. They lived in Princes St (now Princelet St) only a short walk from the Spitalfields Market, which had been a local fixture since the sixteen-eighties. But their terrace of newly constructed townhouses had been laid out only a decade before. The neighbourhood stood under the shadow of architect Nicholas Hawksmoor’s masterpiece, Christ Church Spitalfields, itself just completed in 1729. The two sisters were drawn to their new house on one of Spitalfields’s newer streets by the same thing that had brought many of their neighbours there too. They came for the industry that became synonymous with the area in the eighteenth century: silk weaving. For when the two sisters moved to London, it was in part so the younger of the two, Anna Maria Garthwaite (1688-1763), could launch her career as a silk designer.
Eighteenth-century silk designers like Garthwaite were skilled labourers. They drew designs that showed weavers what patterns of colour and decoration to follow to create lengths of silk on their looms. Many designers were weavers or had trained as master weavers. Silk designers almost always worked independently, on commission. The London silk industry made all sorts of textiles but was most renowned for its flowered silks. Named for their floral or botanical patterns, flowered silks were distinctively designed, produced to order, and usually limited to only four pieces woven from a single design.
Almost all Spitalfields flowered silk was meant for clothing rather than interior decoration or upholstery, used to make elegant dresses and petticoats for women and elaborate waistcoats for men. Fashion depended then – as it still does – on enticing consumers with novelty and variety. In the Spitalfields silk industry, it was designers like Garthwaite who had power to produce this desired variety. This was because from the seventeen-twenties to the late seventeen-fifties, when Garthwaite worked, novelty in eighteenth-century silk depended largely on the creation of new textile patterns, which changed more rapidly than the cut of clothing.
A highly prolific designer, Garthwaite drew hundreds of patterns, their flowered silk designs blossoming in watercolour and pencil curves across grids of ruled paper. Her silks, with designs ranging from naturalistic flowers to stylised Asian patterns, spread throughout the Atlantic World. From Scandinavia to South Carolina, men, women, and children walked, ate, danced, and posed for portraits wearing Garthwaite-designed silks, like the one painted by Robert Feke in 1746 of a wealthy Philadelphia merchant’s wife, Anne Shippen Willing, which inspired my book. Her silks survive in museums across Europe and America as mutely shimmering testaments to her long-ago popularity.
But Garthwaite’s success was improbable. Unlike many other known silk designers in eighteenth-century London, who tended to be of French Huguenot descent, she was English. Her distinctiveness lay fundamentally in the simple fact that she was a woman. Although other women certainly worked in London’s silk industry, few worked as silk designers. Garthwaite is the only woman whose designs survive. Most women who practiced skilled trades like weaving did so because their father or husband did too. Garthwaite, by contrast, did not ply her trade because a male relative had done so. Nor did she receive formal training or start her career as a young woman. Instead, Garthwaite, who never married, did not begin her professional design career until she was middle-aged. Moreover, her family background added to the improbability of her career choice. For Garthwaite was no weaver’s daughter. Instead, she was the daughter of a Cambridge-educated Anglican minister from Lincolnshire, with family connections to the Royal Society and the English nobility.
How did this spinster daughter of a Lincolnshire minister manage, in her forties, to launch a successful London design career? How did she gain the technical expertise required to design complicated patterns? Why did she never marry? Some of these questions have no known answers. And unless a stash of previously unearthed evidence comes to light, some of them never will. Despite Garthwaite’s prolific career and popularity, she remains an enigma. Records make it evident that she was not only literate but educated and financially solvent. There is no obvious reason her historical trail should be so faint. Yet she left little more documentation than an anonymous, illiterate, impoverished woman of her time might have. There is minimal archival material beyond her will: no letters, diary, business or advertising records. Anna Maria Garthwaite’s story serves as a reminder that sometimes even the educated and well-known are silenced in traditional historical sources.
Garthwaite did, however, leave a rich trove of objects and images. These speak for her. They include her house in Spitalfields, the silk woven to her designs, and more than eight hundred labeled watercolour designs. They can be read much like a diary, and they begin to give voice to this otherwise mute figure.
