Tag Archives: material culture

Currently Reading – Portrait of a Woman in Silk

I think I’ve mentioned here that my first history obsession was with the American colonial period.  Since my college days I’ve gone on to other interests, but I’ve recently rediscovered  early American history after reading a biography of Abigail Adams, and then I discovered my latest podcast love, Ben Franklin’s World. It was through Ben Franklin’s World that I found the book that is today’s topic.  The author, Zara Anishanslin, was the featured guest on the podcast, and she made her book sound so interesting that I had to read it.

And I’m so glad that I did.  I love biographies, and you might say the book is a biography of the portrait, which weaves together the stories of four people who had a hand in the creation of it – the woman who designed the pattern of the silk, the man who wove the silk, the woman who wore the dress, and the man who painted the portrait.

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of “material culture” (otherwise known as stuff) and what we can learn from from objects from the past.  And while I usually explore the not so distant past, it was so interesting to see a historian travel back 250 years to see what evidence can be found in portraits, bits of silk, drawings, not to mention the usual historical sources of written records.  The challenge of this study was that there were few written records.  None of the four people involved left written accounts of their lives. Other written evidence was sketchy, such as mentions in guild records or other people’s letters.

So Anishanslan turned to what was plentiful – the objects themselves, especially the portrait and others painted by the artist, Robert Feke.  It’s helpful to know how to “read” a portrait, and Anishanslin provides plenty of instruction in the symbolism and clues found in a colonial portrait.  I had no idea you could learn so much about a person just by the careful examination of her portrait.

The woman in the portrait is Anne Shippen Willing, and it now hangs at Winterthur in Delaware.  It was Anishanslin’s recall of the portrait as she was examining designs for Spitalfields silk fabrics housed in the Victoria & Albert Museum that led to her research.  Seeing the similarities between the dress in the portrait and the designs in the museum, she was then able to find the original drawing for that particular piece of silk, which was drawn by Anna Maria Garthwaite.  From there she discovered that the weaver of the cloth was Spitalfields weaver Simon Julins.

One important person that could have added to this story that was not uncovered by Anishanlin was the dressmaker who constructed the dress.  It’s a shame that her (the dressmaker’s) work was not somehow recorded.  But then, she was just a seamstress, out of a multitude of sewers working in a city like Philadelphia, where Willing lived.  If only Willing had kept a diary!

It’s rather amazing that one portrait could inspire an entire book, but Anishanlin left no stone unturned in her pursuit of her subjects. The book is full of tangents and detours, and it is all the richer for them.  This book is not just about the portrait, or the fabric, or the people directly involved in the creation of the two.  There’s a rich study of the importance of botany in the eighteenth century, a close look at New England trade and the merchants who got rich off from trans-Atlantic trade, and the role of slavery in both Philadelphia and New England.

Portrait of a Woman in Silk

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