A happy half-century and other essays/Our Accomplished Great-Grandmother


Next to mere idleness, I think knotting is to be reckoned in the scale of insignificance.—Dr. Johnson.

Readers of Dickens (which ought to mean all men and women who have mastered the English alphabet) will remember how that estimable schoolmistress, Miss Monflathers, elucidated Dr. Watts's masterpiece, which had been quoted somewhat rashly by a teacher. "'The little busy bee,'" said Miss Monflathers, drawing herself up, "is applicable only to genteel children.

In books, or work, or healthful play,

is quite right as far as they are concerned; and the work means painting on velvet, fancy needlework, or embroidery."

It also meant, in the good Miss Monflathers's day, making filigree baskets that would not hold anything, Ionic temples of Bristol-board, shell flowers, and paper landscapes. It meant pricking pictures with pins, taking "impressions" of butterflies' wings on sheets of gummed paper, and messing with strange, mysterious compounds called diaphanie and potichomanie, by means of which a harmless glass tumbler or a respectable window-pane could be turned into an object of desolation. Indeed, when the genteel young ladies of this period were not reading "Merit opposed to Fascination; exemplified in the story of Eugenio," or "An Essay on the Refined Felicity which may arise from the Marriage Contract," they were cultivating what were then called "ornamental arts," but which later on became known as "accomplishments." "It is amazing to me," says that most amiable of sub-heroes, Mr. Bingley, "how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are. They paint tables, cover screens, and net purses. I scarcely know any one who cannot do all this; and I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished."

We leave the unamiable Mr. Darcy snorting at his friend's remark, to consider the paucity of Mr. Bingley's list. Tables, screens, and purses represent but the first beginnings of that misdirected energy which for the best part of a century embellished English homes. The truly accomplished young lady in Miss More's "Cœlebs" paints flowers and shells, draws ruins, gilds and varnishes wood, is an adept in Japan work, and stands ready to begin modelling, etching, and engraving. The great principle of ornamental art was the reproduction of an object—of any object—in an alien material. The less adapted this material was to its purpose, the greater the difficulties it presented to the artist, the more precious became the monstrous masterpiece. To take a plain sheet of paper and draw a design upon it was ignominious in its simplicity; but to construct the same design out of paper spirals, rolling up some five hundred slips with uniform tightness, setting them on end, side by side, and painting or gilding the tops,—that was a feat of which any young lady might be proud. It was so uncommonly hard to do, it ought to have been impossible. Cutting paper with fine sharp scissors and a knife was taught in schools (probably in Miss Monflathers's school, though Dickens does not mention it) as a fashionable pastime. The "white design"—animals, landscape, or marine—was printed on a black background, which was cut away with great dexterity, the spaces being small and intricate. When all the black paper had been removed, the flimsy tracery was pasted on a piece of coloured paper, thus presenting—after hours of patient labour—much the same appearance that it had in the beginning. It was then glassed, framed, and presented to appreciative parents, as a proof of their daughter's industry and taste.

The most famous work of art ever made out of paper was probably the celebrated "herbal" of Mrs. Delany,—Mrs. Delany whom Burke pronounced "the model of an accomplished gentlewoman." She acquired her accomplishments at an age when most people seek to relinquish theirs,—having learned to draw when she was thirty, to paint when she was forty, and to write verse when she was eighty-two. She also "excelled in embroidery and shell-work"; and when Miss Burney made her first visit to St. James's Place, she found Mrs. Delany's walls covered with "ornaments of her own execution of striking elegance, in cuttings and variegated stained papers." The herbal, however, was the crowning achievement of her life. It contained nearly a thousand plants, made of thin strips of coloured paper, pasted layer over layer with the utmost nicety upon a black background, and producing an effect "richer than painting."

Cold Winter views amid his realms of snow
Delany's vegetable statues blow;
Smoothes his stern brow, delays his hoary wing,
And eyes with wonder all the blooms of Spring.

The flowers were copied accurately from nature, and florists all over the kingdom vied with one another in sending Mrs. Delany rare and beautiful specimens. The Queen ardently admired this herbal, and the King, who regarded it with veneration not untinged by awe, expressed his feelings by giving its creator a house at Windsor, and settling upon her an annuity of three hundred pounds. Yet Miss Seward complained that although England "teemed with genius," George III was "no Cæsar Augustus," to encourage and patronize the arts. To the best of his ability, he did. His conception of genius and art may not have tallied with that of Augustus; but when an old lady made paper flowers to perfection, he gave her a royal reward.

