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James Leman, Silk Designer

September 17, 2017
by the gentle author

The oldest surviving set of silk designs in the world, James Leman’s album contains ninety ravishingly beautiful patterns created in Steward St, Spitalfields between 1705 and 1710 when he was a young man. It was my delight to visit the Victoria & Albert Museum recently and study the pages of this unique artefact, which is currently the subject of an interdisciplinary research project under the auspices of the V&A Research Institute, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Leman Album  offers a rare glimpse into an affluent and fashionable sphere of eighteenth century high society, as well as demonstrated the astonishing skill of the journeyman weavers in East London three hundred years ago.

James Leman (pronounced ‘lemon’ like Leman St in Aldgate) was born in London around 1688 as the second generation of a Huguenot family and apprenticed at fourteen to his father, Peter, a silk weaver. His earliest designs in the album, executed at eighteen years old, are signed ‘made by me, James Leman, for my father.’ In those days, when silk merchants customarily commissioned journeyman weavers, James was unusual in that he was both a maker and designer. In later life, he became celebrated for his bravura talent, rising to second in command of the Weavers’ Company in the City of London. A portrait of the seventeen-twenties in the V&A collection, which is believed to be of James Leman, displays a handsome man of assurance and bearing, arrayed in restrained yet sophisticated garments of subtly-toned chocolate brown silk and brocade.

His designs are annotated with the date and technical details of each pattern, while many of their colours are coded to indicate the use of metallic cloth and different types of weave. Yet beyond these aspects, it is the aesthetic brilliance of the designs which is most striking, mixing floral and architectural forms with breathtaking flair in a way that appears startling modern. The Essex Pink and Rosa Mundi are recognisable alongside whimsical architectural forms which playfully combine classical and oriental motifs within a single design. The breadth of James Leman’s knowledge of botany and architecture as revealed by his designs reflects a wide cultural interest that, in turn, reflected flatteringly upon the tastes of his wealthy customers.

Until last year, the only securely identified woven example of a James Leman pattern was a small piece of silk in the collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia. Miraculously, just as the V&A’s research project on the Leman Album was launched, a length of eighteenth-century silk woven to one of his designs was offered to the museum by a dealer in historical textiles, who recognised it from her knowledge of the album. The Museum purchased the silk and is now investigating the questions that arise now design and textile may be placed side by side for the first time. With colours as vibrant as the day they were woven three hundred years ago, the sensuous allure of this glorious piece of deep pink silk adorned with elements of lustrous green, blue, red and gold shimmers across the expanse of time and is irresistibly attractive to the eye. Such was the extravagant genius of James Leman, Silk Designer.

On the left is James Leman’s design and on the right is a piece of silk woven from it, revealing that colours of the design are not always indicative of the woven textile

The reverse of each design gives the date and details of the fabric and weave

Portrait of a Master Silk Weaver by Michael Dahl, 1720-5 – believed to be James Leman

All images copyright © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Click here to read about recent research into James Leman’s Album

With grateful thanks to: Dr Olivia Horsfall Turner, Senior Curator of Designs – Dr Victoria Button, Senior Paper Conservator – Clare Browne, Senior Curator of Textiles – Dr Lucia Burgio, Senior Scientist and Eileen Budd, V&A Research Institute Project Manager

You may also like to read about

The Principal Operations of Weaving

At Anna Maria Garthwaite’s House

Anna Maria Garthwaite, Silk Designer

A Dress of Spitalfields Silk

Queen Victoria’s Dress of Spitalfields Silk

Stanley Rondeau at the V&A

Stephen Walters, Silk Weavers

16 Responses leave one →
  1. Alex Knisely permalink
    September 17, 2017

    Lovely, and thank you !

  2. September 17, 2017

    Some of the patterns in these books are quite breath taking and the colours are still good. I wonder who holds the patents or have they run-out. Nice one GA & Tech staff. Poet John

  3. September 17, 2017

    Stunning! Thank you for a fascinating post.

  4. Sarah B Guest Perry permalink
    September 17, 2017

    Wonderful seeing the various samples. Have only seen an image of the booklet itself and the image that I put up on Twitter. Thank you!

  5. Jim McDermott permalink
    September 17, 2017

    Whilst I couldn’t imagine any of Mr Leman’s work hanging in my home (the early 18th century’s a bit new-fangled for my tastes), the artistry and intricacy of his work is quite stunning. The book itself must be quite priceless

  6. Helen Breen permalink
    September 17, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, fabulous designs. Thanks. And I love his signature page and impressive portrait…

  7. September 17, 2017

    There’s no other description: “The Mother Lode”!
    I am a huge fan of historic sample and swatch books — and this is as good as it gets.
    Many thanks!

  8. DKP permalink
    September 17, 2017

    When moving to the area years ago, we were unsure how to pronounce “Leman Street”. Every local we spoke to and have spoken to since insists it’s pronounced: LEE-man. Is there any definitive record we can refer to?

  9. September 17, 2017

    Dying over these, though I rarely comment I continue to love your stories here-thank you. Gaye

  10. pauline taylor permalink
    September 17, 2017

    Oh my goodness, these designs are national treasures, so beautiful that they put modern textile designers to shame. What has happened to that sort of talent and what has happened to our appreciation of people capable of such work; they surely must still exist, as must really talented artists but we now encourage the mediocre which makes me despair. Thankfully some of us still admire the skill and the talent that we see in these designs so thank you GA for giving us a chance to learn about Mr Leman, I shall be making sure that my customers are aware of his name and his beautiful designs.

    It also makes me wonder if the silk merchants associated with my family tree wove and exported any of these designs. My several times great grandfather married a silk merchant’s daughter as his first wife so perhaps his father-in-law even knew Mr Leman and indeed he may have worn an outfit like his. I love insights into the past and history like this so thank you again.

  11. Elizabeth NYC permalink
    September 17, 2017

    If you look at the edges you can see where the pattern would fit together to repeat up and down/side-to-side in the woven piece. It would be a fun diversion to do that in Photoshop. Cannot imagine actually weaving it, though. I’d get blisters on my fingers. Thank you for the treat, GA.

  12. Vicky permalink
    September 18, 2017

    DKP – regarding the pronunciation of the name Leman as ‘Lemon’ -
    Cary’s New And Accurate Plan Of London And Westminster, 1795, shows the boundary of the Parish of St Botolph Aldgate and the spelling is Lemon. Look East of the green square.
    https://www.londonlives.org/static/StBotolphAldgate.jsp
    I live close by and the older local people pronounce it as Lemon.

  13. September 19, 2017

    Thank you for that stunning visual treat. Must put on my bucket list. Su Mason

  14. tessa murdoch permalink
    September 19, 2017

    Wonderful blog achieving recognition for Huguenot talent across the globe as currently celebrated at Historic Huguenot Street New Paltz; the Huguenot Museum, Rochester, Kent and the current exhibition at the Migration Museum in Lambeth. Reassuring to have the pronunciation of Leman firmly anchored.

  15. DKP permalink
    September 22, 2017

    Thanks for the info Vicky but I’m afraid this confuses things for me even more :)

    My understanding was that the street was renamed Leman not as a variant spelling of Lemon, but after James Leman. Every local I’ve encountered still insists it’s pronounced LEE-man because of this fact. Perhaps I’ll never know …

  16. Connie Fischer permalink
    October 1, 2017

    These designs are lovely. It reminds me of Liz Trenow’s novel, “The Hidden Thread” which takes place in Spitalfields and includes the story of a young man who is an indentured silk weaver learning to become a master weaver. The book is filled with information of the Spitalfields area and the hard work involved in silk weaving. I found it fascinating.

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