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Ways of Seeing Early Modern Decorative Textiles for Textile History

Richardson, Catherine and Hamling, Tara, eds. (2016) Ways of Seeing Early Modern Decorative Textiles for Textile History. Textile History, 47 (1). pp. 1-118. ISSN 0040-4969. E-ISSN 1743-2952. (doi:0040-4969 (Print), 1743-2952 (Online)) (The full text of this publication is not currently available from this repository. You may be able to access a copy if URLs are provided)

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Decorative textiles were the most ubiquitous form of domestic furnishing in early modern England. From wallcoverings and curtains, bedhangings, tablecloths and carpets, cushions and upholstery, to intricately embroidered smaller items such as boxes and pictures, textiles covered almost every surface of the early modern interior. William Harrison, in his famous Description of England of 1577, states their importance for the development of that interior: not only were the houses of gentlemen and merchants filled with “great provision of tapestry, Turkey work [and] fine linen” but even the houses of artificers and farmers were adorned with “tapestry and silk hangings, and their tables with carpets and fine napery”. The range of textile items that could be seen in houses and their various material qualities were described in great detail in contemporary documents, particularly in account books and probate materials, which show their economic significance and indicate their visual impact. And yet our experience of historic interiors today does not, and perhaps cannot, do justice to this striking feature of the early modern household. Very few textile items from the period have survived in anything like their original or complete condition and the fragile extant objects present significant challenges for interpretation, conservation, display and presentation (e.g. condition, vulnerability to damage and surface deterioration caused by light and touch). While important work has been done to establish the heritage context within which decisions about display are linked to concepts of ‘authenticity’, significant questions remain about the relationship between pre-modern ways of viewing and modern experiences. This special issue and the work of the network which it presents is based on the premise that we cannot fully understand the function of early modern houses unless we understand the complex visual impact of their textiles, and that to do so we need to examine how they may have worked as part of a system of objects functioning in particular domestic spaces.

Whilst the cloths from which these textile objects were made have long been recognised for their key role in connecting local, national and international markets, more recent work has stressed the social role of their finished forms. Recent large-scale quantitative analysis of English probate documents has demonstrated the economic significance of fabric items as one of the key categories of goods that were bought in increasing numbers over the course of the sixteenth century, and the enduring appeal of textile goods, including the development of new types, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But as Harrison’s comment above suggests, they were not only abundant but also socially significant. They were key to the definition of the emerging ‘middling sorts’, who invested a good deal of their wealth in textile goods that advertised the sophistication and comfort of their domestic provision, and continued to be meaningful as a fundamental part of traditional modes of exhibiting elite status. Conversely, such goods were also made within the home by growing numbers of leisured women, making them key to the construction of gendered identity in the period. Because early modern people experienced these various forms of textile as part of a wider visual culture, it is argued here that finding ways to bring these objects together and re-contextualise them – in terms of positioning within historic spaces and by understanding modes of perception – will permit us to consider in detail the intersecting impact of their economic, social and cultural significance. It will also allow us to answer key historical questions about gender and social status by attending to the material qualities of these objects, which we contend have been neglected in comparison to a long scholarship focusing on technical and aesthetic qualities.

This special issue reflects the work of an AHRC-funded network of researchers in the Humanities and Sciences, conservators, museum curators and heritage professionals, which aimed to highlight and address methodological and museological issues surrounding the study and presentation of decorative textiles from the early modern period in England. The contributions represent a range of perspectives on the central research question: how did individuals experience and engage with the visual and material properties of the domestic interior in early modern England, and how might we analyse and represent those experiences in the present? In focusing on decorative textiles with figurative imagery we examine the dynamics of perception between the narrative (reading), visual (form, colour) and material (texture) qualities of historic domestic interiors.

Item Type: Edited Journal
DOI/Identification number: 0040-4969 (Print), 1743-2952 (Online)
Subjects: D History General and Old World > DA Great Britain
N Visual Arts > NK Decorative arts. Applied arts. Decoration and ornament
P Language and Literature > PR English literature
Divisions: Faculties > Humanities > School of English
Depositing User: Catherine Richardson
Date Deposited: 02 Nov 2015 19:04 UTC
Last Modified: 28 Jan 2020 04:07 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)
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