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Converging Lines: Needlework in English Literature and Visual Arts
I/ Victorian Threads

The Needle and the Brush: A Victorian Drama



Lorsqu’en 1857, les activistes victoriennes fondèrent la Société des Artistes femmes, l’un des fers de lance de leur campagne fut la couture que de nombreux opposants considérèrent avec mépris pour dénigrer leur initiative plutôt que de l’encourager. Dans ce contexte, cet article propose d’explorer l’analogie entre la couture et les beaux-arts en abordant les thèmes et les enjeux qui s’y rattachent afin de mieux cerner la façon dont ils s’inscrivent dans le discours de l’époque victorienne et la place qu’ils occupèrent au sein des discussions portant sur la question de la Femme (the Woman Question). A cette époque, comme l’a souligné Rozsika Parker dans son ouvrage féministe pionnier The Subversive Stitch, la couture constituait pour les femmes à la fois un passe-temps sain et un moyen de réaliser leurs aspirations à créer tandis que les beaux-arts étaient censés requérir des qualités étrangères au sexe féminin, représentant dès lors pour les femmes un danger potentiel de transgression.

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1In the discourse of the “woman question” that preoccupied Britain from the 1840s on, needlework played a starring role. Whichever side a contributor to this conversation supported, needlework was likely to be brought forward as evidence for their argument. Its currency became especially clear when, in 1857, the feminist campaign to expand women’s opportunities for self-determination generated a Society of Female Artists (SFA). This essay will examine the responses to this initiative showcased in the contemporary press as mid-19th century Britain wrestled with ideas about Woman, women’s role in society and what was termed “women’s rights.” It will be seen that needlework in its entire range was at the heart of mid-19th century British life, in one way or another; that embroidery, at the ambitious end of needlework, functioned – as Rozsika Parker’s pioneering and now classic study proposed – to absorb women’s time and their creative aspirations; and that “plain sewing,” at the mundane end of needlework, was an assumed female skill that the British economy depended unashamedly upon even while becoming embarrassed about its social consequences. It will also be seen that, while needlework was assumed to be a natural fit with women’s abilities, fine art was assumed to require qualities beyond female capacity – and was thus as potentially transgressive an occupation for women to adopt as needlework was a suitable one. In its proposal to shift women’s attention from needle and cloth to paint and canvas, the SFA provoked a range of ruminations on the capacity of women for creative production, the appropriate contexts for their labour, and how – whatever their class position – they should be spending their time.

1. The Society of Female Artists

2In June 1857, an art exhibition in the name of the SFA opened in London. Located in the commercial centre of the city, Oxford Street, it was recognised in the middle-class press as a feminist initiative, an outlet for women to show works of art both for public diversion and for sale. Amongst the publications acknowledging this event was the satirical paper Punch, which had interested itself in the topic of “women’s rights” for several years past. Its review began as follows:

Those who are fond of the Society of Ladies will rush to no 315 Oxford Street, and there enjoy an exhibition that is the result of female handiwork. It is not an exhibition of stitching or embroidery, such as shirts made at home, or anti-macassars, or floral smoking-caps or butterfly braces, or sporting slippers with a series of foxes running helter-skelter over the toes. It is not an exhibition of Berlin wool-work, or potichomanie, or any other mania that occasionally seizes hold of young ladies’ fingers, and makes them, for the time being, excessively sticky to squeeze, as though you were shaking hands with a Sub-Editor in the full agony of paste and scissors. It is not an exhibition of jams and jellies, or marmalades, or preserves, or, much less, pickles. You must not expect you are about to be invited to a choice collection of pies, or tarts, or cakes, or puddings, of a most marvellous sweetness, such as is generally imparted by white-looking hands that are more in the habit of playing with the keys of the piano than the keys of the store-room. Nor is it wax-works with its mossy baskets of blooming fruits, such as would certainly tempt birds to come and peck at them, nor vases of paper flowers [...]. (Anonymous g)

