« PreviousContinue »
patronise this gentle art. She was cast in a more stirring mould. In her father's court, under her sister's jealous eye, within her prison's solitary walls, her needle might be a prudent disguise, a solacing occupation, "woman's pretty excuse for thought." But after her own accession to the throne action was her characteristic.
Nevertheless we are not to suppose that, because needlework was not "a rage," it was frowned upon and despised. By no means. It is perhaps fortunate that Elizabeth did not especially patronise it; for so dictatorial and absolute was she, that by virtue of the "right divine" she would have made her statesmen embroider their own robes, and her warriors lay aside the sword for the distaff. But as, happily, it now only held a secondary place in her esteem, we have Raleigh's poems instead of his sampler, and Bacon's learning instead of his stitchery. But it was not in her nature to suffer any thing in which she excelled to lie quite dormant. She was an accomplished needlewoman; some exquisite proofs of her skill were then glowing in all their freshness, and her excellence in this art was sufficiently obvious to prevent the ladies of her court from entirely forsaking it. Many books, with patterns for needlework, were published about this time, and in a later one Queen Elizabeth is especially celebrated in a laudatory poem for her skill in it. That proficiency in ornamental needlework was an absolute requisite in the accomplishments of a country belle, may be inferred from the prominent place it holds in Drayton's description of the well
educated daughter of a country knight in Elizabeth's days:
"The silk well couth she twist and twine,
Which seemly was to see;
The march pine or counterpanes here alluded to, taxed in these days to the fullest extent both the purse of the rich and the fingers of the fair. Elizabeth had several most expensively trimmed with ermine as well as needlework; the finest and richest embroidery was lavished on them; and it was no unusual circumstance for the counterpane for the "standing" or master's bed to be so lavishly adorned as to be worth a thousand marks.
At no time was ornamental needlework more admired, or in greater request in the everyday concerns of life, than now. Almost every article of dress, male and female, was adorned with it. Even the boots, which at this time had immense tops turned down and fringed, and which were commonly made of russet cloth or leather, were worn by some exquisites of the day of very fine cloth (of which enough was used to make a shirt), and were embroidered in gold or silver, or in various-coloured silks, in the figures of birds, animals, or antiques; and the ornamental needlework alone of a pair of these boots would cost from four to ten pounds The making of a single shirt would frequently cost 10/., so richly were they ornamented with " needleworke of silke, and so curiously stitched with other knackes."
"Woman's triflings," too, their handkerchiefs, reticules, workbags, &c, were decorated richly. We have seen within these few days a workbag which would startle a modern fair one, for, as far as regards size, it has a most "industrious look," but which, despite the ravages of near three centuries, yet gives token of much original magnificence. It is made of net, lined with silk; the material, the net itself, (a sort of honeycomb pattern, like what we called a few years ago the Grecian lace,) was made by the fair workwoman in those days, and was a fashionable occupation both in France and England. This bag is wrought in broad stripes with gold thread, and between the stripes various flowers are embroidered in different coloured silks. The bag stands in a sort of card-board basket, covered in the same style; it is drawn with long cords and tassels, and is large enough perhaps, on emergency, to hold a good sized baby.
It is more than probable that female skill was in request in various matters of household decoration. The Arras looms, indeed, had long superseded the painful fingers of notable dames in the construction of hangings for walls, which were universally used, intermingled and varied in the palaces and nobler mansions by <( painted cloth," and cloth of gold and silver. Thus Shakspeare describes Imogen's chamber in Cymbeline:
"Her bed-chamber was hanged
We have remarked that Henry the Eighth's palaces were very splendid; Elizabeth's were equally so, and more consistently finished in minor conveniences, as it is particularly remarked that "easye quilted and lyned formes and stools for the lords and ladyes to sit on" had superseded the "great plank forms, that two yeomen can scant remove out of their places, and waynscot stooles so hard, that since great breeches were layd asyde men can skant indewr to sitt on." Her two presence chambers at Hampton Court shone with tapestry of gold and silver, and silk of various colours; her bed was covered with costly coverlids of silk, wrought in various patterns, by the needle; and she had many " chusions," moveable articles of furniture of various shapes, answering to our large family of tabourets and ottomans, embroidered with gold and silver thread.
But it was not merely in courts and palaces that arras was used; it was now, of a coarser fabric, universally adopted in the houses of the country gentry. "The wals of our houses on the inner sides be either hanged with tapisterie, arras-work,* or painted cloths, wherein either diverse histories, or hearbes, beasts, knots, and such like are stained, or else they are seeled with oke of our owne, or wainescot brought hither out of the east countries." The tapestry was now suspended on frames, which, we may infer, were often at a considerable distance from the walls, since the portly Sir John Falstaff ensconced himself "behind the arras" on a memorable occasion; Polonius too met his death there; and indeed Shakspeare presses it into the service on numerous occasions.
* From this separate mention of tapisterie and arras-work by so accurate a describer as Harrison, it would seem that tapestry of the needle alone was not, even yet, quite exploded.
The following quotation will give an accurate idea of properties thought most valuable at this time; and it will be seen that ornamental needlework cuts a very distinguished figure therein. It is a catalogue of his wealth given by Gremio when suing for Bianca to her father, who declares that the wealthiest lover will win her, in the Taming of the Shrew.
Gremio. "First, as you know, my house within the city
The age of Elizabeth was one which powerfully appeals to the imagination in various ways. The aera of warlike chivalry was past; but many of its lighter observances remained, and added to the variety of life, and perhaps tended to polish it. We