Garthwaite’s Spitalfields townhouse was more than a home. It was also where she designed her patterns and conducted her trade. Of all the houses on Princes St, her corner house was one of the best suited for conducting business. Its two-door layout gave it a distinct advantage. The front door opened into a formal stair hall. The other, on the street leading up to Christ Church, opened directly into a room separated from the rest of the house by an internal door. The family of women (Garthwaite, her widowed older sister, their young ward, Mary Bacon, and a few women servants) could come and go in private through the first door, leaving the corner ground floor room free for business activities. Business callers could enter the house without interacting with anyone besides Garthwaite or possibly a servant, while remaining similarly undisturbed by family noise and distraction.
Above this ground floor shop was the genteel space of the first-floor drawing room. This particular room had two discrete but overlapping functions. It was a space of both labour and sociability. Decorated with the highest level of architectural finish in the house, this room would have been where the Garthwaite sisters entertained guests. It was also, however, very likely Garthwaite’s atelier, or studio. It was here that she sketched, painted, and transferred onto gridded paper her watercolour and pencil designs. Its corner location and large second floor windows had the practical benefit of strong, clear light for drawing and painting.
Garthwaite’s studio drawing room was a room with a view. Out of this room’s windows, Garthwaite could see the mercers and master weavers who walked to her house to buy her textile designs. She also could see Christ Church Spitalfields, the church she and her sister attended and where they both would be buried. Perhaps this minister’s daughter found comfort in the familiar sight of an Anglican church and inspiration in its calm Palladian beauty. Certainly, architectural elements popped up in Garthwaite’s designs from time to time.
Garthwaite’s designs were produced in Spitalfields, but they owed their existence to global natural history networks and the demands of the North American colonial market, the English silk industry’s most important market outside of London. Her popular designs both mirrored the larger British cultural fascination with gardens and helped foster a craze for wearing botanical landscapes in silk around the British Empire. Her designs shaped a shared visual experience throughout the British empire. In the seventeen-fifties and sixties, for example, women in colonial New York, Ireland, and England, for example, all wore dresses made of the same Garthwaite pattern—each woven in different colours (red, yellow, and pink). These women never met, or even knew of one another. Yet their lives materially connected by touching and wearing Garthwaite silk.
Garthwaite, like the majority of the eighteenth-century Spitalfields silk designers whose work has been identified, had personal ties to London’s scientific community. But of these designers, Garthwaite was the sole woman. Garthwaite’s relationship with her brother-in-law apothecary Vincent Bacon—a fellow Spitalfields resident and a member of the Royal Society—was a particularly important one for fostering her ties to these networks. As a member of the Apothecaries’ Guild, which maintained it, Bacon had access to Chelsea Physic Garden—one of England’s great botanical gardens, filled with exotic flowers and plants from America and Africa. Women like Garthwaite frequented the Garden to view and sketch plants and flowers, a reminder that in eighteenth-century Britain, women did not serve as passive recipients of male knowledge about botanicals. Less obviously than Royal Society members or male apothecaries, but no less truly, Garthwaite and the women who wore her flowered silks were members of a global network in which the scientific and the fashionable coalesced.
Some of Garthwaite’s most remarkable designs featured aloes. Aloes were one of the most fascinating of botanical species to Georgian gardeners. Along with their medicinal properties and exotic African origins, aloes’ considerable variety in appearance fascinated eighteenth-century botanists. Garthwaite accurately captured their celebrated diversity by drawing different types of aloes in a number of patterns, using distinctive, spiky leaves to set them apart.
Garthwaite often combined more prosaic florals with these exotic plants, showing them growing intertwined and grafted together. Mingling the exotic with the local, Garthwaite grafted an aloe onto an English rose. Despite their botanical impossibility, she took care to draw the hybrid plants realistically, in a style that mimicked botanical drawings done from life studies. Her designer’s eye shows the same fascinated appreciation for plants embraced by Royal Society members. Woven into a brocaded tabby silk, her aloe-rose hybrid blossomed across a silk in which the multicoloured botanical plants and flowers floated on a cream background. Viewers of this silk saw something very similar to a botanical illustration on white paper. Garthwaite used North American plants that were the popular subjects of such illustrations, all of which could be found exported into London gardens, including magnolia, Turk’s cap lilies, and mountain laurel. Pennsylvania botanist John Bartram first sent live mountain – or what he called “common” – laurel plants across the Atlantic to London in 1735. By 1740, they had bloomed in England. Bartram also sent Turk’s cap lilies between 1738 and 1740. Only a few years later, both specimens also flowered in Garthwaite’s designs.
