In the 18th and 19th centuries, samplers not only demonstrated an ability to do simple embroidery techniques, but they could also teach the stitchers literacy and numeracy, as girls almost invariably stitched alphabets and numerals on their sampler.
Elder Girls Learning to Sew in the Bristol Orphan House, c.1905. Image taken from Centenary Memorial 1805-1905 (Bristol: J. Wright and Co., 1905). Copyright, and reproduced by permission, of the Bristol Central Library.
Furthermore, the moral texts they worked allowed the girls to reflect and ponder on religious and ethical sentiments. The extracts were usually taken from the Bible, hymns or poems, with the most popular verses being by Isaac Watts (1674-1748), Charles Wesley (1707-1788) and William Cowper (1731-1800).
Contemporaries believed that teaching needlework greatly benefitted girls from impoverished backgrounds as it prevented idleness and gave them employable skills. Girls could start sewing as young as 5 or 6, as long as they could hold a needle and a piece of fabric. They might make their first sampler as young as 8, possibly continuing with further ones into their later teenage years.
But samplers can be used as an educational tool today, as a way to inform young children about schooling in the past. I intend to run an activity workshop next month, providing an interesting and engaging session on sampler making in 18th– and 19th-century schools. I also plan on telling them some of the life stories of the makers, explaining to the children that needlework skills could provide young embroiderers from the past with an occupation.
The Victoria and Albert Museum Archive has been a crucial source of information on the plaster casts in the collection of the Museum of Classical Archaeology, particularly those produced by D. Brucciani & Co. in the second half of the nineteenth century. With the invaluable help of the archivists, another intriguing connection between these two museums has emerged. The Boards of Survey files for the Departments of Architecture and Sculpture document the process of deaccession, dispersal and as a last resort, the destruction of objects in the collections.
In November 1956 Hugh Plommer of the Museum of Classical Archaeology wrote to John Pope-Hennessy, acting on information from the British Museum that the V&A were about to sell their casts of Greek and Roman architectural ornament. Plommer asked to see the objects with a view to accommodating them in Cambridge and a meeting was arranged in December 1956. Plommer ‘expressed [his] willingness to house a large part of the collection’, which numbered approximately 180 individual casts and it was felt to be important that they ‘should be preserved as a unity’. There was already a precedent for the transfer of classical casts from the V&A, with ‘a number […] presented to the University of Melbourne, the University of Western Australia and other similar bodies’. The casts in question were reported to be in poor condition, stored in the tower crypt in the basement of the museum. They had not been displayed ‘in living memory’ and their relevance to the rest of the collection was under question.
A year passed without movement, despite the principle of transfer having been agreed. The V&A had installed a new heating system in the basement which resulted in the dispersal of the casts into different storage areas, making it difficult to complete the necessary paperwork. Plommer was asked to wait ‘a few months’. This short delay turned into a very much longer one, a note in the file simply stating ‘suspend till June 1, 1969’, with no reason recorded. In September 1969 Pope-Hennessy’s successor, Terence Hodgkinson, wrote to Plommer again inviting him to visit the V&A and set the transfer back in motion. Plommer replied, ‘All this is a very long time ago. Much has happened since, & we are now rather uncertain of our own future’. Despite his understandably cool response to a process that should have been completed some 13 years previously, Plommer arranged to visit the following week.
The Museum of Classical Archaeology could no longer accept the majority of the casts, even though the V&A exerted gentle pressure: ‘it is possible that they might have to be destroyed, if we cannot find a good home for them’. To complete the transfer, a Board of Survey consisting of Hodgkinson, Charles Avery and Claus Michael Kauffmann inspected the casts on 2 January 1970. In total 28 casts were offered as a gift (no single object was thought to be worth more than £5, with the whole collection valued at £100), having been judged ‘not required for exhibition’. The casts were delivered to the Museum of Classical Archaeology on 26 February 1970.
Returning to Cambridge, the task of locating these 28 objects has begun. Minutes of MCA committee meetings revealed that in 2006 three examples of architectural ornament were deaccessioned from the collection and transferred to the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford. They were recorded as the following:
Capital from Portico of Pantheon, Rome [corresponds to Ant. 157 or Ant. 207]
Capital from Temple of Mars Ultor, Rome [corresponds to Ant. 235]
Capital from Temple of Castor and Pollux, Rome
So we can be reasonably certain that at least two of the three objects transferred to the Ashmolean had been part of the collection transferred from the V&A. As for the other 25, watch this space!