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Converging Lines: Needlework in English Literature and Visual Arts
II/ Connecting Fibres

“She who would refine the fabric:” Contexts for Reading the Embroidering and Writing of Florence Farr and Una Taylor



Cet article porte sur Florence Farr et Una Taylor, deux brodeuses dont le travail fut publié dans la série des « Keynotes » parue dans les années 1890, et il examine la pratique de la broderie dans le contexte du mouvement Arts and Crafts tel qu’il apparaît dans une autre publication de John Lane datant des années 1890, Le livre jaune. A travers l’analyse des images et des textes de cette revue, il s’agit d’explorer les liens entre le mouvement esthétique et la broderie, activité devenue de plus en plus populaire à partir des années 1870. Au cours de cette étude sont abordés les écrits de Lucy Crane, Rhoda et Agnes Garette et Janey Campbell qui attestent l’importance de la broderie d’art au sein du mouvement Arts and Crafts tout autant que dans l’évolution du mouvement esthétique. En regard de cette évolution, le travail de brodeuse de Florence Farr et d’Una Taylor, qui gravitèrent autour de l’entreprise familiale de William Morris, est rapproché des écrits de William Morris qui semblent à la fois remettre en cause les mœurs établies et conserver un attachement au ritualisme et au médiévalisme. Ces deux positions apparemment contradictoires peuvent être vues comme anticipant les débats qui eurent lieu au début du vingtième siècle concernant la fonction de la littérature et de la broderie.

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1. Introduction

1In the later 1880s, Florence Farr and Una Taylor both worked as embroiderers for May Morris. They did so whilst pursuing other careers: Farr as an actress, theatre producer and esoteric writer; Una as a novelist, journalist and social entrepreneur. In the 1890s they each contributed volumes to John Lane’s avant-garde “Keynotes” series, in which the inclusion of cover designs by Aubrey Beardsley would “mark the impact of the Aesthetic movement on the publishing industry” (Casteras and Peterson 44). In this series, Farr’s novel The Dancing Faun (1894) provided a satirical portrayal of contemporary high society and the theatrical world whilst Taylor’s Nets for the Wind (1896) contained a collection of her faux-medieval short-stories. Despite their very different content, both texts can be best understood in the context of contemporary representations of embroidering and its importance within both the Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic movements. In examining that context this essay will highlight contradictions in contemporary representations of embroidering that are also apparent in Farr’s and Taylor’s different literary allusions to its creation.

2. The Yellow Book

2In 1894, the same year that his “Keynotes” series appeared, Lane also began publication of The Yellow Book. Given the opprobrium that greeted its first appearance, readers might have been surprised to find uncontroversial images of female embroiderers depicted as they worked to “refine the fabric” of men “framed of grosser clay” in subsequent issues (The Yellow Book 4.63). Nonetheless, in both the visual and literary content of the magazine, embroidery was associated as much with the depiction of conventionally respectable lifestyles as it was with a questioning of female identity or with an expression of aestheticism that might be seen as potentially transgressive and even decadent.

3Both associations can be seen, for example, in Patten Wilson’s plate “A Penelope” from July 1895 (6.87). This depicts the Homeric wife of Odysseus as a 19th century embroiderer, adapting more traditional representations of her prolonging her weaving of the winding sheet for her father-in-law as a means of delaying any remarriage (Hall 238). The female figure here is seen in profile, wearing a contemporary dress sporting peacock feather motifs and embroidered cuffs, her hair swept up and braided around a tapestry band. Seated on a mediaeval style dais seat next to a foregrounded lily pond, the weeds on the stones at her feet indicate the long wait she has endured for her reputedly dead husband to return. Positioned close to the water’s edge with a prominent sailing boat dominating the background behind her large embroidery frame, this Penelope is shown in the process of passing a stitch through the embroidery on which the viewer perceives a developing organic flower like form. Patten’s representation of her as engaged in a suitable occupation to fill her empty hours is comfortably familiar. At the same time the image carries a sexual undertone in its depiction of the needle entering the flower. It is also somewhat unsettling in its placing of Penelope outside a conventionally safe domestic sphere. Her intense absorption in the task underlines the apparently aesthetic rather than funereal motive of her work, whilst the image’s Homeric association, in which the activity itself becomes a means of preserving her independence, compounds these aesthetic with implied feminist priorities. In this way the image is redolent of female embroiderers of the Arts and Crafts movement such as Farr and Taylor.

4Charles Gere’s “Hermia and Helena” from April 1896 also has a somewhat unsettling effect (9.141). In it the two Shakespearean girls sit closely together in similar knee length velvet dresses, embroidered cuffs, high-necked collars and necklaces or pearls. Their niche seat appears to be made of marble in an early Renaissance style, a small amount of a wall-hanging being visible above their heads. They embroider a shared piece and at their feet is a small, square box with implements for sewing or painting and a leaning feather duster, suggesting a combination of artistic and domestic imperatives. Both girls look directly and intensely at the viewer, as if disturbed by the viewer in an intimate and private moment, in a way that makes the act of joining a familiar domestic scene not an entirely comfortable one and which matches the disquieting atmosphere evoked by Taylor’s stories published in “Keynotes” in the same year.

