Threads of art are sewn into album quilts

March 06, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Baltimore album quilts are among the most beautiful, important and puzzling textiles ever made in America.

Their elaborate designs, formed of numerous pictorial squares representing everything from baskets of flowers to local monuments, human figures to political and patriotic symbols, make them unlike any other quilts ever made.

They enjoyed an enormous vogue here for a mere decade, from 1845 to 1855, a vogue that stopped, for reasons unknown, as abruptly as it had started.

Although they have been studied for decades, they have remained shrouded in mystery, uncertainty and, it turns out, a major mistaken assumption.

Now, with the exhibit "Lavish Legacies: Baltimore Album Quilts," which opened at the Maryland Historical Society yesterday, much becomes clear about these wonderful quilts, thanks to years of research and crucial discoveries.

It is no exaggeration to say that interest in the exhibit and its accompanying book (to appear in September) is worldwide, according to Jennifer F. Goldsborough, the society's chief curator and curator of "Lavish Legacies."

"The quilt-world grapevine puts the modern communications system to shame," she says. "Long before we were talking to people outside this building about the show, I had queries from Australia and South Africa as well as Europe. In fact, there's a group coming from Australia next month."

They and all visitors to "Lavish Legacies" will see spectacular, dazzling works, for the MHS owns 26 Baltimore album quilts, the largest collection anywhere. For reasons of preservation -- they must not be exposed to the light for too long -- they will be on view in two segments of about 15 each (including a few other quilts whose styles were forerunners of the album quilts). The first segment will run until mid-July and the second from then until the show closes in late November. But in each time period, color pictures of the ones not on view will be shown.

Eight years in the planning, the show and book bring to light a wealth of new information. Although Baltimore album quilts have been studied for more than a half century, Ms. Goldsborough's research has identified six times as many as were previously known to exist.

"Album quilts were first identified by Dr. William R. Dunton in the early 20th century," she says. "He was a doctor affiliated with Sheppard Pratt psychiatric hospital, and he invented occupational therapy for his patients. He paid attention to quilts when others were not paying attention, and published a book called 'Old Quilts' in 1946.

"Dr. Dunton knew of about a dozen Baltimore album quilts. At the time of the major traveling show organized by Dena Katzenberg at the Baltimore Museum of Art [1980-1982], about 50 were known. I decided to accumulate a notebook and illustrate as many as I could possibly find, from newspaper clippings, published state surveys of quilts, and other sources. Approximately 300 have been identified so far, and more are coming all the time."

The mystery designer

In addition, two happy discoveries about the design of these treasures have virtually rewritten the book on Baltimore album quilts:

What makes them "album" quilts is that usually they were made by many hands. Different people stitched the different squares, which were put together into a quilt (as if gathered into an album) for presentation on a special occasion -- a farewell present to a minister leaving his Baltimore church for a new assignment, for instance.

But because of the similarity of design of squares in many quilts, it had long been assumed that there were people who professionally designed the squares and sold the designs and materials to others, who sewed them and formed quilts of them. Some quilts are entirely made of a designer's squares. Others have one or more designer's squares combined with other squares, presumably invented by the people who sewed them.

Three different designers' styles have been identified so far. But who were these mysterious designers?

Dr. Dunton's book pictured a square resembling those by the most prolific of the designers, one or more of whose squares appear in about 40 percent of the quilts Ms. Goldsborough has so far identified. According to Dr. Dunton, the square was one of seven once owned by a Mary Evans Ford, and so it was theorized that she was the mystery designer. But Dr. Dunton didn't say where the squares were, and for a long time no one knew.

Four years ago they came to light in Virginia, and put to rest the Mary Evans Ford myth. "We had had our doubts about Mary Evans Ford," Ms. Goldsborough says, "because there was no other evidence that she had ever done sewing."

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