3Facetious exaggeration was Punch’s usual mode; it is rather the writer’s choice of referents that is worthy of note here. It is clear that “stitching or embroidery” was one of an array of more or less risible activities that the Punch male expected with condescension that his wife, mother, sisters and female acquaintances would keenly prosecute in their leisure time. These were “those feminine employments which may occupy pleasantly and usefully so many leisure hours of a lady’s life” (“Window Blind and Firescreen Painting,” 1858) according to tradition and convention. A representative example of those parts of the mainstream periodical press aimed at the female reader, The Ladies’ Treasury, launched the year after the Society’s debut and aiming to “illustrate and uphold “Each dear domestic virtue, Child of home,” would prove Punch’s point: in its first issue, the content section “Fancy Work for Ladies” covered much the same territory as the Punch writer’s résumé of “women’s work.” (The Ladies’ Treasury iii, viii)

4Here at the SFA exhibition, according to Punch, was the latest faddish – and ill-judged – manifestation of female leisure: the making of drawings and paintings. The writer’s stance implied that women had no capacity for judging what was or was not a worthwhile activity, nor which activities deserved the serious attention of a third party, nor what was demanded by the specific cultural category of art which was here being recklessly broached. Women, ran the subtext, had not the discrimination to recognise significant cultural taxonomies such as those distinguishing fine art from needlework, preserving, baking and hobby crafts; and, in that light, should remain content with the trivial and the meretricious which usually delighted them.

5This stance followed the lead of one of the cartoons in which Punch had lampooned contemporary feminism a few years earlier (1853), John Leech’s drawing The Parliamentary Female, in which the feminist wife and mother neglects her family to devote herself to legislative business (“The Parliamentary Female”). The ridiculousness of her entrance into the governmental sphere was demonstrated by her inability to distinguish what is important – and of public interest – from what is trivial – and of merely subjective interest: “I have my speech on the great crochet question to prepare for the evening,” she explains to her bemused husband – as if, Punch’s readers smugly chortled, Parliament would be the forum for the discussion of such matters! Thus needlework (of one kind or another) emblematised for this section of opinion the domestic, the womanly, the trivial – embodying the distinction between the private sphere of women and the public sphere of men, and the difference between maundering, meaningless (domestic) activities and considered, consequential (civic) ones.

6Punch’s situating of needlework in the middle-class lifestyle was a simplification of a field that had been lengthily addressed since the beginning of the 1840s by numerous commentators as in fact consisting of a highly classed range of forms. Punch itself had indeed played a part before this point in positioning needlework as a working-class activity. For instance, detailed evidence was offered in the first national census of 1841 of the huge presence of women in paid work involving sewing of some sort or another: while the category dressmaker/milliner was predictably second only to that of domestic servant, those of embroiderer, glove maker, hatter/hat manufacturer, knitter, lace manufacturer, tailor and breeches maker, seamstress, shawl manufacturer and shroud maker conspicuously included thousands of reported practitioners (Pinchbeck 317-321). These activities were identified in this context as jobs – neither housework, hobbies, nor charity work – as they were again in the Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission of 1843. This revealed, as Sally Alexander put it, that “the needle was the staple employment for women in London – apart from domestic service” (39). It was in the pages of Punch, in December of that year, that Thomas Hood’s verse “The Song of the Shirt” proposed needlework as the site of unavoidable socio-political issues turning not simply on the politics of gender but rather more on those of class.