  • 1 H. B. Marriott Watson was the common-law husband of Rosamund Marriot Watson whose book on interior (...)

5Both Patten’s and Gere’s close relationship to the Arts and Crafts movement may explain their choice of subject, given the variety of female aspirations associated with both ecclesiastical and secular embroidery by the mid-1890s. These complexities are equally apparent in the representation of embroidery in the literary content of The Yellow Book. The decadence associated with its infamous yellow covers represented for some observers “the glare of Hell” (Thain 14). In contrast the male protagonist of H. B. Marriott Watson’s story, “The House of Shame,” returns home to reflect on the softening effect of yellow when it is part of a domestic interior design. As he notices “the yellow fabric of the distant curtains, gleaming softly in the lamp-light,” they become a metaphor for the moral benefit of feminine influence when he considers how “Letty stood for what was noble in his narrow life; she invited him upon a high ideal way. If he were framed of grosser clay, it was she who would refine the fabric” (The Yellow Book 4.63).1 In this way the story exploits a familiar link between sewing, the domestic interior and the nurturing female. This is a recurrent theme elsewhere in The Yellow Book. John Oliver Hobbes and George Moore’s play The Fool’s Hour from the first issue, uses it to comic effect. When the father reminds the rebellious son that his mother “worked with her own hands” the silk hangings in his bedroom, he chafes: “I am not ungrateful, but I cannot see much of the world through my mother’s embroidery” (1.271). In both these examples, sewing and the decorative embroidery produced by it are associated with domestic comfort and separation from danger, but also with the limitation of women’s opportunity to the domestic sphere within which it offers what is deemed to be suitable unpaid employment. If the temptation of an alternative way of life exists, then embroidery offers a means to resist it. In Netta Syrett’s story “The Heart’s Desire” (1894), the married female protagonist is depicted as seeking to brighten her temporary home, although her “eyes wondered from the gay silks of the table-cover she was embroidering to the canvas walls” of her Persian tent (2.231). In this story embroidery becomes a distraction from any acknowledgement of potentially immoral sexual desire on the part of the female protagonist who prevents her potential lover, Broadhurst, from declaring his passion by asking him to fetch her work (2.245). Similarly, in Syrett’s later work, “Far Above Rubies” (1897), the female protagonist rouses herself from torpor when she hears her husband returning from his outdoor country pursuits, collecting her “embroidered work book,” extracting “a strip of needlework” and being bent “over its intricate meshes with an absorbed air, before the door opened” (12.256). In both cases, embroidery highlights the shift between male and female, public and private spheres. The shift involves the persistence of a rejection by the female characters of any “other” and so unfamiliar world of female existence.

6As will be discussed, such persistence is challenged by Farr and by Taylor, though in different ways. The Eastern embroidery of The Dancing Faun is associated with decadence and the overturning of social norms in the novel. With Taylor, any transgression lies in the creation of the phantasmagorical, dreamlike stories of Nets for the Wind, with their allusions to the mythical and medieval at a far remove from the mundane domesticity of plain sewing. Such a challenging of the link between embroidery and the familiar status quo was also evident in turn within The Yellow Book. In Victoria Cross’s “Theodora, a Fragment” (1895), for example, the narrator’s erotic involvement with Theodora leads him to dress her somewhat androgynously in “a blue silk Zouave, covered with gold embroidery” and he kisses her when she assumes a masculine identity by donning a fez “embroidered with gold” (4.183). This golden embroidery and the transgressive implications of her dressing up in male accessories are far from the everyday and the domestic, as is the woman who wears it. Here what is considered to be exotic and erotic is represented playfully; as in The Dancing Faun wit and wealth overcome any serious consequences that might arise from a lack of moral probity. In Vernon Lee’s “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady” (1896), the power of the past and the dangerous beauty of the Snake Lady in tapestry form, dominate the fictional present in a more Gothic treatment of otherness (10.313). This is closer to Taylor’s treatment of the power of the past over characters such as the young Ivette in “Black Snow” whose experience at one point is compared to that of “a fantastic dream, a familiar scene transfigured into a mad grotesque” (Nets for the Wind 111).

7Both Cross’s and Lee’s stories from The Yellow Book, explore male sexuality through reference to the woven or embroidered textiles that are central to their narratives and through which they may be seen to have created a “conversation about gender roles in art and life” (Stetz and Lasner 44). As professional embroiderers and “Keynotes” writers, Farr’s and Taylor’s circle overlapped with what Evelyn Sharp, herself a contributor to The Yellow Book and the “Keynotes” series, described as a “charmed circle of authors and poets and artists” within which that conversation could continue amongst women writers of the mid-1890s (Harris 1407).

