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James Leman, Silk Designer

August 25, 2018
by the gentle author

Celebrating the ninth birthday of Spitalfields Life with a week of favourite posts from the past year

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 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

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Laura Williamson permalink
    August 25, 2018

    I am stunned by how fresh and modern these designs are. Some have an almost Pop art/psychedelic vibe and I can imagine them being well used in the 1960’s/70s. I’m sure they would also sell well today, but would probably not be made of such fine silk. Really, really lovely things.

    James Leman was clearly a man of rare talent who richly deserved his success.

  2. August 25, 2018

    Wonderful to see these colourful and vibrant designs. Do come to the V&A Blythe House archives too, GA! It has so many treasures, currently being readied for the move to East London and wider access in a new collections centre. Hopefully many more things with an historic connection to the East End will come to prominence.

  3. August 25, 2018

    Happy night birthday! Thank you, keep up the good work.

  4. Connie Unangst permalink
    August 26, 2018

    Just bought a book on about this. It was published by the V&A. This was a great article. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Jill Wilson permalink
    August 26, 2018

    I agree that they seem incredibly modern designs (although I immediately thought Art Deco instead rather than pop art!) I’d be interested to know how big the book is and thus the scale of the designs. Another brilliant blog where the quantity as well as quality of the photos really brings the subject alive. Thank you!

  6. stella permalink
    October 6, 2018

    Thank you so much for posting this multi-image piece of info on this subject.
    The designs are fabulous… By airing them out, so to speak, you opened your readers/subscribers windows onto ancient beauty we would have probably never known. Thank you so very much…
    Victoria & Albert is such a wonderful goldmine – so nice to make a quick trip there via your post!

  7. Rosemary Burkitt permalink
    June 26, 2020

    James Leman was my………Greatgrandfather. I am descended from his grand daughter Jane who married Thomas Field. Thomas was also a weaver and as he left a will I presume he was not just a weaver. It is amazing to see James’s beautiful designs all these years later.

    Rosemary Burkitt

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