2. Needleworkers and Seamstresses

7The topic of needlework quickly became essentialised in contemporary discourse in the reiterated image of the working – or, as it was increasingly termed, slaving – needleworker, who sewed not simply for gain but for survival and as a necessity not as a choice. Responding to Thomas Hood’s poem, Richard Redgrave’s painting The Sempstress1 was shown at the 1844 Royal Academy exhibition to great effect; the reports of Henry Mayhew to the Morning Chronicle (1849ff) attracted widespread attention; Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel of modern life, Ruth, with its needlewoman protagonist, sparked vigorous debate on its publication in 1853; and each of these prompted further images in diverse forms proposing the needlewoman (most frequently, the shirt-maker) as a symbol of contemporary issues such as the effects of industrialisation, urban poverty, and social exclusion – a tide of imagery which has been well examined in third-wave feminist scholarship, firstly by Terri Edelstein and subsequently by Susan Casteras, Beth Harris, Lynne Mae Alexander and Patricia Zakreski. By the end of the 1850s, it was not controversial for an article in the middle-class newspaper Illustrated London News on women’s access to paid work to describe needlework as “that lowest resource of female industry,” and she who sewed for a living as “the pining needlewoman” (“Working Women”). This image, forcefully consolidated by fictions of varying quality and ambition in books and the periodical press, paintings appearing in the annual London exhibitions, and the authentic detail presented in the fourth volume of Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, appearing in 1861, allowed a do-gooding branch of the middle-class press to declare in 1863:

There may be some few occupations followed by women whose hardships have escaped notice, but needlework is certainly not amongst the number. In its various forms, from the stitching of a coal-sack or a pair of fustian trousers in Shoreditch, to the construction of a gauzy court dress as large as a balloon in May-fair, it has received every attention from poets, journalists, and philanthropists. No branch of women’s labour has given birth to so many poetic wails, so many parliamentary investigations, so many letters in the newspapers, and so many suggestions by individuals and private committees. (Crosswaithe 684)

8As needlework figured, then, in the published reactions to the SFA, it bore political freight amassed by the debate that had preceded the Society’s emergence, and its use by those who were hostile to the Society indicates the importance to contemporary British society of which activities, in which form, were to be associated with women, allowed to them, or required of them.

9For many if not most early Victorians, on the spectrum of creativity needlework was sited at one end and fine art at the other, even when needlework took its more decorative forms of embroidery, lace-making or tapestry. This view placed these activities in a similar relation on the spectrum of cultural value. While the former was, as we have seen, forcibly associated in general opinion with women’s role and women’s labour, the latter was generally not until the advent of the SFA prompted the association. For few historical female artists were known to early Victorian gallery-goers and few were exhibited in the annual art exhibitions that occurred in London and the major provincial cities. None was commonly mentioned in the periodical press except a foreigner, the Frenchwoman Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899), who was treated as an astonishing phenomenon of the present day. Where an interest in fine art was deemed to be fitting for women, it usually took the form of consuming the conventional litany of male artists’ work and the representation of women found therein, such as Raphael’s La Fornarina or La belle Jardinière. If the executive form of fine art was proposed to women, it was couched as a pastime or accomplishment rendering them more feminine. Most artists’ associations in Britain, from the Royal Academy down, excluded women from membership either explicitly or tacitly.

10Yet, as Bonheur’s emergence hinted, the “woman question” was leading to the reappraisal of numerous assumptions, habits and traditions. The didactic middle-class paper The Leisure Hour ran a long article in 1860 entitled “Female Employment,” suggesting various discrete kinds of labour that could accommodate women. “The following are the chief modes of occupation at present available [to women],” declared the author. Number 1 was identified as “professional employment including authors, artists, teachers, and governesses.” Number 2 was termed “business employment” which included “assistants and saleswomen in shops.” Number 3 was “needlework of various kinds,” while Number 4 was the rather gnomic “special branches of industrial labour.” It articulated needlework’s range of identity. In private life, the needle is the symbol of female industry and thrift, of comfort and elegance. It is far otherwise in social economy as an instrument of trade and gain. “Distressed needlewomen” are words proverbial of toil and poverty. This is true, whether of plain or of fancy work. (“Female Employment” 15) – but fine art and sewing were thus distinguished categorically from each other. It was this categorical distinction that was appealed to by Punch in its sarcastic hostility to mid-century feminism’s initiatives.