3. Aesthetic Embroidery

8The careers of Florence Farr and Una Taylor are best understood in the context of embroidery’s increasing status within an aesthetic agenda from the mid-1870s onwards. The different emphases already explored in relation to The Yellow Book’s treatment of embroidery demonstrate the continued significance of two versions of the aesthetic ideal emerging from later Pre-Raphaelitism; the one epitomised in Pater’s invocation of an amoral and individualistic aspiration to “the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for art’s sake,” the other revealed in Ruskin’s vision of a collective desire for beauty driven by a “determined demand for the products and results of healthy and ennobling labour” and representing that “very different branch of aestheticism” that “had been developing in Britain before Swinburne introduced Gautier’s ideals” (Pater 212-13; Ruskin in Golby 172; Denisoff 35). The influence of both aspects can be found in what Talia Schaffer has identified as “Aestheticism’s emphasis on careful description of beautiful objects, its nostalgia for more art-conscious times, and its careful and visible crafting” (49). These elements in writing were also relevant to the development of needlework “as an Aesthetic activity through which women could beautify the home” (Calloway and Orr 142). This, in turn, became linked to philanthropic educational schemes and to the desire of middle class women to obtain economic independence. Women aesthetic writers who were also embroiderers could be seen as demonstrating “an engagement in contemporary theoretical and practical debate about art forms of all kinds” (Spirit x). Through this, they showed a propensity to reinterpret the past, whether through Farr’s esotericism or Taylor’s medievalism, and to engage in debate about contemporary society, whether through satire as with Farr or through the Celtic revival as with Taylor.

  • 2 Lucy Crane was a writer and translator of children’s stories in collaboration with her brother Walt (...)

9By 1882, when Lucy Crane’s Art, and the Formation of Taste was published posthumously, the Aesthetic movement was well established in contemporary art, architecture and design and subject to mockery for its perceived obsession with promulgating beauty.2 Crane acknowledged the satirised version of aestheticism, “lavished in Punch and elsewhere on a supposed group of aesthetically minded people, who are described as living only for Art, and expressing themselves in a highly foolish, affected, and melancholy manner” (26). Crane herself deplored the current “lavish” use of the word “art” as an unnecessary and confusing tendency designed to raise the status of all artistic activities, arguing that “‘Art-decoration’, ‘Art-embroidery’, and the like, are tautological expressions. If such things exist at all, they must of necessity be Art” (1-2). What Crane identified as affectation was also a distraction from her own version of aestheticism, heavily influenced by the works of John Ruskin and William Morris, as “an art of simplicity, of cheerfulness and brightness […] a help to good and healthy living” (37). The lack of affectation was identified as a crucial quality for both professional writers and needlewomen by Crane. For an “accomplished needlewoman” this meant the rejection of any “highly ornamented and tasselled work-basket with its tinselled implements” (28-29).

10In commenting specifically on the subject of embroidery this high value placed on simplicity is apparent again. Just as Crane advocated harmony between colours within interior design, she underlined the need for the nature of needlework to suit its intended setting and use within the home, following the injunction from Morris that “nothing is ornamental unless it is also really useful” (Crane 29). Three key themes emerge in Crane’s commentary: that to count as an art form, embroidery must allow its creator to decide upon all aspects of the work so that if the embroiderer does not create the original design they must at least select and arrange it; that the best designs modify accepted patterns, including those of oriental origins, such as Indian or Japanese and that embroidery must celebrate flatness of patterning and avoid any attempt to create naturalistic illusion of depth (142-43; 147; 143).

11These ideas reflected both the growing popularity of embroidery for use in the home as an aesthetic occupation and its concomitant development as a commercial activity in which women engaged, and which they promoted, in a number of ways. In her lectures, Crane had acknowledged her debt to the promotion afforded by the Macmillan “Art at Home” series published between 1876 and 1883 in which four out of the five books on home decoration were written by women (Calloway and Orr 130). She had highlighted her debt to Elizabeth Glaister whose jointly authored Art Embroidery had been published in 1878, followed, in 1880, by her contribution to the “Art at Home” series; Needlework. Here, Glaister had declared her aim to provide “suggestions for the practice and use of good decorative needlework at home” (2). Like Crane, Glaister was exercised about the usefulness of “Art Needlework” as a term, but advocated that the use of “skill and thought must be evident in it” if needlework were to be seen as a work of art (2). Design was therefore seen as important alongside skilful execution and Glaister recommended a visit to the Royal School of Art Needlework in Kensington, or its new branch at Glasgow, or to the newly established Decorative Needlework Society in Gower Street for finding a suitable design to adopt (6).

