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«Simpson, C., 2015. Greek embroideries: the early collectors and their ongoing legacy. In: M. Tsianikas, G. Couvalis and M. Palaktsoglou (eds.) ...»

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Simpson, C., 2015. Greek embroideries: the early collectors and their ongoing legacy. In: M. Tsianikas,

G. Couvalis and M. Palaktsoglou (eds.) "Reading, interpreting, experiencing: an inter-cultural journey

into Greek letters". Modern Greek Studies Association of New Zealand, 186-198.

Published version of the paper reproduced here with permission from the publisher.

Greek Embroideries: The early collectors

and their ongoing legacy

Cheryl Simpson

The early collectors of Greek embroidery left a substantial legacy of unique textile work for the benefit of all. Today, we can still see examples of these rare embroideries in major museums such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. This paper explores the influence of political debate about the nature of being Greek on the collecting practice of British archaeologists. It shows that due to views prevailing at the time, there are significant omissions in major collections.

The British Archaeologists The earliest collectors of Greek embroideries were in the main British diplomats and archaeologists working in Greece and Turkey from the late nineteenth century

onwards. As Johnstone observes:

In the past English philhellenes, perhaps because they came from a country with its own traditions of fine needlework, discovered these embroideries with delight, and about the turn of the last century some notable collections were made by British connoisseurs. (Johnstone, 1961:2) They were firstly interested in the origin of the embroideries and sought to identify the different patterns and stitches used primarily in the Greek islands and Epirus, part of the Greek mainland.

A second reason for the interest in collecting Greek embroideries is that towards the end of the nineteenth century there was general concern expressed by the Arts and Crafts movements over the industrialisation of textiles previously made by hand and the creative loss that went with this new mechanisation. The collecting of handmade embroidered textiles from countries outside Britain, became very popular during this time in an effort to insure that they were kept as examples of a dying art (Schoeser, 2012:11). Among the earliest collectors was a Thomas Sandwith, the British Consul in Chania, Crete, between 1870 and 1875. Taylor tells us of the generosity of the man Archived at Flinders University: dspace.flinders.edu.au


and his support of the local Greek community and how this in fact came to make him a collector by default.

[...] he had given financial help both from his private and government funds to members of the local Greek community who had suffered during the troubles that endlessly beset them in their conflict with the Turkish occupiers, and was repaid by them with gifts of embroidery and lace. (Taylor, 1998:175) Sandwith donated his collection to what was later to become the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

His collection was varied (Taylor, 1998:175) but not of the same diversity as the archaeologists whose aim was to collect as many examples of island embroideries as possible for study. These early Archaeologists worked for the Hellenic Society or the British School at Athens.

There were also other early collectors, but the main focus of this paper is on the British School at Athens, which opened in 1886. Two members of that school are of particular interest, because they were active collectors and their early study on Greek island embroidery, along with their considerable collections, remains influential today.

These are: Richard Dawkins, Director of the School from 1906–1914, followed by A.

J. B. Wace, director from 1914–1923. Both Dawkins and Wace were classical scholars and conducted archaeological digs over a number of years. The annual reports for the British School of Athens indicate the breadth of archaeological research undertaken by both men.1 It is also clear from these reports that their interest in embroidered textiles and folk dress paralleled their interest in archaeological finds. Dawkins, when reporting on his study of dialects at Karpathos, added as an aside that this was “where also the ancient dress of Elymbos is preserved” (1904:102). In his 1905 report from a

visit to Skyros, to record the events of Carnival, he commented:

Carnival is thus a good opportunity to see the fine silk embroidered skirts, sleeves and kerchiefs of the women’s full dress. The finest of these are old, though embroidery in silk is still practiced. (Dawkins, 1905:72) The amount of travel to the islands and other parts of Greece for their archaeological work, provided much opportunity for Wace and Dawkins to be in “the right place at the right time” to obtain many of the embroideries for their collection. Their research skills and knowledge of the ancient world would have also been of considerable help in developing their textile knowledge. Wace arrived in Greece in 1902 and from the very beginning of his archaeological work it seems he was also collecting Greek embroideries. As early as 1906, he organised an exhibition of Modern Greek embroideries at the Fitzwilliam museum in Cambridge. The exhibition consisted of pieces nearly all collected by both Dawkins and Wace. The catalogue produced for the exhibition had some discussion of the works which included, according to Taylor See for example The Annual of the British School of Athens, No X, 1903–1904; Vol. 11, No X 1, session, 1904–1905; Session No X11, 1905–1906; vol. 13, 1906–1907; Vol. 14, 1907–1908.

Archived at Flinders University: dspace.flinders.edu.au


presented “the first analysis of techniques, dyes and patterns used, and refers to a joint study of these embroideries that he had made with Louisa Pesel and John. L. Myers” (Taylor, 1998:178).

Wace continued to develop his knowledge of Greek embroidery with the approach he had adopted in 1906. His commentary in the Catalogue of Old Embroideries of the Greek Islands and Turkey, included not only a detailed description of the embroideries themselves and their patterns, but analysis of the materials used, an attempt at dating the embroidery and commentary on the natural dyes used from locally grown plant material (Wace, 1914).

His collaboration with Louisa Pesel further enhanced his knowledge of identifying embroidery stitches, used predominantly in different parts of the Greek islands.