3. Women’s Work

11As already suggested, it was not only Punch that saw needlework as representative of women’s proper activities and at the same time negligible in cultural value. Voices in the growing chorus of discontent at women’s position in British society could also be heard disdaining needlework as women’s work although, in their case, it was because it was emblematic of the domestic ghettoization of women. If Punch wished to mock women’s habitual pastimes, these commentators wished to dethrone them. In Charlotte Brontë’s novel Shirley (1849), sewing is what the protagonist Caroline Helston is constantly directed to by those who would confine her to proper conduct, though she yearns to live a fuller life. In Florence Nightingale’s diatribe against the oppression of women, Cassandra (1852), sewing is symbolic of the inconsequentiality of the daily round of women like her, expected to be “singing Schubert, reading the Review [or] busy embroidering […] sitting round a table in the drawing-room, looking at prints, doing worsted work, and reading little books” (27, 32). In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s magnum opus Aurora Leigh (1857), sewing is both an element of the meaninglessness of the middle-class woman’s lot and the inevitable labour of the working-class woman, who can survive because she

[…] knitted hose
not ill, and was not dull at needlework;
And all the country people gave her pence
For darning stockings past their natural age,
And patching petticoats from old to new. (126)

12Though in consequence, “through the days and through the nights, / She sewed and sewed and sewed. She drooped / sometimes [...]” (133). Such progressive women continued to see needlework’s call on women’s time and attention – whether as drudgery or as pastime – as indicative of their capture. As Sarah Tytler (Henrietta Keddie) wrote in arguing several years later for middle-class women’s financial independence, “the hand that did all the rest so deftly, and many a hundred yards of tape trimming and needlework without a blemish, will turn aside” at the prospect of having to sign a check at the bank (453). And more than a decade after Barrett Browning, when the women’s movement-affiliated Victoria Magazine could assert that still “the great question of the present time is the position of women,” it argued with exasperation, “[a] little needlework done, the modicum of reading attainable despatched, the few letters written, what has the most intelligent of women to do with her day?” (Ayrton 102). For these writers, as for their political opponents, needlework was trivial when it was not menial; but for them, in its bourgeois form its facility was insulting just as in its proletarian form its monotony was soul-destroying.

13In the critical deprecation of the SFA exhibition’s apparent aspiration to fine art, then, it may have been loosely agreed that fancy needlework was a marker of industry misapplied, just as plain work was a sign of travail, but the rhetorical use made of this appraisal depended on the ideological stance of the writer. And just as the character assumed to be fundamental to sewing emerged in these columns, these critical comments also revealed basic assumptions about fine art. The Athenaeum’s reviewer was as colourful as Punch’s in his mobilisation of the comparison between the two, derogating the landscape exhibits as having “a worsted-work character” (Anonymous a). Four years later he declared that

of 333 works there is really not a dozen showing a tolerable power of drawing, not thirty seem to have been commenced with any feeling of purpose beyond that involved in beginning a Berlin-wool slipper. (Anonymous c)

14Persisting in the derisive mode, in the 1864 exhibition he drew attention to “Miss Adelaide Burgess’ Berlin wool (no. 100), a German lady executing one of those extraordinary pieces of worsted-work which often fascinate the female mind” (Anonymous d).

15Since the Society was publicly aligned with the contemporary feminist trend for improving the situation of women, and particularly expanding middle-class women’s opportunities, there was room for the implication that women who might have been satisfied with needlework before were now turning to exhibiting their drawings and paintings fired by the modish zeal for “women’s rights.” It was suggested, and by some explicitly charged, that the organisers and exhibitors alike failed to understand the nature of the task they had taken on and that the exhibitors were stumbling about in unfamiliar territory. All these commentators took it for granted that any kind of needlework was an inferior form to fine art so that, in laying aside the one for the other, SFA exhibitors were aspiring to a notably higher rung on the cultural ladder. But, it was implied, these aspiring artists and their enablers were mistaking fine art for an activity in the same order as needlework (something which, as Punch’s reaction indicated, the conservative viewer would have found far more acceptable). Exhibitors were accused of poor taste and judgment, which it might be agreed was not an issue in needlework – even its more decorative varieties – but which was fundamentally problematic in the prosecution of fine art. There was no consensus on whether the exhibitors should be assisted or discouraged. Thus for instance, the Art Journal, reckoning itself sympathetic to the Society’s agenda, observed after several years of uneven progress:

The painting of pictures is certainly an advance on embroidery, work in Berlin wool, or ordinary sewing, under the inanity and drudgery whereof the female intellect has suffered torture and degradation. (Anonymous m)

16While “the female intellect” was obviously expected by such organs as the Athenaeum to embrace needlework as woman’s natural and fitting work, to enjoy it and to be content with it, it was understandable to others that women might in the current political climate rail against it in Nightingale’s manner, and seek to transcend it via the SFA.

17But it was a mistake, according to most critics, for these erstwhile needleworkers to imagine that fine art did not require its own appropriate preparation and attitude. Many, echoing Punch’s tone, spoke from a position of astonishment, as if the writer had been taken by surprise by these foolish or pushy women moving recklessly beyond their accustomed ground, and with a definite note of scorn or condescension took satisfaction in apprising the Society’s exhibitors that they were labouring under a fundamental misapprehension:

“[t]hat women should confine themselves to being mere copyists, mere triflers over posies, or painful finishers of miniatures, in no respect permits woman to hold her place in Art equal to what hers is in authorship, or musical exhibition […] (Anonymous b)

18So declared the Athenaeum’s critic in 1860. Diligence, ability and invention were all lacking, it seemed. Invention or originality was, indeed, not a hallmark of the manual work conventionally offered to middle-class women for leisure. For example, an embroidered copy of a print, though to the needleworker exhibiting consummate skill and refined aim, was in fine art terms merely a clever imitation – no originality was there nor insight offered. The pictorial aspect of Berlin wool-work (so named simply because the wool used in this domestic-scale tapestry came from Berlin), widely accepted to add a layer to its interest, in fact lent it only a specious capacity for narrative and cultural reference: as a writer in the Art Journal had declared the year before the SFA’s emergence (1856), “fancy-work” could never in truth “aspire to the dignity of a fine art” as long as its chief strength and interest lay in manual dexterity not original invention (“A Novelty in Fancy-Work”). Berlin wool-work was so commercially successful in part precisely because it arrived ready for execution and possible to complete without either accumulated skill or independent contribution. It prepared the task for the sewer, leaving her to obey instruction rather than to make any decisions, and set out a correct end result so that any error that occurred en route could be easily identified and rectified by reference to the template. The various objects listed so pointedly in Punch’s exhibition review – “shirts made at home, or anti-macassars, or floral smoking-caps or butterfly braces, or sporting slippers with a series of foxes running helter-skelter over the toes” – were also routinely offered to female readers of the illustrated press in template form accompanied by minute instructions. In many instances even the colours to be used were designated, leaving the sewer to exercise only dexterity, patience and obedience – qualities expected in the mid-19th century understanding of femininity. Just like knitting in 20th century popular culture, these activities were presented as the natural province of any reader – who, it was believed, should as a girl have prioritised learning needlework of various forms from her female elders, just as her mother should have put effort into teaching her daughters these skills. But the habits that suited the passivity and artlessness desired in the bourgeois ideal of femininity were antithetical to the sensibility and ambition alleged to be necessary to fine-art practice. And, if the essentials of fine art were lacking, it was unsurprising that the SFA shows offered “little more than sketches adapted only for the album or scrap-book” (Anonymous j). The exhibitors having mistakenly believed that enthusiasm was enough:

We need hardly lay stress on the well-known fact that without special studies indefatigably pursued, no excellence in any branch of art can be attained, and to these studies most of the ladies who at present appear before the world as painters must until quite recently have been strangers. It is easy enough to form a society of female artists and afterwards to open an exhibition consisting entirely of their works, but it is clear that some of the fair ‘artists’ are just as much entitled to any other appellation – like the distressed sempstresses mentioned by Mr Carlyle who, being unable to sew, might with equal propriety have called themselves ‘distressed astronomers’. (Anonymous k)

