Julia Blackett – Needlepoint Heroine

Some of you might know that the other great love in my life after needlepoint, is visiting historic places. (I generally write about that from time to time on my other blog – Mostly Motley).

What practically makes me drool with excitement, is when I get to combine both passions.

This happened to me back in August, when we visited Wallington, Northumberland  (a country house now in the care of The National Trust).

Wondering around the house in the languid way I do these days (so much less stressful now the girls are old enough not to need supervising), I came across  a simply amazing 6 panel needlepoint screen, in a room called – for no reason I could find out – The Pigeon Hole.

detail from the needlepoint screen

It’s a good job that my daughters now make their own way around these historic houses, because my habit of spending long minutes, peering intently at the stitching, is guaranteed to cause them huge embarrassment. Naturally I had a really good look at the panels and what overwhelmed me, was the sheer size and detail of the work and the tiny stitches with which it was constructed (petit point).

I’d rashly assumed that it was something purchased by the family for the house, but the lovely Room Guide pointed out a small portrait of a rather beautiful lady, called Julia Blackett, who I was told, had stitched the screen herself in 1727. The link to that portrait is here if you want to take a look.

According to the guide-book, the screen, which is worked in fine wool, was inspired by Wenceslaus Hollar’s 1663 edition of the Georgics and Eclogues of the poet Virgil. I’ll have to take their word on that, my classics education didn’t stretch that far, but I can’t help wondering about the thought process of Julia when she decided to create the work. Was she a scholar? Was this popular reading in seventeenth and eighteenth century aristocratic circles? Would the people who saw the screen, have understood what it was saying?

Then I wonder how she went about planning it. Did she have drawings? Did she create the drawings herself, or was there a market in needlepoint kits back then? How did she get the wool? Who supplied it? She certainly couldn’t order online!

Of course most people would assume that she had plenty of time on her hands to actually do the sewing, but I wonder about that too. It’s all very well in good daylight, but it must have been nigh on impossible to see well enough at night – have you ever done any fine work by candlelight? I suppose there must be a suspicion that she didn’t do it alone – if that’s true, I wish we knew a lot more about who the other women (I’m assuming it would have been ladies?) were.

I’d love to know more, because this is really what gets me so excited when I find old needlework. It’s the sense of connection with the individual whose fingers held the cloth and plied the needle, for hours and hours and many long hours. When we make pieces of needlework, we put something of ourselves into it – and in some way, that essence reaches out from the work.

I wonder if this is to some extent why historic quilts are so evocative – it’s a similar connection between the lives of people from the past and those going through the same process today.

Anyway, you can imagine, seeing Julia’s work made my day.

But then, just a few steps down the corridor, I came to the Needlework Room!

What a shock – it turns out that Julia had done far more than just the screen. The Needlework Room contains ten long needlepoint (tent stitch) panels, with an oriental theme – exotic birds and flowers. Annoyingly, I didn’t have my camera, so below are a couple of links to show the work.

Go here for a detail from one of the panels

And if you go here, you can see more of the panels There are beautiful almost matching chairs in the room too – you can just see them in the second picture, but they aren’t actually attributed to Julia.

Apparently, she made all these over a period of three years in the 1710’s, for the Drawing Room of her home in Esholt, near Bradford. It was her son, Sir Walter Calverley Blackett, who had the needlework brought to Wallington in 1755, when he sold the Bradford property. I’m so pleased that he was proud enough of his mother’s work to preserve it in his new family home, creating a room especially to show it.

I’ve tried to find out a little more about Julia Blackett, but she remains elusive. We have a couple of portraits and we have her needlework and we know that she was born in 1686 and died in 1736 – that’s it. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if somewhere in the family archive, there were letters or diaries that could tell us more. In the absence though, we can look at her work and let our imaginations soar.

Julia Blackett, Lady Calverley (1686 – 1736)

Julia Blackett  – needlepoint heroine.

 

 

 

  • Thanks to the photographers on Flickr who posted the pictures.
  • My non-stitchy blog is Mostly Motley – it’s a fairly random affair.
  • Wallington has loads more lovely and fascinating things to see – do go if you’re in the area.

 

 

4 thoughts on “Julia Blackett – Needlepoint Heroine

    1. Funny thing that – yes, we went to both on the same day. If I’m right, Wallington was built first, but the central hall was originally open – Belsay Hall was built in 1817 to strict classical proportions, then the hall was enclosed at Wallington in the 1850s.I wonder if this is more than coincidence. I suppose as they’re so close it might have been a touch of Victorian keeping up with the Jones’s.

  1. Absolutely fascinating – I love the needlework of this period. It would be fascinating to know more about this gifted needlewoman, I suppose that women of her class would have learned to draw, so perhaps she was able to do her own designs

    1. This is exactly the sort of thing I’d like to know too. It’s so tantalising, you’d hope that a woman from that level of society would leave more of an information trail – perhaps there is, but we just don’t have access – or perhaps the activities of even rich women weren’t held to be that interesting. What I’d give to time travel for a few hours and find out the answers!

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