12The Royal School of Art Needlework, as it became known in 1875, had been founded in 1872 with the aim of “restoring Ornamental Needlework for secular purposes, to the high place it once held among decorative arts, and to supply suitable employment for poor gentlewomen” (B. Morris 113). The school held regular exhibitions of work produced by female embroiderers to designs produced by male designers. There was a close association between the school and the firm of Morris and Co., formed in 1875 (Cluckie 65). For example, Jane Morris’s sister Elizabeth Burden taught there in the 1870s (B. Morris 96). By 1875, when Liberty’s also opened and became a place to purchase embroidery, the RSAN had 100 workers (B. Morris 113). It was one of several ventures to offer training and employment to potential embroiderers and also to promote embroidery through the printing of books and other materials associated with the craft.

4. Decorative Home

13At that time the execution of interior decoration, as well as the publication of books catering for public interest in recently revived fashions in the decorative arts, accompanied the emergence of an eclectic architecture identified with the Aesthetic movement. From the mid-1870s the Queen Anne style became popular in the newly developed residential areas of London’s Embankment and Chelsea. The architects Richard Norman Shaw and Edward William Godwin were instrumental in using a style that many saw as standing “between the classical and Gothic,” to design houses suitable for those seeking to live in an “artistic neighbourhood” (Casteras and Denney 32-33; Girouard 93). One such resident of Chelsea was James McNeill Whistler whose newly built house and studio became a gathering point for aesthetes. Whistler’s friend, Janey Sevilla Campbell described the room as the epitome of the aesthetic ideal: a place where “Beauty for Beauty’s sake has been the beginning and sole end desired” (12). The decorative arts were linked in this way to a wider aesthetic agenda encompassing all art forms. Campbell was to create her own extraordinary décor on a sea theme at her Beaufort Gardens home in London, reportedly incorporating “a coloured fish net […] dangled shells of mother of pearl, silver fish and green seaweed” into her design (Wake 206).

14Whilst such extravagant and extraordinary effects were not necessarily recommended by those advising the wider public on matters of household taste, Campbell’s use of musical terminology in describing the common effects across the arts that she wished to generate, for example “harmony” and “composition,” resonated with Crane’s earlier “principles of harmony in colour” and her overarching principles of “Analogy, Contrast, Variety, Delicacy, Repetition” for all decorative Arts (Campbell 4-5; Crane 113).

15In the same year that Whistler’s Peacock room was completed and the building of the aesthetic suburb of Bedford Park commenced, the Garretts’ Suggestions for House Decoration in Painting, Woodwork and Furniture appeared in the “Art at Home” series and was to become its best-selling volume (Joannou and Nicholson 147). In it the Garetts championed the Queen Anne style and promoted both their own ideals and products. They had founded their own business in Art Decoration in 1875 and were to open their showroom close to Tottenham Court Road in 1879. As Jouannou and Nicholson have commented, in looking back to the 18th century for their inspiration, the Garretts advocated a simplicity and quietness of colour that contrasted with busier and gaudier previous décor (Jouannou and Nicholson 148). Their instruction to “Never go out of your way to make a thing of a material look like what it is not” (17) inculcated the sense of restraint and lack of affectation later echoed in the work of Crane. They also anticipated Crane in their rejection of textile designs that they deemed too naturalistic, arguing that surfaces should be “treated decoratively and not pictorially” and not “naturally shaded and coloured” (44). Instead the Garretts recommended as exemplars the flat ornamental art “from Persia, Japan, and other oriental nations”, despite the recent detrimental European influence on them to “introduce mauve and magenta into their textile fabrics” (44-5). In writing about embroidery, the Garetts called for a middle ground between designs that were stylised beyond all recognition of the original natural form on which they were based and designs that “endeavour to make pictures in embroidery” and which “mutilate the art of embroidery by vainly endeavouring to produce exact representations of natural objects in needlework” (81).

16The principles advocated by the Garretts fostered those of the aesthetes and augmented their interest in embroidery. Writing an account of the community of Bedford Park in the early 1880s in The Aesthetic Movement, Walter Hamilton described his visit to the suburb’s Chiswick School of Art. He commented favourably on the variety of decorative arts being taught alongside painting and noted that new subjects would soon be added, including classes in “Art needlework” (153). Hamilton’s defence of the Aesthetic movement confirmed a public awareness of an aesthetic style only compounded by press lampooning (99).