Pesel, an embroidery designer and collector of textiles, was also the Director of the Royal Hellenic School of Needlework at Athens for a period of time, which further equipped her with both the knowledge and skills of Greek embroidery techniques (Parry, 1988:141). Like Wace and Dawkins, she was also connected with the British School at Athens and her own substantial collection of Greek embroideries can be seen today at the University of Leeds International Textile archives.2 Her articles in the Burlington Magazine, during 1906 and 1907, were written about the embroideries of Crete, Ioannina (the capital of the Epirus region on mainland Greece) and the Aegean islands. It is clear that Pesel (along with Wace and Dawkins), also sought to connect the designs of the embroideries with the Greek past. Her research paper on Crete claimed an ongoing link between the designs used in a number of embroidered textiles she investigated. In each of the embroideries, regardless of the date of the work, she noted there was always a repeat of some of the same motifs.

From this analysis, Pesel made the following claim:

This proves that although they may have been worked over a period of some 200 to 300 years, tradition in design and colour, as well as in stitch, had a firm hold on the people, and whilst a worker might vary her hand work according to her personal taste, she was not willing, or, more likely, was not able, to break away entirely from the accepted models. The influences which are to be found in the designs of the Cretan embroideries are three, i.e. Byzantine, oriental and Italian. Only a virile race could have absorbed such different elements and yet have given forth work so constant in style. (Pesel, 1906:155) Pesel provides quite a detailed analysis of the typical motifs which appear in Cretan embroidery such as the double-headed eagle, the flower pot and pairs of birds or animals flanked either side of a middle motif. In attempting to trace the origins of these designs she refers to ceramics, carpets, tiles and architecture to connect the motifs with their outside influence. Her paper on the embroideries of the Aegean also adopted a thorough approach to design, and stitches used as well as an analysis of Pesel was an associate at the British School at Athens. For a full description see the Oxford Dictionary of Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Archived at Flinders University: dspace.flinders.edu.au


difference and similarity of motifs throughout the islands. Her technical knowledge was sound as was her attention to detail regarding the type of fabric used and the colour of the dye. Both of these helped to establish the likely origin of the embroidery

work. For example she noted that:

It is a recognized fact that the linen from each island or locality varies in width, quality and texture; it is useful therefore to note these points carefully, as the character of the fabric often helps to determine the provenance of any given sample. (Pesel, 1907:235) Likewise with the embroidery colours used on different islands, Pesel suggested that full consideration be given to the likelihood of local plant material determining the colours used for embroidery. If a bright red dye could be produced in abundance from a particular plant on a particular island, then that is the most likely source of the colour used. She also continued to draw on the influence in design of past rulers.

She commented that some embroidery found on the Cyclades: “so closely resembles the Sicilian work as often to be mistaken for it” (Pesel, 1907:235).

Her technical knowledge would have been very helpful for Wace and Dawkins learning about the structure and technique of the embroidery stitches, although she did make a rather strange qualification to her research on the Aegean when she made

the following claim:

The study of the embroideries of the Aegean must necessarily for the present be subject to a certain amount of conjecture; that it is worth serious attention is, however, evident to all those who consider it, from the fact that it is one of the few crafts which has occupied the leisure of the islanders during the last 200 to 300 years. There is no good pottery, carving or metal work to be examined and during this period little beyond the embroidery remains to show the continuance of style and tradition, and it therefore forms one of the few links connecting mediaeval with modern work.

(Pesel, 1907:239) Pesel’s comments are puzzling, if for no other reason than the durability of the mentioned crafts goods would have to be far greater than the general fragility of embroidered textiles, which have a tendency to rot and mildew without adequate protection. She had not had the archaeological training of Wace or Dawkins and that may account, in part, for her statement or it may be that she simply thought there were no suitable examples of surface design and motif on the craft objects she looked at, which might have furthered her research on Greek embroidery.

In her writing Pesel also demonstrated pre-conceived racial stereo-typing as to traits of particular Greek island groups. She claimed of the Cretans that the strong Italian influence in their embroidered work should be no surprise because “the ideas of the Italians would naturally appeal to the Cretans, a quick and vigorous people, more than those of an oriental and more placid race” (Pesel, 1906:155). These favourable comments about the Cretans are in direct contrast with her comments about those living in Cyprus, who were also subjected to the same influence as the Cretans. In

this instance she commented:

Archived at Flinders University: dspace.flinders.edu.au


Cyprus, coming under equally opposing forces, produced only insignificant work lacking unity and without any of the strength to be found of that done in Crete.

(Pesel, 1906:155) Pesel seems to presenting views here of the stereotypical orientalist of her time. She clearly sees the Cretans as being Greek in both habit and nationality and the Cypriots as far more oriental. On this basis she appears to be quite dismissive of the embroidery work produced on Cyprus. Yet it is of interest to note that today it is the Lefkara work of Cyprus which has world heritage protection as an outstanding example of Greek Cypriot handwork that has been continuously produced for hundreds of years. This white work, as it is commonly called, still provides a cottage industry in the region of Lefkara and the original work is highly sought after by tourists.3 Pesel’s views (as with Wace) would no doubt have influenced her decision as to what embroideries she would select for her own collection. The different knowledge base of Pesel and Wace led to an exchange of information on various occasions regarding the identification of Greek embroideries (French, 2009:82–83).

By the early to mid-1900s, Wace and Dawkins were getting a well-deserved reputation for the research they had been undertaking in situ on the Greek islands. With both Wace, and Pesel also writing articles for the Burlington Magazine during the same period, it is reasonable to assume that the magazine would then (as today) have had a wide readership of people interested in the arts. Further interest in Greek embroideries would have no doubt been fostered through these publications.

Wace and Dawkins were also involved in exhibiting their collections when the opportunity arose, such as the Burlington Fine Arts Club exhibition in 1914 titled

Old Embroideries of the Greek Islands and Turkey. Taylor points out:

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