19Although the association made here between women trying to sew for a living and the Society’s exhibitors recognised the larger contemporary issue of women’s employment, this finding continued to be voiced for some years:

We should advise the greater number of the lady-students here represented to go to their work in a more thoroughly earnest and work-like manner, never shrinking from necessary drudgery or tedious study, and never setting their palettes until thoroughly assured, not only that their drawings are true to nature, but that they grasp strongly, and realise vividly, all the spirit, sentiment and details of their subjects. It is not enough to stumble over some pretty sentiment, and rush at once to colours and canvas [...] (Anonymous n)

20Other commentators hastened to say that genuine fine art was not to be expected from these shows, since the exhibitors were only women, but that some dilute version of it should be acceptable to the gallery-goer:

If it be objected that the effect of a Female Artists society will be to swell the amount of mediocrity which is annually thrown upon the town in the shape of drawings and paintings, we would reply that in all departments of art, gradations of talent must exist. (“New Society of Female Artists”)

4. Gender and Culture

21More fundamental, perhaps, was the charge that, to judge by the objects they had put on display in the name of art, the SFA exhibitors were exposing women’s incapacity to recognise the distinct cultural values that marked out fine art from any of the manual activities that were traditionally allocated to their sex. It was not just a matter of materials, of an image created on paper or canvas with graphite or brush and pigment as opposed to one stitched on textile. More crucially, it was about the bearing of meaning. Art, though by contrast with sewing of all sorts was not useful, was expected to have something to say or show, selected or devised by the maker and resonating beyond itself: this was, indeed, its primary purpose or merit. While needlework was located in general opinion either in the sweat-shop, the parlour or the charity bazaar, fine art’s locus was the museum, the cathedral and the world of ideas. If, in Parker’s words, “every footstool and screen and pair of slippers made a statement about the family’s social aspirations,” every true work of art had something to say about the human condition, the divine creation and the moral universe – rather larger matters (159). And as long as in the one field modesty and easy gratification were the norm, while in the other ambition and profundity were key to success, the Society’s exhibitions could easily be interpreted as exposing as quixotic the aim of shifting from the one arena to the other.

22Until about 1865, it was widely agreed in cultural discourse and public opinion that meaning was created by subject-matter, and that there existed an obvious corresponding hierarchy of forms: no subject-matter, no meaning; no meaning, no cultural prestige. Hence, fine art, music, and literature in all its forms including drama and poetry were capable of the highest cultural status. Needlework, conventionally understood, had no meaning or meanings, even when it exhibited apparently conceptual subject-matter, as a sampler typically did or a piece of tapestry bearing a scene from a Walter Scott novel might. Such use of pictorial elements claimed for needlework an increased visual appeal or interest linked to such higher-prestige forms as Old Master painting and classic literature but, while it may have been gallantly referred to as “a domestic art,” though “skilled in execution, perhaps, it was devoid of significant content” (Harris Works 11). Hostile commentators emphasised the spurious claims to aesthetic value in forms of sewing which used pictures and emblems. This opinion observed that, while plain sewing was obviously merely labour, current versions of sewing for leisure offered a poor degree of artistic effect masquerading as genuine artistry, as did other pseudo-creative pastimes practised by the middle-class female, from which both originality and good taste were conspicuously absent. For such commentators as Punch, bourgeois needlework’s mindlessness, its rote character, its dependence on the unthinking, imitative hand as opposed to the imaginative, inventive faculty which in fine art harnessed manual dexterity to the expression of an idea, were undeniable facts. And Punch’s reviewer had meant to imply, in contrasting typical women’s crafts with art-work, that for the makers of such objects to aspire to an aesthetic appeal was both unnecessary and grotesque, as such items were founded in utility rather than beauty and, not needing to bear meaning, should not strain to annex it. Accordingly, when the Society’s exhibitors were eventually perceived to have achieved something praiseworthy, it was explicitly by freeing themselves from the meaninglessness typified by needlework. To give the floor once more to the Athenaeum’s critic, he concluded of the second exhibition:

Summing up the characteristics of female art, we find it tender and refined, but essentially unimaginative; restricted, patient, dealing chiefly with Blenheim spaniels, Castles of Chillon, roses, first-borns, Zillahs, camellias, ball-dresses, copies and miniatures [. …] Even this is better than worsted work, and we hope to see still greater improvement. (Anonymous h)

23This alleged failure to respect the creation of cultural value through meaning was addressed with varying sympathy by reviewer after reviewer, prompting defiant or defensive retorts from the Society’s champions when the critic’s asperity was deemed to have bordered on insult. “[W]e hope that as the exhibition gains maturity, it will be no presumption for ladies to grapple with important subjects of passion or pathos,” hazarded another reviewer of the second show (Anonymous f). Some insisted on faulting the entire sex for this limitation, and others blamed the organisers for misplaced zeal, but writers with more acuity pointed the finger merely at an embarrassingly large number of individuals:

Beside the really good, there are several laudable but vain attempts – works that, however meritorious as the emanations of idle hours, and evidences of industry, convince the beholder that no amount of study, no devotion of labour can ever make their author painters...the old poetical aphorism still holds true in all its potency, that poeta nascitur, non fit. (Anonymous i)

24So, an artist could not be made but must be born? And therefore most of these women were deluded in their efforts to set aside the needle and take up the brush. Did an unbridgeable gap truly separate men (born with the capacity for art) from women (born to sew), and fine art from needlework? This narrative was of course convenient to British society at the mid-century – indeed, indispensable in the contemporary economy at both a public and private level, keeping working women slaving and other women quiet – and depended equally upon the unexamined notion that sewing was something women were naturally good at (despite the long-standing existence of tailoring as a man’s job) and long-held beliefs about the nature and purpose of fine art. In truth, accurate imitation in material forms was a phenomenon fascinating to the early Victorian, show-cased in the trend-setting Great Exhibition of 1851, as Talia Schaffer has adroitly observed (31-35). Moreover, copying lay at the heart of the art student’s training as well as the majority of “improving” pastimes offered to women and girls, suggesting that this skill was the common basis of all these activities. It could reasonably be asserted that practice in needlework of the finer variety was indeed conducive, rather than alien, to a turn to the fine art of painting:

Through embroidery women trained their hands and eyes, became attentive to the smallest details, refined their colour sense, and mastered a large repertoire of motifs and compositional formulas. This experience proved useful when they turned to painting [...] (Weidner et al 21)

25But equally relevant in the challenge presented by the SFA was the relation of women’s work to the economy.

5. Gender and the Cultural Economy

26The commodification of art-works had not yet been wholly settled by the new urban and industrial economy, but a market in contemporary art was in the process of formation, if still inchoate in the modern economy. Women’s work, commanding always a lower price than men’s, could be embraced by the market if it conformed to that market’s conventions. However, the exhibits at the SFA were hard to anchor in the market-place for art-work. They were for sale, like items of embroidery, crochet or knitting made by middle-class women offered for sale at a charity bazaar; and unlike garments made by working-class women made to order within the norms of their industry. But their authorship complicated the question of price. Objects made by middle- and upper-class women, whom the economy did not recognise as producers, were nigh-impossible to value coherently, and thus these objects floated between the amateur, philanthropic sphere and the professional, commercial sphere, clearly discomfiting many commentators. Were the makers of these items on exhibition professional or amateur? By what standards should these productions be appraised? Were they to be evaluated with reference to the artistic tradition or by expectations of “women’s work”? Were they attempting to compete with like or comparable products by men? Were these objects inviting the viewer’s philanthropy, aesthetic judgment or commercial acumen?