17One of the lampooning Punch cartoons of the period also suggested the particular significance of art embroidery for its readers. Edward Linley Sambourne’s cartoon from June 14th 1879, “Sweet Little Buttercup or Art Embroidery,” depicts a young woman whose dress and hat are emblazoned with bold embroidered flowers and leaves. She holds a mirror in her hand and is pictured immediately in front of a large florally decorated fan with outsized embroidery scissors and thimble at her feet. She is surrounded by an admiring range of anthropomorphically depicted animals and insects, presumably attracted by the abundant flowers of her meadow-like dress. One of the rabbits gazing up at the dress has a speech bubble declaring “The Harebell’s my form.” The girl stands on a carpet of what appear to be sewing instructions. The reader can make out the heading “School of Art mbroi.” Other boxes can be discerned surrounding her, including one that reads “Pattern […] Morris and […].” The images and her narcissistic gazing into the mirror suggest the popularity of embroidery as a part of fashion and as a recognised obsession on the part of young women by the end of the 1870s. Such parodic representations did little to diminish the interest in interior design and decoration typified by the success of Mary Haweis’s Beautiful Houses with its declared subject matter of “houses […] which are typical of certain minds, and arranged with exquisite feeling”, published in the same year as Crane’s lectures and Hamilton’s book (Calloway and Orr 93).

18This fascination with homes and home decoration continued into the 1880s as aesthetic style and aspirations continued to set a context for women writers and embroiderers, exemplified by the group of women working for May Morris who, from 1885, was in charge of the embroidery department of Morris and Co. Interest in embroidery was evident in the popularity of embroidery exhibitions and in journal articles. Oscar Wilde, for example, contributed a review of Ernest Lefébure’s book Embroidery and Lace: Their Manufacture and History, recently translated by Alan Cole, to the November 1888 number of Woman’s World of which he was then the editor. In it Wilde identified improvements in English embroidery resulting from the work of May Morris as well as that of Catherine Holiday and the “South Kensington School of Embroidery” (Stokes and Turner 89). Whilst celebrating the European woman as “sovereign in the domain of art-needlework” and agreeing with Cole that these female productions should be “placed on the same level” as “painting, engraving, and sculpture”, Wilde nonetheless maintained a distinction between the decorative arts, equated with female endeavour, and the “imaginative arts,” by implication equated with male creativity (Stokes and Turner 88-89). In October of the same year, George Bernard Shaw also recorded his admiration for the embroidery of May Morris in his review of the first Arts and Crafts Exhibition. Like Wilde, Shaw acknowledged the artistic potential of embroidery whilst still reminding his reader of the monotony associated with a female occupation that, by implication, separated it from what should be seen as male creativity. May Morris, Shaw commented, was “the only one who quite overcomes that consciousness of the horrible tediousness of the process” (B. Morris 111).

19By the time of Shaw’s and Wilde’s reviews, May Morris had gathered around her a group of female embroiderers whose intellectual and cultural aspirations were to prove diverse and which included Florence Farr and Una Taylor (Cluckie 84). In the late 1880s the actress Florence Farr had separated from her husband Edward Emery and was living with her older sister Henrietta and brother-in-law Henry Paget in the aesthetic community of Bedford Park where she both studied and practised needlework to supplement her income. As well as knowing May’s other assistants, Lily Yeats and Mary de Morgan, it seems highly likely that there she would have met Una Taylor who was May Morris’s great friend (Marsh 168; Helland 40).

20Certainly, as a frequent visitor to Morris’s home, Farr became part of a network of visiting artists and writers. One of these visitors was W.B. Yeats with whom she was to collaborate in formulating what she was later to describe as “Bardic Art”, a way of speaking verse to music, for which, she recalled, Arnold Dolmetcsch “invented” for her “a musical instrument sympathetic to the speaking voice, calling it a psaltery” (Music and Speech 1). Also at Bedford Park, she met and began an affair with George Bernard Shaw who was subsequently to become May’s lover. In 1890 several pieces partly embroidered by her were being exhibited in the Arts and Crafts Exhibition at the New Gallery organised by Walter Crane (Marsh 170). It was also in 1890 that she and Yeats were initiated into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Farr was to pursue her career as an actress, in 1891 playing the part of Rebecca in the first English performance of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm with its themes of repressed sexual desire and suicide. She also worked as a producer, notably of the first English production of Wilde’s Salomé in 1905. Farr’s work alongside May Morris thus provided her with additional financial independence after the end of her marriage and gave her further entrées into the worlds she would inhabit in her roles as embroiderer and writer with interests in the theatre, in feminism and in the occult.

5. Farr and the Moorish Mode

21The inclusion of Farr’s The Dancing Faun as the second volume of John Lane’s “Keynotes” gives an indication of the satirical fiction’s avant-garde credentials. Its subject matter – the intersection between the world of high society and the world of the theatre in contemporary London– underlines those credentials. The novel concentrates on the fate of two young women, the actress Gracie, whose husband Travers, interpreted by Greer as a fictional representation of Shaw, wishes to exploit her and also to exploit the upper-class female character, Geraldine (Greer 130). Geraldine falls in love with Travers in his assumed role and eventually kills him when he will not abscond with her in a story that invites comparisons to Ibsen’s plays, notably Hedda Gabler which had first been performed in England in 1891. In Farr’s fiction, however, the woman makes use of her inherited pistols to kill her unwilling lover rather than herself, becoming a femme fatale rather than victim. In a reversal of what might be the conventional resolution there are no consequences for Geraldine and she becomes a confidant of Gracie who is now free to develop her career without the controlling Travers.

