The term "English needlework" may bring a certain type image to mind. Flowers and cute little animals, perhaps. Pretty samplers with alphabets and pictures of homey cottages. A shepherdess with her sheep and a big picture hat to frame her face.
And, yes, one finds all of that in the Baltimore Museum of Art show "In Prayse of the Needle: English needlework From the 17th Through the 19th Century." There's delicacy and charm aplenty, and that's fine. But this commendable, 20-item show isn't confined to that sort of thing. There are works here you can get your teeth into.
Take the two panels of 1692 crewel-work bed curtains that occupy an end wall. They're big -- taken together they measure roughly 8-by-8 feet -- and they're bold, colorful and bright. Their twisting, expressionist-looking tree design sprouts red flowers and green leaves. Phoenix-like birds with gold bodies and red-striped wings alight on the branches of the trees. Crewel, the label informs, was a two-ply twisted yarn dyed in rich colors, and here it has been made into a design that startles the eye.
There are narrative works, too, from the second half of the 17th century, during the popularity of raised work. In raised work, the motifs were stuffed with materials (typically wool or hair) to give them a three-dimensional effect. Since the picture was worked in different colors, the finished work has some of the qualities of both painting and relief sculpture.
The most impressive of the raised work panels, and the most interesting piece in the show, is "The Judgment of Solomon," after a painting by Rubens. Solomon, attired in rich robes and wearing a crown, gestures toward the two women standing on each side of the baby that both claim. The muscular, knife-wielding executioner holds the baby up by one foot and prepares to slice it in half lengthwise. You can see one of the women is much more distraught than the other, indicating Solomon's ploy has worked. The piece, with its wide and elaborately decorated border, has a dramatic, dynamic and sumptuous look, thus successfully transforming the qualities of Rubens' painting into needlework form.
These two pieces alone make the show worthwhile, but there are more delights: Among them, a needlework panel focused on a brilliant red, stylized carnation that looks as if it were fashioned in the 20th century, not the late 17th to early 18th; and a 1777 sampler with a funny, moralistic poem called "The Turkey and the Ant," in which the turkey bemoans its fate as Christmas dinner while scarfing up a snack of ants.
Like all shows organized by Anita Jones, associate curator of textiles, this one has excellent didactics, not only explaining the individual works but giving background on the principal types of needlework during the period. The show doesn't cover the three entire centuries of its subtitle; the works shown fit into two much narrower periods, roughly 1660- 1725 and 1775-1820.
But Jones says the pieces represent the principal forms and styles of needlework throughout the 300 years.
One of the best things a curator can do is to use the collection in her care in imaginative ways that keep the viewing public interested, and Jones does that in exemplary fashion.
'In Prayse of the Needle'
Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through Feb. 15
Admission: $6; $4 seniors and students; 18 and under free
Pub Date: 8/26/97