Like gardens in England and North America, flowered silk was a material embodiment of the global culture of the curious. Far from being simply a frivolous fashionable commodity, flowered silk could signify its wearer’s participation in a global network of Enlightenment intellect. We are accustomed to thinking of how men (and some women) exchanged natural history knowledge through plant and seed specimens, in published books, and in exchanges of letters between the curious on both sides of the Atlantic. But in traveling around the empire, fashionable commodities like silk also transported natural history knowledge. This was especially important for women, excluded or under-represented as they were in groups like the Royal Society.
A woman’s silk might advertise her erudite hobbies as well as her fashion sense. The same learned members of the Royal Society who enjoyed studying aloes surely would have enjoyed the puzzle of deciding exactly which aloe they were seeing on Garthwaite’s silk designs. A woman wearing a dress decorated with such aloes, at the same time, could use her silk to interject her own knowledge of such exotic botanicals into a conversation. In an eighteenth-century world that delighted in visual and verbal puns and allusions, they too might build transatlantic communities.
Like the British Empire itself, Garthwaite’s designs were a mélange of the far-flung and the everyday, a blend of the European, African, Asian, and American. Each of these exotic sites of imperial expansion was present in her designs through the plants and flowers she included. From her small corner of Spitalfields, Anna Maria Garthwaite designed topographical textiles that mapped the botanical landscape of Britain’s global empire.
Silk design with spotted lilies by Anna Maria Garthwaite, watercolour on paper, 1743 (Courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum)
In Anna Maria Garthwaite’s receiving room on the ground floor where customers were entertained
Dress made in America of silk designed by Anna Maria Garthwaite, c.1775 (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The spire of Christ Church seen through the glass in Anna Maria Garthwaite’s work room
Waistcoat with silk designed by Anna Maria Garthwaite, woven by Peter Lekeux, 1747 (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)
In Portrait of a Woman in a Silk Dress, Historian Zara Anishanslin examines the worlds of the four people who produced, wore, and portrayed a single dress: Simon Julins, Spitalfields Weaver, Anna Maria Garthwaite, Silk Designer, Anne Shippen Williams, Philadelphia Merchant’s Wife, and Robert Feke, New England Painter.
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Lithuanian-born Israel Bidermanas (1911-1980) first achieved recognition under the identity of Izis for his portraits of members of the French resistance that he took while in hiding near Limoges at the time of the German invasion. Encouraged by Brassai, he pursued a career as a professional photographer in peacetime, fulfilling commissions for Paris Match and befriending Jacques Prévert and Marc Chagall. He and Prévert were inveterate urban wanderers and in 1952 they published ‘Charmes de Londres,’ delivering this vivid and poetic vision of the shabby old capital in the threadbare post-war years.
In the cemetery of St John, Wapping
Milk cart in Gordon Sq, Bloomsbury
At Club Row animal market, Spitalfields
The Nag’s Head, Kinnerton St, W1
In Pennyfields, Limehouse
Palace St, Westminster
Ties on sale in Ming St, Limehouse
Greengrocer, Kings Rd, Chelsea
Diver in the London Docks
Organ Grinder, Shaftesbury Ave, Piccadilly
Sphinx, Chiswick Park
Hampden Crescent, W2
Underhill Passage, Camden Town
Braithwaite Arches, Wheler St, Spitalfields
East India Dock Rd, Limehouse
Musical instrument seller, Petticoat Lane
Grosvenor Crescent Mews, Hyde Park Corner
Unloading in the London Docks
London Electricity Board Apprentices
On the waterfront at Greenwich
Photographs courtesy Bishopsgate Institute
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In the seventies, while living in Mile End Place and employed as a Youth Worker at Oxford House in Bethnal Green and then as a Probationary Teacher at Brooke House School in Clapton, Photographer Philip Cunningham took these tender portraits of his friends and colleagues. “I love the East End and often dream of it,” Philip admitted to me recently.
