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Shakespeare & Beyond

Garden of Love: Embroidered treasures from 17th-century England

“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.
Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies,
that’s for thoughts.”

(Hamlet, Act IV, Scene V, 199-201)

Ophelia’s botanical language teems with iconographical and medicinal meaning in the age of Shakespeare. Botanist John Gerard in his encyclopedic treatise The Herball, first published in 1597, identified and described the medicinal value of all known botanicals, often using folklore and their etymology. For example, rosemary, “…comforteth the brain the memorie, the inward senses…” and “…the floures (flowers) made up into plates with sugar…comfort the heart…”. Similarly, Gerard explains that the pansy is also named “Hearts-ease… in Latine Violatricolor, or the three coloured violet…in French, Pensees (meaning thoughts)…”. These references add poignancy to this already tragic scene from Hamlet.

The language of botanicals manifested not only in the dramatic arts of Renaissance England, but also in the visual arts, and can be found in some of the smallest treasures to survive the 17th century. Embroidered boxes, also called “caskets” or “cabinets” in early inventories, are an example of intricately designed needlework that combines the art of storytelling with botanical decoration. Such pieces were typically completed at the culmination of a young girl’s schooling between the ages of eleven and fourteen. The skill of needlework was essential to a woman’s education; it was a virtuous and practical endeavor that could be used by a wife, mother, and homemaker. Those producing such boxes would have been middle- and upper-class girls whose families could afford silks, satins, and fine threads. Similarities between embroidered panels of surviving caskets suggest girls had access to pattern kits from engravers. They would send their pieces to a furniture maker to fasten them into cabinetwork. Numerous examples of such pieces are now in museums and private collections. Despite the similarity between surviving pieces, each embroidered box is unique in its design and reflects the personal interests of the young woman who crafted it.

The Cotsen Textile Traces Study Collection, part of The George Washington Museum and the Textile Museum, has in its holdings an embroidered box from mid-17th century England, which it will display in February along with four other textiles from the collection. This micro exhibition, Garden of Love, highlights the thematic intersection between embroidered garments and accessories from the 17th century.

The box’s exterior panels depict the biblical story of David and Abigail, a popular subject across the visual arts from this time. As recounted in The Book of Samuel (25:2–42), Abigail labored to provide food and provisions to David, then in exile, when her husband Nabal refused to do so. Subsequently, Abigail’s husband died suddenly after learning what his wife had done. David interpreted this turn of events as an act of God and took Abigail as his second wife. Biblical heroines such as Abigail appealed to the young women crafting these boxes and were a popular needlework subject.

An open box with heavily embroidered sides, filled with artificial flowers
Cotsen Textile Traces Study Collection T-1084, courtesy of The George Washington University Museum. Photography by Bruce M. White
embroidered scene depicting The Judgment of Paris
Cotsen Textile Traces Study Collection T-1084c, courtesy of The George Washington University Museum. Photography by Bruce M. White

The lid of this box illustrates The Judgment of Paris, the classical narrative in which Paris gives the golden apple to the goddess Venus in exchange for Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world. This unusual pairing of a biblical narrative with a classical myth adds to the box’s romantic and dramatic imagery.

However, it is the botanical decorations of this box that bring out the beauty of these narratives. Carnations, as well as strawberries, apple and pear trees, and magnolias, fill the space in each panel. The box’s most charming feature is its interior, where a miniature garden is enclosed, composed of flowers, fruits, and herbs made of paper composed with silk filaments and gum arabic pressed down with heat. Violets, strawberries, and wiry sprigs of rosemary mimic their natural forms. Mirrored panels border the interior, adding to the visual splendor. Engaged columns of gilt wood also line the edges, creating the appearance of a hortus conclusus, an enclosed garden.

Such beautiful imagery calls to mind the handmade manuscripts of Esther Inglis in the Folger Shakespeare Library.  A renowned calligrapher and manuscript illuminator, Inglis produced the Argumenta Psalmorum Davidis, 1608 (Folger Library MS V.a.94) and The Psalmes of David, 1612 (Folger Library MS V.a.665) which feature similar subject matter.

She created these manuscripts as presentation gifts to Prince Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales. Inglis likely embroidered the book covers as well. Presbyterian minister Robert Rollock praised Inglis during her lifetime in a poem dedicated to her: “Cum penna sed certat acus: at vincit utramque.” (Her needle competes with her pen: But she conquers both.).1 The beaded and raised embroidered flowers on these book covers echo their natural form and are as delicate as those illuminated within Inglis’s manuscripts. The books are small enough to be held in the palm of one’s hand and remind one of the intimate nature of the subject matter.

Rachel Pollack will be giving a gallery talk and hosting a discussion panel on the Garden of Love exhibition on February 8. Karthika Audinet, Coordinator of the Cotsen Textile Traces Study Center, and Serena Martin, a fourth-year Art History student writing her thesis on female empowerment in portraits of Elizabeth I, will participate in the panel. Advanced registration is requested. Please see the museum website for more details.

  1. Ziegler, Georgianna. “A Recently Discovered Esther Inglis Manuscript.” The Library: The Transactions of the Bibliographical Society 19, no. 4 (2018): 490-499.