The art of needlework: An important social narrative

This month’s Up from the Vaults talk from the Potter Museum of Art is by the University of Melbourne’s Matthew Martin, a lecturer in Art History and Curatorship from the School of Culture and Communication.

In this fascinating talk, Matthew takes a close look at a needlework sampler from the Russell and Mab Grimwade collection and explains why it is unusual for samplers to be collected by non-specialist art museums such as the Potter; examples of the work of young women, he says, were more readily classified as domestic craftwork than as art. Recent scholarship, however, has begun to revise this opinion, arguing that needlework functioned as an important form of literacy for early modern English women.

Created in 1798 by then-18-year-old Beatrice Acton, the sampler featured depicts a map of England and Wales and is a brilliant example of a type of needlework image that appeared between 1770 and 1840 – a period when the working of embroidery maps of regions of Britain or depictions of the globe reflected changes in the approach to women’s education.

Indeed, this was a time when women’s education moved away from the ‘accomplishments’ of the eighteenth century to a more practically focused education that included a more rigorous engagement with scientific disciplines including geography. No longer merely passive recipients of memorised knowledge, young women, through the choice of stitched map subject, demonstrated their engagement with contemporary discourses around national identity and British imperial aspirations.

Action map

Image: Beatrice Acton, ‘Embroidered map of England and Wales’, 1798. University of Melbourne Art Collection. The Russell and Mab Grimwade Bequest, 1973