22Much of the novel is taken up by dialogue which is full of “epigrammatic effects” reminiscent of Wilde’s comedic plays (Wotton 3). Scenes are played out against a range of typical settings: Ascot; Cowes week; and the male preserves of theatre, club and gambling room, but chiefly in the drawing room, a place of meeting between male and female worlds and which is described by one of the male characters as “such an inconceivably uninteresting space” (The Dancing Faun 5). Embroidery is specifically included, not as part of such conventional settings, but as aligned with the duplicitous double life of Travers who is staying at the grand house of his apparent friend and patron Guaschaci where he installs Gracie in a separate cottage on the estate to maintain his appearance of bachelorhood. The narrator describes the big house thus:

The walls were hung with dull grey material, and decorated with strips and borders of faded Eastern embroidery. Guaschaci certainly knew how to do things well. There was not another man in England for whose decorations Travers felt he could have brought himself to take responsibility. (The Dancing Faun 41)

23The association created between the missing foreigner, the duplicitous Travers and Eastern embroidery provokes the reader’s sense of moral dubiousness, but also an admiration for Guaschaci’s connoisseurship and the elegance of the house which is much admired by its upper-class visitors who declare the house to be “a perfect gem of exquisite taste” (The Dancing Faun 32).

24The décor à la mode is in keeping with what Barbara Morris terms the “vogue for ‘Moorish’ schemes of interior decoration” with accoutrements “imported in large quantities by Liberty and Co.” and a subsequent need for “embroidery to match” either to be purchased ready-made or to be worked according to increasingly available patterns (B. Morris 138). Whilst Farr was working on her novel, an influential collection of essays had been published to coincide with the 1893 Arts and Crafts Exhibition that included contributions by May Morris who had also published Decorative Needlework in that same year. In his essay on textiles, the book’s editor, William Morris, had highlighted the need to create beautiful ornamentation of cloth, “more especially as the exuberance of beauty of the work of the East […] is at hand to reproach us” (Arts and Crafts Essays 34). In addition, exotic “Jewelled” embroidery had already become popular from the late 1880s for trimming dresses and for the creation of small objects, proving sufficiently attractive to merit the publication of a series about the incorporation of imitation jewels, gold thread and tinsel in Weldon’s Practical Needlework of 1887 (B. Morris 163).

25For all Guaschaci’s expensive and elegant décor appropriated by Travers as the backdrop to his flirtation with Geraldine, Farr’s story reminds us that the house is just as much for show as is the cheaper orientalism of jewelled embroidery, or the fetishizing of Eastern embroidery represented in The Yellow Book story by Victoria Cross mentioned earlier. The allusion to embroidery in The Dancing Faun is unsettling by its association with the acceptance that appearances are more important than substance. Travers is content to exploit the appearance of wealth and taste, but ultimately it is his murderer Geraldine who benefits from an apparent innocence sustained by those who know of her guilt, but choose not to act upon it.

  • 3 Farr’s friendship through embroidery with Lily Yeats may well have extended to the creation of embr (...)

26Despite, or perhaps because of the novel being advertised as the “most cynical sensation story of the season” on its reissue, Farr continued to work as an embroiderer to supplement her annual inherited allowance of £50 a year and her income as an actress and producer (Modern Women 95). By the time the novel had been published Farr had risen within the Golden Dawn to the high office of praemonstrator of London’s Isis-Urania Temple and was to become chief adept in 1897 (Hyde). Greer notes that Farr “gladly accepted an embroidery commission from Frederick Garner, a relatively new but enthusiastic Golden dawn member” (Greer 152).3

6. Taylor and Medievalism

27A similar combination of commercial and artistic visions are also to be found in the work of Una Taylor who shared a home in Montpelier Square, London with her sister Ida where they “received their many friends and conducted a literary salon, of which the characteristic notes were intellectual interest and Irish warm-heartedness” (The Times 18). Una was part of a family with well-established literary connections. Her father was, amongst other things, a well-regarded poet who had been photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron, a family friend. Through Una’s mother’s cousin, Aubrey de Vere, the family was connected to the Celtic revival as well as to the Home Industries movement in which Una herself was to play her part. Both Una’s two older sisters also became writers. Eleanor continued writing novels after her marriage under the pseudonym Eleanor Towle. Ida and Una both became novelists and periodical contributors during the 1880s. Ida went on to become a biographer of women whilst Una developed her career as an embroiderer and contributed articles to the Edinburgh Review on Burne-Jones, William Morris and D.G. Rossetti during the 1890s (Spirit 299). She also wrote medieval style fictions, a collection of which appeared as Nets for the Wind in the “Keynotes” series in 1896, its short “sketches” being advertised in a subsequent “Keynotes” publication as “wild, fantastic, and full of dreamy sadness” (Fletcher 13).

