by Rosika Desnoyers. Bloomsbury, February 2019. 184 p. ill. ISBN 9781350071759 (h/c), $114.00.
Reviewed July 2019
Lauren Paustian, Registrar and Collections Care Manager, Leo Baeck Institute, firstname.lastname@example.org
In this fascinating book, Rosika Desnoyers delves into two categories of pictorial textiles that were ubiquitous in eighteenth and nineteenth century England but are largely forgotten today. In the 1700s, a handful of women artists were celebrated for their needlepaintings, or reproductions of well-known paintings where the “brushstrokes” were rendered entirely in embroidered stitches. Then, in the 1800s, a type of counted cross-stitch canvas, known as Berlin work, became an exceedingly popular leisure activity for middle and upper-class women.
Desnoyers does not simply describe the chronological development of these two forms of embroidery; her book aims to provide a critical reassessment of needlepainting and Berlin work. Both types of needlework have been marginalized in varying degrees by social and art historians. Berlin work, in particular, has been called unoriginal, amateurish, and/or ugly by a number of critics. Desnoyers wants to elevate Berlin work as a remarkable innovation of its time. In the book, she builds up the argument that Berlin work is a synthesis of multiple forms of technology from the Industrial Revolution: the jacquard punch card system for creating mass manufactured patterns; optical devices like a camera obscura for altering the way to view an image; and newly available synthetic-dyed yarn for brightly colored designs. The book concludes with an analysis of two contemporary fiber artists who recontextualize historical needlework for their own pieces.
The tone of the book is highly academic. In her aim to reassess the value of these types of English embroidery, Desnoyers provides a comprehensive review of literature (both historical and contemporary) that mentions needlepainting or Berlin work. This literature review is in addition to a lengthy bibliography and many footnotes.
The book features many illustrations; black and white illustrations are embedded in the text, while the middle contains a section of colored plates. One criticism is that there are no citations to specific illustrations within the body of the text. A painting of Mary Queen of Scots by Charles Landseer became a very popular Berlin work design and is mentioned several times in the text. A version of the Berlin work is reproduced as color plate sixteen, but that plate number is not cited at all. However, the index at the back of the book covers many subjects, so at least all mentions of the Landseer painting are referenced there.
This book would certainly find a place in any academic library or library that collects in the subjects of textiles, fiber arts, and design. It is highly recommended.