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James Leman’s Album Of Silk Designs

March 16, 2020
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 and study the pages of this unique artefact, which is 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 recently, 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

14 Responses leave one →
  1. March 16, 2020

    Ravishingly beautiful!

  2. Julia harrison permalink
    March 16, 2020

    What a thrill it must have been to view this album. The colours and designs are bursting with life. Seeing James Leman”s handwriting is moving in the way it connects with us across the centuries.

  3. Catherine permalink
    March 16, 2020

    These are gorgeous! Thank you for sharing – what a wonderful book, and how lucky you were to flip though it!

  4. Greg Tingey permalink
    March 16, 2020

    Reminds me of another set of designs, from 180 years later.
    Morris & Co ……..

  5. Jill Wilson permalink
    March 16, 2020

    These are stunning designs, and as you say GA they look incredibly modern.

    They remind me of the excitement in the Sixties when psychedelic flower power designs were all the rage, and my sister and I spent many hours making ourselves colourful mini dresses!

    And the comparison of the painted design and the woven fabric is particularly fascinating. The pink in the fabric is fabulous and must have been truly sensational at the time.

  6. Penny Gardner permalink
    March 16, 2020

    Check out James Mead fabrics, still made in Britain too. Not just for old fuddie duddies. Give them your support.

  7. Richard Smith permalink
    March 16, 2020

    Amazing and beautiful images. Thank you.

  8. Joan Johnson permalink
    March 16, 2020

    Stunningly beautiful. A number of James Leman’s designs appear in the V&A book ‘Spitalfield Silks’ which is also accompanied by a high resolution image disc for viewing on a computer.

  9. Pauline Taylor permalink
    March 16, 2020

    I stand (or rather sit) in awe in front of these beautiful designs, what an incredibly gifted man James Leman was, and if one could choose one or two people, from the 18th century, whom one could meet and talk to, he surely would be one of my choices.
    My 4 x great grandfather, William Tearoe, married Ann Delamare (De la Mare) the daughter of Peter Delamare, a silk thrower of Steward Street, Spitalfields, so the Lemans and the Delamares were obviously neighbours. William and Ann were married May 7, 1764 at St Margaret, Westminster. I wonder if any members of the Leman family were there?

  10. March 16, 2020

    The very essence of the word “lavish”. I imagine myself in a low-lit textile library room, wearing my white cotton “inspection” gloves, and wordlessly turning each page of this amazing, singular
    volume. I can imagine the incredible garments, made of this magical cloth. How they spun around a dance floor, swept down a marble staircase (“I’ll be right there — hold the coach!”),
    and elegantly scrunched into a gilt chair for a candlelit dinner. Bustles, galloons, bindings-on-the-bias, YARDS of skirts, boned bodices, zero restraint — and endless beauty.

    I shudder to think how many of these vintage sample books have been lost or discarded — thankfully some have survived the ages, to tickle our imaginations.

    Thank you GA for this beautiful banquet!

  11. March 16, 2020

    Such richness and beauty. The botanical inspiration is so well realised and presented.

    Last year, inspired in part by the Gentle Author’s posts about the Spitalfields’ weaving industry, I read The Silk Weaver, a novel by Liz Trenow. I enjoyed it.

  12. Jill Wilson permalink
    March 16, 2020

    I have had another chance to study these designs in detail and it is fascinating to work out how the repeat patterns work. It would be lovely to see the single designs repeated and joined together to get a better idea of how the finished fabric would look.

    Stunning, I’m sure!

  13. Vivienne permalink
    March 16, 2020

    Thanks for positing these images of the fabrics – they are wonderful.

  14. March 17, 2020

    Amazingly Beautiful!! Michael Dahl was Brilliant!!?????????

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