28Earlier novels produced by Ida and Una have contemporary settings and deal with the consequences of unhappy marriages. Both make reference to unconventional lifestyles and to aesthetic stereotypes and tastes. In Ida’s Venus’ Doves (1884) the artist character Vereker eschews any foppish artistic dress “having, indeed, a certain horror of the long hair and general picturesqueness usually ascribed to the brethren of his craft” (I. A. Taylor 1 14-5). In Una’s Wayfarers (1886), the avant-garde actress Miss Grey is equated with her meagre, but nonetheless aesthetically arranged, lodgings where embroidery as well as the inevitable ceramics and scented flowers are associated with the risqué female occupation of smoking:

Everything around testified to the love of beauty, colour and comfort […] Pieces of vivid coloured needlework […] A bowl of coarse china, filled with daffodils and wallflowers […] their fragrance overpowering, or at least rendering indistinguishable, the equally pervasive odour of a lately smoked cigarette.’ (Wayfarers 1.66-68)

29Una’s own embroidery took her in different directions. From 1888 she exhibited at the Arts and Crafts Exhibitions in London (Parry 147) alongside work by May Morris and from the Donegal Industrial Fund (B. Morris 120). This Fund had been founded by Alice Hart in 1883 to promote both Celtic embroidery and weaving, reviving cottage industries to provide decent employment for women. Her colleague, Una, provided instruction in needlework sufficient to allow the Fund to compete with other art embroidery such as that being produced by Morris and Co., under May’s direction. Una, as a close friend of May’s “thus connected Donegal House securely to the world of the Arts and Crafts movement” (Helland 40). Hart opened a shop in London selling the products from Donegal and particularly advocated the revival of Kells embroidery (B. Morris 118). A revived interest in Kells embroidery was exemplified by the publication of an illustrated pattern in The Woman’s World under Wilde’s editorship, its typical designs showing “curious dragons and writhing serpents, combined with typical Celtic interlaced ornament” (B. Morris 119). By the 1890s, Una Taylor’s association with Kells embroidery could be seen as running contrary to the tastes of those who eschewed its revival as “only reflect[ing] the reflection of dead periods” (W. Morris 408). Her contributions to Arts and Crafts exhibitions however suggested that she found no contradiction between her part in reviving Kells and her pursuit of embroidery that reflected an engagement with contemporary political activism and a continuing fascination with the production of art embroidery. She embroidered, to Walter Crane’s design, the Irish National Banner signed by Charles Stewart Parnell that was exhibited in 1890. In 1893 she embroidered panels to designs by Heywood Sumner for A Midsummer Night’s Dream which were described as “fantastic” by Studio (Helland 40). In 1895 the Donegal Fund’s contributions to the first Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society of Ireland included Una’s embroidery in silk of “The Fates” designed by Elinor Hallé (Helland 63).

30Such mythological, literary and symbolic subjects aligned with Una’s later fiction which evoked pasts and presents re-imagined through archaic settings, images and language and in which she seemed to step away from direct commentary on contemporary political or artistic issues. These fictions nonetheless retain a sense of earnestness in their references to embroidery. In 1887, for example, the production of “skilled embroideries and kindred arts of gold and silver blazonings” is associated with some of the women “devoted to the personal attendance of the Queen … a small and silent company, their very demeanour and the fashion of their dress distinguishing them from the larger number of their less serious companions” (The City of Sarras 81).

31In The Kings Favourite from 1892 the former glory of medievalism is represented in the “remnant of tattered banners and frayed pennons” and the symbolic threads between which the character Rohan must choose “one here, smooth, even, and fair,” the other “frayed, and worn – here gold gleaming, and there tarnished; here twisted blue and scarlet, there stained and discoloured, sombre with the tints of decay, or defiled with leprous yellow” (1.19; 1.64). Embroidery is associated with figures depicted as living in some indeterminate past who in turn contemplate a now abandoned time of ritual. The character Prospero recalls “a lovely delineation of painted saint, in silken embroidered robe”, but also envisages the beauty of that older image as reborn in that of a “living girl, clothed in uncomely dress of coarsest serge,” offering perhaps the hope of a medievalism reborn through the reinvention of embroidery rather than mere replication of design (1.168).