Publican at The Albion, Bethnal Green Rd. “We would often go there from Oxford House where I was a youth worker. Billy Quinn, ‘The Hungry Fighter’ used to drink in there. He would shuffle in, in his slippers and, if I offered him a drink, the answer was always the same. ‘No! No! I don’t want a drink off you, I saved my money!’ He had fought a lot of bouts in America and was a great character.”
Proprietor of Barratts’ hardware – “An unbelievable shop in Stepney Way. It sold EVERYTHING, including paraffin – a shop you would not see nowadays.”
Terry & Brenda Green, publicans at The Three Crowns, Mile End
“My drinking pal, Grahame the window cleaner, knew all that was happening on the Mile End Rd.”
Oxford House bar
“Bob Drinkwater ran the youth club at Oxford House where I was a youth worker” c. 1974
Pat Leeder worked as a volunteer at Oxford House
Caretaker at Oxford House
My friend Michael Chalkley worked for the Bangladeshi Youth League and Bangladeshi Welfare Association
Frank Sewell worked at Kingsley Hall, Bow, and ran a second hand shop of which the proceeds went to the Hall, which was ruinous at that time
Historian Bill Fishman in Whitechapel Market
Kids from the youth club at Oxford House, Weavers’ Fields Adventure Playground, c. 1974
Kids from the youth club at Oxford House, Weavers’ Fields Adventure Playground, c. 1974
Salim, Noorjahan, Jabid and Sobir with Michael Chalkley, c. 1977
Coal Men, A G Martin & Sons, delivering to Mile End Place
Mr & Mrs Jacobs, neighbours at Mile End Place
Mr & Mrs Mills, neighbours at Mile End Place
Commie Roofers, Mile End Place
Friend and fighter against racism, Sunwah Ali at the Bangladeshi Youth League office, c. 1978
Norr Miah was a friend, colleague and trustee of the Bangladeshi Youth League
Chess players at Brooke House School, c. 1979
Teacher at Brooke House - “The best school I ever taught in with a really congenial staff” c. 1979
“Boys from Brooke House School where I was a probationary teacher, c.1979″
“My friend and colleague Salim Ullah with his baby” c.1977
John Smeeth (AKA John the Beard), my daughter Andrea, and Michael Wiston (AKA Whizzy) c. 1977
Eddie Marsan (dressed as Superman) and friends, Mile End Place
“Rembert Langham in our studio in New Crane Wharf, Wapping. He made monsters for Dr Who and went pot-holing”1975
Mother & son, Whitechapel. “She asked me why I was taking photos of derelict buildings, so I said I would like to take a picture of her and she agreed.”
“John the Fruit used to drink in the Three Crowns and we were good friends. We were in the pub one night when some tough characters came in. It turned out they owned this property I had been photographing. I asked if I could do some photos inside, they said, ‘Yes, come on Thursday.’ I duly arrived, but the place was locked and no one was about. Then John the Fruit turned up so I took his picture, as you see above. Later that week in the Three Crowns, the rough guys walked in and, when they saw me, accused me of not turning up. I was grabbed by the shoulder to be taken outside (very nasty). However John, who was an ex-boxer and pretty fit for an old boy, pulled the bloke holding me aside and said ‘He was there, because I was there with him!’ They put me down and were most apologetic to John. He saved me from something bad, God Bless Him!!”
Abdul Bari & friend, Whitechapel. “Abdul Bari (Botly Boy) lived in the Bancroft Estate and was a parent at John Scurr School where I was a governor and where my daughter attended. The photo was taken on Christmas day.”
Photographs copyright © Philip Cunningham
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An empty villa on a bone-cold January day might not appear an immediately enticing prospect for a visit, yet Beckenham Place in Lewisham contains more than enough wonders to fire the imagination even if they are enshrouded with a melancholy winter gloom at present.
