Friday, August 7, 2020

Birds & Spiders #4: The Fabric & Conclusions

The DAR Museum has two related pieces of chintz. 
This one, possibly made into a bolster cover, is
an arborescent with floral and pomegranates but no birds.

The other has the two birds on either side of the tree branch.
(The repeat is reversed in this one.)

Designs are different but elements are the same;
was one a pirated copy of the other design?  (Early 19th-century
English prints were only copyright for a couple of months.)

Tree of Life from the Bird & Spider chintz in the DAR Collection

18th-century palampore from India's Coromandel Coast 
in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The cliche about tree of life quilts is that they were inspired
by Indian imagery in palampores....

Scholar Viewing a Waterfall, Ma Yuan, about 1200
Metropolitan Museum of Art

And a Chinese view of landscape.

Tree of Life bedcover, Atlanta History Center

However, that world view must have been filtered through European sources, the imagery available to craftsmen in England who printed the fabric and applique artists in America who stitched the quilts.

Flight Into Egypt panel attributed to Sarah Warner Williams
About 1810-1830
Collection: Winterthur Museum

The bird chintz we have been discussing is an excellent example. English prints like this one from the productive London printer J. Hinton interpreted Asian design, influencing calico printers and quiltmakers.

The piece in the center of Carolyn Miller's quilt is an uncut print with the birds.

We also find quilts made from the related chintz without the birds. 

Arborescent print with a floral and to the side a brown pomegranate.
This one includes peonies the gnarly tree and pomegranates.
 No birds, no spider.

Wholecloth quilt in the collection of the International
Quilt Museum. 102 x 105 inches 
Three widths of the chintz means that the repeats are about a yard wide.

The Winterthur Museum has a length of yardage.
Notice how some of the brown pomegranates are awkwardly off to the right side
kind of floating.....

while others are incorporated into the overall design.

Detail from a top in the collection of the
Los Angeles Museum of Art

The tree of life with familiar florals and pomegranates is rather abruptly connected to
a base with different birds.

Sixteenth-century watercolor of a pomegranate
by Jacques Le Moyne De Morgues.
Collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum

Catherine Parker Custis's quilt at the DAR Museum: pomegranates
cut from the bird & spider chintz.

Pomegranates that look to be from a different chintz in a medallion
in Jane Lury's collection

And in the other quilt in Jane's collection

We are all guessing there were several variations on the chintzes with more
than one bird print (is one reversed?), a couple of pomegranate designs, etc.

When Mount Vernon curators reworked their chintz bedroom a few years ago they commissioned Windham fabrics to interpret the piece in the collection of the Winterthur, brightening the reproduction in "vividness of the color and the saturation," according to Associate Curator Amanda Isaac.

The scale appears larger than the original.

Johanna Christina Miller, Savannah
Georgia Quilts

What have we learned from examining this ubiquitous chintz and the many surviving quilts made from it?

1) The bird & pomegranate arborescent chintzes printed in England were widely available up and down the east coast of the U.S. in the early 19th century --- perhaps 1820-1840. We see quilts with connections.

2) Quiltmakers from Massachusetts down to Savannah, Georgia (and perhaps into the Bahamas) made quilts as shown in the quilts with family histories.

3) Nearly every one of the quilts found using the Bird & Spider chintz arranged the designs into a tree of life format (no baskets, no wreaths).

A few trees

1) How was this design standard communicated to such a geographically disparate group of quiltmakers?

2) Or were the quilts (basted, finished tops or finished quilts) from a single professional workshop which had a good supply of Bird & Spider fabric and many seamstresses with the skills to snip out the design elements and stitch them to a backing.

The chintz in the center of collector Carolyn Miller's medallion

And that is the end of the posts on Birds with a Spider for Lunch.


  1. Thank you - I did enjoy this series. I miss my chintz floral curtains (currently hanging in my mother's home as my new home has much larger windows), I think I'll have to source some new ones - it's about time! I love the 4 poster bedding - I did sigh when I saw that!

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