32The pennons of 1892 recur in “The Crazy Pilgrim,” one of the short stories published in the later “Keynotes” volume Nets for the Wind (1896). Here, as in The King’s Favourite, the pennons are described as the remnants of a golden age, “some frayed and war-stained”, on the bare wall of a ruined castle now defended only by “the queen sat upon the high seat […] left to bear the crown and yield the sceptre” (Nets for the Wind 211). In another story in the 1896 collection, “The Knight of the Blesséd,” the production of embroidery is again associated with nostalgia for the “golden days” of medieval chivalry. Reference is made to women’s ownership of the process of twisting flax and using natural dyes such as “the blue of cornflowers” before the weaving of it “with silver thread and gold” and the embroidering of it “with scarlet and green” (87). Against this setting, the story depicts a chivalric knight who has vowed his faithfulness to Mary so that “on his banner, wrought in needlework, he bore her name,” and by whom he is rewarded because, whilst he breaks his vow by kissing and reviving an earthly woman, he does so only out of compassion and not out of lust (88).

33With their ethereal quality, symbolism and faux-medievalism, the stories of Nets for the Wind evoke a sense of some alternative older world of certainty, but remain phantasmagorical. They only hint at possibilities, as if the author both recognises and resists in her text the potential to commit the folly of the female character in “A Scarlet Shadow,” who looks on life as a religion so that “to her it was a single thread, not a complex web.” The narrator identifies any such simplification as “a danger for woman [...] the vital essence of fanaticism” (68-9).

34As the title of the book also suggests, female integrity may then be shown by the manipulation of the web, a term familiar to its readers as representative of embroidery with its rich connections and multiple possibilities for women. The reader is reminded of that “net” of canvas detailed by May Morris as appropriate for embroidery alongside her discussion of suitable fabric for the laying on of a pre-decorative “web” (W. Morris 365-72). In Taylor’s stories, however, the metaphorical nets seem to be empty and to anticipate sadness rather than any permanent artistic or romantic fulfilment for their characters. The association they generate is with the moment of aesthetic frisson whose strength lies in the transient intensity of that “image of ours […] a design in a web, the actual threads of which pass out beyond it,” but which remains elusive for writer, characters and reader (Pater 208).

7. Conclusion

35This paper’s brief discussion of the “nets” of later 19th century embroidery has highlighted its significance as part of a developing Arts and Crafts and aesthetic culture from the 1870s to the 1890s and considered some ways in which embroidery provides insights into the varying characteristics of the works of two women writers associated with that culture. In particular, this essay has suggested ways in which embroidery reflects both the desire to rekindle an imputed creative idealism based on medievalism and the desire to challenge an existing status quo through the development of embroidery as an art form; its impact stretching beyond the domestic and insular to the world of work and the exotic temporal or spatial “other.”

36Increasing recognition of these works continues of course and with it the recovery of threads of influence running from these women of the later 19th century to those of the twentieth. Those threads can be teased out through biography, for example in noting that the Taylor’s family friend, Julia Margaret Cameron, was Virginia Woolf’s aunt, but perhaps more importantly through the study of modernist literary engagement with embroidery for continuingly complex and experimental ends. To consider Florence Farr and Una Taylor is to remind ourselves of how embroidery represented conflicting aspirations by the 1890s. Out of these sometimes contradictory visual and verbal representations comes the beginning of new styles and the re-appropriation of women’s “work” by writers and embroiderers of the next century.

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1 H. B. Marriott Watson was the common-law husband of Rosamund Marriot Watson whose book on interior decoration, The Art of the House (1897), poked fun at what she regarded as a popularised aesthetic style which she associated with over ornamentation as represented in “those multitudinous relatives of the chair-back [...] that female fingers have assiduously covered with ‘art’ broiderie and bedevilments of every conceivable fancy” (155).

2 Lucy Crane was a writer and translator of children’s stories in collaboration with her brother Walter, who was to be included in the 1888 edition of the Dictionary of National Biography as the only woman designated an “art critic” (Stephen 10-11).

3 Farr’s friendship through embroidery with Lily Yeats may well have extended to the creation of embroidery for ritual use. Later, Lily’s experience of working for May Morris was influential on how she and her sister set up their own embroidery business as part of the Dun Emer Arts and Crafts co-operative (Hardwick 67, 119). As with Morris and Co., embroidery work was to run alongside a printing business. This commercial and artistic alliance between the printed word and the stitched fabric was represented by Yeats in “A Coat” with its association between the poetic persona, traditional stories, Arts and Crafts production and their coalescence in the Celtic twilight:
I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat (142)

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Jane SPIRIT, « “She who would refine the fabric:” Contexts for Reading the Embroidering and Writing of Florence Farr and Una Taylor », E-rea [En ligne], 16.1 | 2018, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2018, consulté le 14 octobre 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.6722

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Open University, United Kingdom
Jane Spirit has published on Walter Pater’s fiction and on modernist representations of Byzantium. She edited a volume on Oscar Wilde’s biography in 2005 and was general editor of The Women Aesthetes: British Writers 1850-1900 in 2013. Most recently she wrote on Florence Farr at

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