Saturday, February 21, 2015

Morven Museum's Schoolgirl Needlework Exhibit

Today I joined the Central New Jersey region of the Jane Austen Society of North America to tour the "Hail Specimen of Female Art! New Jersey Schoolgirl Needlework, 1726-1860" temporary exhibit at the Morven Museum in Princeton, NJ. Luckily one of the region's members read The New York Times review of the exhibit and suggested we visit or I would have completely missed out on this gem. To be entirely truthful, I wasn't sure exactly how much interest this exhibit would hold for me, but happily I ended up absolutely loving it. The exhibit displays embroideries in silk and wool that were completed by young, relatively wealthy girls as part of their formal education during the 18th and 19th centuries. All of the pieces reflect the work of girls from New Jersey, although in some cases the girls were sent to nearby Pennsylvania and Delaware to be taught at a prestigious girls' schools. These needlework samplers were generally meant to be displays of how privileged and talented these girls were.
“It is amazing to me, how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are. ... They all paint tables, cover screens, and net purses.” - Charles Bingley in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. 
As we had a relatively large group and made plans some time in advance, we were able to secure a special PowerPoint presentation by two of the exhibit's co-curators as well as a semi-guided tour of the exhibit with them. The presentation helped a great deal in putting the exhibit into context. The co-curators described how there were regional differences evident in the needlework. Some counties had heavy influences from their Quaker founders, for instance. They also noted how even though there were distinct variations that could be largely attributed to one area or county, there was definitely cross-over as teachers moved from one school to another and brought their knowledge to a new set of schoolgirls. Another neat fact I learned from the presentation that I might not have gleaned readily from the exhibit was that not only did the exhibit cover more than 100 years of works, it also reflected needlework pieces from girls as young as 5 and as old as 29. Seeing the impressive needlework of 5- and 7-year-old girls was kind of mind blowing!

The needlework pieces themselves are astounding. Some show their wear while others have stood the test of time pretty well, still showing off bright colors and clearly legible text. Designs vary but are often of a similar nature: animals (particularly birds and deer), simple buildings, landscapes with a person or two, and alphabets and verses abound. Some pieces were used as a way to delineated a family tree/family historical record. Other more complicated works presented maps of the state or country. One sample contains the poem whose first line inspired the exhibit's title:
“Hail specimen of female art / The needle’s magic power to show / To canvas various hues impart / And make a mimic world to grow / A sampler then with care peruse / An emblem sage you may find there / The canvas takes what forms you choose / So education forms the mind.” - Anne Rickey
A few of the exhibit pieces also mixed media by having the needlework sent out for painting by an artist. Usually this done with silk-embroidered pieces rather than wool. After the schoolgirl completed her embroidering of the piece, then a painter would add in details or a landscape background to complete the piece. Finally, the piece would be framed, which was unusual for many of these samplers. The effect was stunning, and one of my favorite pieces in the whole exhibit was one of these samplers.

The talent and patience that went in to stitching these elaborate pieces are clearly evident. One thing I really appreciated about this exhibit is how it's elevated to the level of art something that was essentially homework and hung up only in the way that a proud parent posts an A-plus paper on the family fridge in our time. Nowadays, needlework is generally considered more in the line of a hobby than anything else. Viewing these works reminded me of all the embroideries my grandmother so lovingly made as something 'to keep her hands busy' when she had some down time, so this exhibit gave me a happy feeling of nostalgia as well as history lesson. At any rate, these pieces were certainly not items that were planned to be part of a museum exhibit originally! While museums by and large highlight the history of men (for better or worse), this exhibit gives a voice (metaphorically speaking) to a population that is traditionally in the background of history.

A companion catalog book available at the museum's gift shop provides more details about the exhibit and its historical background for those interested in learning even more. As it is, the exhibit's plaques contain more information than I could completely absorb in one relatively short visit, so this is a gallery worth re-visiting.

Speaking of re-visiting, I'd love to return to the Morven again some other time to spend additional time with the permanent collection and participate in one of their usual hourly guided tours to learn more about the history of the place. I did learn in my brief walkthrough on my own that the museum was originally a mansion whose celebrated residents include the president of the Continental Congress from 1782-1783. The building later became the state Governor's Mansion and was home to five governors. It is now a National Historic Landmark. And to think that I've driven past this place numerous, numerous times before and never once even gave it a second glance.

Another trip to the Morven Museum is definitely in my future and I hope in yours as well. The "Hail Specimen of Female Art! New Jersey Schoolgirl Needlework, 1726-1860" is only on display for roughly another month, closing on March 29, so don't delay in checking it out!


  1. Miss JJ --As the two co-curators (Dan & Marty Campanelli) who spoke to your group, we were thrilled to find your comments here on this blog, and to read that you enjoyed the Morven exhibit. You really grasped the concept of the show and wrote an excellent review, which we hope will entice others to visit Morven before the end of the show in March. We have shared the link to your blog with the staff at Morven and everyone appreciates your kind words.

  2. Thanks so much! We will enjoyed our visit and your talk. :)