Constructed by John Cator (1728-1806) in the seventeen-seventies as his country house with the proceeds of his timber business, Beckenham Place ceased being a private home at the beginning of the twentieth century. After a sequence of institutional uses, including most recently as a golf club house, it is currently undergoing restoration as artists’ studios while plans are developed to discover how best to dedicate the building to public use.
John Cator took up residence in Robert & James Adam’s Adelphi in the Strand in 1776 and it seems likely the Adam brothers were responsible for the magnificent plasterwork at Beckenham Place, while architect Robert Taylor is the most probable candidate for design of the house. Conceived as a southerly counterpoint to Kenwood House in Hampstead, Cator landscaped the surrounding parkland, planting rare imported species of trees recommended by his acquaintance Carl Linnaeus, creating a lake and diverting the main road. He set out to contrive a country estate in the best possible taste, signalling his arrival in the world and elevating the status of his family. Yet John’s circle of friends included Henry Thrale, Fanny Burney and Samuel Johnson, who all recorded their candid impressions of the man.
“Cator has a rough, manly independence and understanding and does not spoil it by complaisance. He never speaks merely to please and seldom is mistaken in things which he has any right to know” – Samuel Johnson
“He prated so much, yet said so little, and pronounced his words so vulgarly that I found it impossible to keep my countenance” - Fanny Burney
“A purseproud Tradesman coarse in his expressions and vulgar in Manners and Pronunciation; though very intelligent, and full of both money and good sense” – Henry Thrale
When John Cantor’s nephew John Barwell Cantor inherited the estate in 1806, he also inherited his uncle’s social aspiration and brought a huge stone portico salvaged from Wricklemarsh, a nearby ruin, which he installed upon the north side of Beckenham Place without regard to proportion or design. The effect is as incongruous as those neo-Georgian porticos upon the suburban villas which were to surround Beckenham Park when it became a golf course in the twentieth century.
Today the golf course is also history and the bunkers and greens only remain prior to restoration of the landscape, yet the view from the villa over rolling parkland is as august as when it was first built. You could easily imagine yourself in a remote shire, even if you are only nine miles from Central London.
Occupied by ghosts and the presence of all those who have passed through, Beckenham Place speaks eloquently of the elegant conception of its architect complimented by extraordinary craftsmanship, overlaid with a century of use by an extended family, staff and tenants – and the school children, the sanatorium occupants, the soldiers, the golfers and the others who came after. Even in the depths of winter, it was heartening to see the old villa being prepared for new arrivals and a new life.
Artists & makers’ studios at Beckenham Place are available to rent at £175 a month – contact email@example.com or visit www.beckenhamplace.org
“At Beckenham Place, you could easily imagine yourself in a remote shire, even if you are only nine miles from Central London”
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Woman & Fish by Frank Dobson in situ
Frank Dobson Sq in Whitechapel, where Cambridge Heath Rd meets Cephas St, was constructed in 1963 and named after the Clerkenwell-born sculptor whose ‘Woman & Fish’ formed the handsome centrepiece of the Cleveland Estate. Dobson’s sculpture of two figures entitled ‘London Pride’ situated outside the National Theatre serves a similar function on the South Bank.
Yet in 2002, Dobson’s sculpture was removed from its plinth in Whitechapel following a series of vandalisations which damaged it beyond repair, leaving a gaping hole in the streetscape to this day. In 2006, Tower Hamlets Council commissioned Antonio Lopez Reche to make a bronze replica, cast at a foundry in Limehouse, which was installed in Millwall Park on the Isle of Dogs in 2007.
The original installation of Frank Dobson’s sculpture at the Cleveland Estate celebrated the work of a major British sculptor in the year of his death and embodied a progressive belief in the importance of high quality public art as a means to improve the urban environment. Now residents of Whitechapel have raised a petition to return ‘Woman & Fish’ to the empty plinth in Frank Dobson Sq with improved lighting and security cameras to ensure its safety, restoring a cherished East End landmark to its rightful place.
The plinth in Cambridge Heath Rd has been empty since 2002
Fifteen years after the removal of his sculpture, it is still ‘Frank Dobson Sq’
Bronze replica by Antonio Lopez Reche in Millwall Park on the Isle of Dogs
Woman & Fish
London Pride by Frank Dobson outside the National Theatre on the South Bank
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