27This ambiguity resulted, as some of the exhibitors’ more forthright advocates took the trouble to observe, from a naivety, diffidence and ambivalence which were essential to the character for which society had schooled middle and upper-class women but which ill fitted the stance that the SFA proposed for them as productive artists. Therefore, to succeed as makers of fine art – as opposed to needleworkers –, The Reader’s critic of the 1865 SFA exhibition challenged: “Are our fair countrywomen prepared to make the sacrifice of much that is held to be, with us at least, an integral part of the feminine character?” (Anonymous l). The personal was political (as the 20th century women’s movement later had it), for

to do any good whatever in either of the two principal divisions of this art of painting, a young lady would have to place herself in direct antagonism, not only to society, but to her own conscience, and that parental authority which enforces the laws of society, of which it is in every house the lieutenant and the representative, the arm and the instrument. (Hamerton 357)

28Thus was a fundamental contrast between the making of painting, sculpture and watercolours and the kinds of productive manual work that their society was happier to allocate to mid-Victorian women discerned by those commenting on the SFA exhibitions. Both conservatives and progressives saw needlework, whether paid or discretionary, with its absorption in repetitive work and with a purely domestic destination, standing for the housebound role that women of all classes were schooled in the Victorian climate to treasure. Both realised that fine art, meanwhile, should move in the wider world, reflecting on what it was to be human and aspiring to disinterested pleasures of the highest sort. Accordingly, in the rhetoric of sexual difference to which the anti-feminist clung, where needlework was often cited as the singularly appropriate way for proper women to occupy their time, whether the labour was paid or unpaid, women’s art was deprecated as a misconceived effort. This thinking seemed to be confirmed when domestic needlework became a compulsory school subject for girls in 1862. Sewing, then, for feminist and anti-feminist alike, equalled acquiescence in the status quo, and fine art resistance or challenge thereto.

29Throughout this discourse, the large question for all was, how should women be occupied in modern Britain? Categorised by patriarchy as a discrete group but stratified in contemporary life by social class, age and marital status, women’s role and rights were to remain an object of debate for the rest of the century. Those who were embarrassed by the oppression of the working seamstress that spearheaded the debate could still be found thoughtlessly eulogising the enduring merit of sewing as woman’s destiny. “Woman never seems so much in her element as when she has a needle and thread in her hands,” wrote a Leisure Hour author in 1854 on the topic of what women should do with their abilities and time:

We naturally expect to find her assisting the tailor and the cap-maker, binding shoes and sewing gloves, retained by the upholsterer, and finishing off the work of the hatter. Over every article of female attire it is but right she should reign supreme; and a passing thought of its infinite variety will convince us how much ingenuity and how many hands must be employed in its details. The stay-maker, the milliner, and the mantua-maker, are all separate departments, subject in many instances to subdivisions […]. (“Woman’s Industry” 451)

30While conservatives loved to return to sewing in the face of innovation in women’s work; politician William Archer-Shee, fulminating in his diary about the success of the women’s rights movement in opening new occupations to women in the mid-sixties, wrote:

The hospitals and the medical schools are alike thrown open to them, and instead of the distaff or the knitting-needle, they will in future be found wielding the scalpel and the dissecting-knife. (298)

31Hostile commentators on the SFA such as Punch and the Athenaeum were implicitly asking, why was needlework not enough for women? and furthermore, why couldn’t they stay in their place? In this way these commentators showed that the Society of Female Artists offered a challenge to the elaborate construction of sexual difference in which Victorian Britain invested so much – a construction in which needlework was a potent touchstone of the version of womanhood that would remain under attack for decades to come.

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1 To view the 1846 version of the painting, see:

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Pamela GERRISH NUNN, « The Needle and the Brush: A Victorian Drama », E-rea [En ligne], 16.1 | 2018, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2018, consulté le 16 octobre 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.6661

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Independent scholar, Wellington, New Zealand
Pamela Gerrish Nunn has been a historian of women’s art in Victorian Britain for many years, with many ground-breaking publications and exhibitions to her credit. Her career began in Britain in the late 1970s but since 1989 she has lived and worked in New Zealand, teaching at the University of Canterbury for 20 years. Her most recent book and exhibition (2017) concern Frances Hodgkins (1869-1947), New Zealand’s most famous historical artist.

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