An interview with Kathy Staples - Part One of Three

Editors note:  Recently we asked Kathy Staples, to grant an interview about her participation in the recent exhibit last fall called:  English Embroidery in The Metropolitan Museum 1580-1700 ‘Twixt Art and Nature,  in New York city and she graciously consented.   Kathy, is a publisher, author, researcher, lecturer and textile expert with a particular passion for the 16th and 17th century.  There was a catalog of the exhibit published by Yale University Press.  It is my hope that you will find this as interesting as I did.  This will appear in 3 different parts over the next several days.

English Embroidery

Catalog for English Embroidery from The Metropolitan Museum of Art 1580-1700 'Twixt Art and Nature

 This exhibition of English Embroidery was organized by The Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Bard Graduate Center for studies in the Decorative Arts in New York.  Can you tell us about the relationship between the two groups?

Yes, this exhibition was a collaborative effort. New York’s Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture—its official name—has been offering MAs and PhDs to students who want to study objects and the material world in a cultural context since its opening in 1993. Many of their students go on to become curators and educators; others head to the “commercial” side of the decorative arts as auction house specialists, appraisers, or antiques dealers. Bard maintains a wonderful multi-room exhibition gallery as well—a great venue for traveling exhibitions as well as events produced “in-house.” But there are also opportunities for student participation in the exhibition process through special student exhibition programs, which began in 2004.

In this program professors from Bard work with curators from various museums to organize exhibitions that have intensive student involvement. In the case of the exhibition of English Stuart embroidery, which I was involved with, Professor Andrew Morrell of Bard, who specializes in Northern European fine and applied art, teamed up with Melinda Watt, Assistant Curator in the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met for short). The Met has one of the finest collections of sixteenth and seventeenth-century (Tudor and Stuart) English embroidery (actually, what doesn’t the MET have a fine collection of?!)—over 200 objects—but the only way the general public ever knew about them was through a book published on core pieces of the collection in the 1960s, all given to the museum by a collector, Judge Irwin Untermeyer.

For Bard students who were interested in working on this project, Andrew and Melinda organized a multi-semester curriculum, which included in-depth readings, discussions, and analysis of the objects. Those who stuck with the program, so to speak, assisted not only in the organization and installation of the exhibition, but contributed to the exhibition’s label copy and entries in the catalog, published by Yale University Press.

Who was Irwin Untermeyer and why did he collect English embroidery in the early twentieth century, when it was much more fashionable to collect for example, paintings?  Was there a Mrs. Untermeyer?

Irwin Untermeyer was a lawyer and later a judge. I don’t think we know if his wife shared his passion for antiques. His father had collected eighteenth-century French furniture and decorative arts, so perhaps antiques had resonated with the son from an early age. But instead of Continental objects, Irwin Untermeyer gravitated towards all things English, including textiles. In fact, he seemed to prefer textiles to paintings when it came to covering the walls of his home. He may have been one of the earliest American collectors of English Stuart embroidery, but there were already established private collections in England, such as those of William Hasketh Lever, Sir William Burrell, and Sir Percival Griffiths.  The 17th century is the golden age of domestic English textiles.  Untermeyer always tried to acquire the best quality; his collection tells us that he had a good eye. His favorite pieces were those with biblical themes.

The beginnings of Untermeyer’s textile collecting interests coincided with a great wave of “house cleaning” in England. After World War I, families that had in previous generations been able to afford to maintain their ancestral homes and furnishings found it increasingly difficult to do so. Melinda Watt pointed out to me that many of the early embroideries that came on the market and were purchased by Untermeyer were from houses in the greater London area. In the seventeenth century, this suburban setting was home to at least three girls’ boarding schools, all of which offered needlework and embroidery lessons and all of which shared pattern drawers. So it should be no surprise that many of Untermeyer’s pieces are related stylistically to each other.

The Met has owned these pieces since the 1960s and yet they were not on public view, the issue of display space in institutions is always a problem. Can you give us some insight into the decision process to now bring them out of storage and produce, in my opinion, a major addition to the field of textile scholarship through their exhibit and the publication of this catalog?

Untermeyer’s collection of needlework and embroidery was given to the Met in two installments, in 1964 and 1971. Previously, in 1960, Yvonne Hackenbroch had written a catalog on the collection: English and Other Needlework Tapestries and Textiles in the Irwin Untermeyer Collection. Not all of the objects pictured in the catalog subsequently went to the Met, however. For example, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation received a panel. In general, it’s thought that these single bequests to other institutions were perhaps close duplicates of items that the Met was to receive.  Nevertheless, after the catalog was released and the needlework finally came to reside at the Met, single embroideries were from time to time exhibited, but the collection as a whole was not shown.

After the establishment of the Bard student exhibition program, Melinda Watt approached Bard about working up a collaborative project involving these early English embroideries, both to revisit what Yvonne Hackenbroch had written about them more than forty years ago and to investigate the rich cultural history that surrounded their creation.

How did you become involved in this exhibit?

Both Andrew and Melinda were aware that I had been the curator of an exhibition of Colonial Williamsburg’s Stuart embroideries in 1998 and that I had written a catalog, British Embroidery: Curious Works from the Seventeenth Century. My approach to Williamsburg’s objects was contextual. I wasn’t interested in grouping the objects according to a type—that is, sampler, picture, cushion, cabinet, etc.—technique (silkworm, tent stitch, lace, etc.), or changing time period. While all of these factors are important in beginning to describe historical objects, greater understanding and meaning comes out of investigating how these objects related to the people who designed them, made them, and owned them. Why did they survive, and how do we care for them in the future? So I wrote about female education, household textiles, needlework and the textile trades, the influence of politics, religion, and gardening on embroidery of the period.
These were the kinds of subjects that Andrew and Melinda were also interested in exploring with the Untermeyer material and other objects in the Met’s collection. They used my catalog as a reference text in their course curriculum and invited me to talk to the graduate students.

British Embroidery

My approach was shaped by work that I had done on my master’s degree at the University of Texas at Austin, which involved seventeenth-century English samplers. At that time, in the mid-1980s, material culture studies were just entering academic publication and I had professors interested in this kind of analysis.

As I worked on my master’s thesis I was immersed in the literature of the seventeenth century. I then found themes extended into the objects I was studying. For example, adherents of Puritanism encouraged the development of literacy regardless of gender and praised domestic pursuits at the same time that they attempted to strip all ornamentation from the public practice of religion. Detractors vilified these positions as they shored up their own positions. Interestingly, needlework and dress got caught up in the crossfire. Colonial Williamsburg’s seventeenth-century collections had enough breadth and depth that I was able to explore many of these issues. And I was able to borrow several pieces from private collections to round out the stories.

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