Mrs. Delany's example was followed in court circles, and in the humbler walks of life. Shell-work, which was one of her accomplishments, became the rage. Her illustrious friend, the Duchess of Portland, "made shell frames and feather designs, adorned grottoes, and collected endless objects in the animal and vegetable kingdom." Young ladies of taste made flowers out of shells, dyeing the white ones with Brazil wood, and varnishing them with gum arabic. A rose of red shells, with a heart of knotted yellow silk, was almost as much admired as a picture of birds with their feathers pasted on the paper. This last triumph of realism presented a host of difficulties to the perpetrator. When the bill and legs of the bird had been painted in water colours on heavy Bristol-board, the space for its body was covered with a paste of gum arabic as thick as a shilling. This paste was kept "tacky or clammy" to hold the feathers, which were stripped off the poor little dead bird, and stuck on the prepared surface, the quills being cut down with a knife. Weights were used to keep the feathers in place, the result being that most of them adhered to the lead instead of to the Bristol-board, and came off discouragingly when the work was nearly done. As a combination of art and nature, the bird picture had no rival except the butterfly picture, where the clipped wings of butterflies were laid between two sheets of gummed paper, and the "impressions" thus taken, reinforced with a little gilding, were attached to a painted body. It may be observed that the quality of mercy was then a good deal strained. Mrs. Montagu's famous "feather-room," in her house on Portman Square, was ornamented with hangings made by herself from the plumage of hundreds of birds, every attainable variety being represented; yet no one of her friends, not even the sainted Hannah More, ever breathed a sigh of regret over the merry little lives that were wasted for its meretricious decorations.

Much time and ingenuity were devoted by industrious young people to the making of baskets, and no material, however unexpected, came amiss to their patient hands. Allspice berries, steeped in brandy to soften them and strung on wire, were very popular; and rice baskets had a chaste simplicity of their own. These last were made of pasteboard, lined with silk or paper, the grains of rice being gummed on in solid diamond-shaped designs. If the decoration appeared a trifle monotonous, as well it might, it was diversified with coloured glass beads. Indeed, we are assured that "baskets of this description may be very elegantly ornamented with groups of small shells, little artificial bouquets, crystals, and the fine feathers from the heads of birds of beautiful plumage";—with anything, in short, that could be pasted on and persuaded to stick. When the supply of glue gave out, wafer baskets—wafers required only moistening—or alum baskets (made of wire wrapped round with worsted, and steeped in a solution of alum, which was coloured yellow with saffron or purple with logwood) were held in the highest estimation. The modern mind, with its puny resources, is bewildered by the multiplicity of materials which seem to have lain scattered around the domestic hearth a hundred years ago. There is a famous old receipt for "silvering paper without silver," a process designed to be economical, but which requires so many messy and alien ingredients, like "Indian glue," and "Muscovy talc," and "Venice turpentine," and "Japan size," and "Chinese varnish," that mere silver seems by comparison a cheap and common thing. Young ladies whose thrift equalled their ingenuity made their own varnish by boiling isinglass in a quart of brandy,—a lamentable waste of supplies.

Genteel parcels were always wrapped in silver paper. We remember how Miss Edgeworth's Rosamond tries in vain to make one sheet cover the famous "filigree basket," which was her birthday present to her Cousin Bell, and which pointed its own moral by falling to pieces before it was presented. Rosamond's father derides this basket because he is implored not to grasp it by its myrtle-wreathed handle. "But what is the use of the handle," he asks, in the conclusive, irritating fashion of the Edgeworthian parent, "if we are not to take hold of it? And pray is this the thing you have been about all week? I have seen you dabbling with paste and rags, and could not conceive what you were doing."

Rosamond's half-guinea—her godmother's gift—is spent buying filigree paper, and medallions, and a "frost ground" for this basket, and she is ruthlessly shamed by its unstable character; whereas Laura, who gives her money secretly to a little lace-maker, has her generosity revealed at exactly the proper moment, and is admired and praised by all the company. Apart from Miss Edgeworth's conception of life, as made up of well-adjusted punishments and rewards, a half-guinea does seem a good deal to spend on filigree paper; but then a single sheet of gold paper cost six shillings, unless gilded at home, after the following process, which was highly commended for economy:—

"Take yellow ochre, grind it with rain-water, and lay a ground with it all over the paper, which should be fine wove. When dry, take the white of an egg and about a quarter of an ounce of sugar candy, and beat them together until the sugar candy is dissolved. Then strike it all over the ground with a varnish brush, and immediately lay on the gold leaf, pressing it down with a piece of fine cotton. When dry, polish it with a dog's tooth or agate. A sheet of this paper may be prepared for eighteen pence."

No wonder little Rosamond was unequal to such labour, and her half-guinea was squandered in extravagant purchases. Miss Edgeworth, trained in her father's theory that children should be always occupied, was a good deal distressed by the fruits of their industry. The "chatting girls cutting up silk and gold paper," whom Miss Austen watched with unconcern, would have fretted Miss Edgeworth's soul, unless she knew that sensible needle-cases, pincushions, and work-bags were in process of construction. Yet the celebrated "rational toy-shop," with its hand-looms instead of dolls, and its machines for drawing in perspective instead of tin soldiers and Noah's arks, stood responsible for the inutilities she scorned. And what of the charitable lady in "Lazy Lawrence," who is "making a grotto," and buying shells and fossils for its decoration? Even a filigree basket, which had at least the grace of impermanence, seems desirable by comparison with a grotto. It will be remembered also that Madame de Rosier, the "Good French Governess," traces her lost son, that "promising young man of fourteen," by means of a box he has made out of refuse bits of shell thrown aside in a London restaurant; while the son in turn discovers a faithful family servant through the medium of a painted pasteboard dog, which the equally ingenious domestic has exposed for sale in a shop. It was a good thing in Miss Edgeworth's day to cultivate the "ornamental arts," were it only for the reunion of families.

Pasteboard, a most ungrateful and unyielding material, was the basis of so many household decorations that a little volume, published in the beginning of the last century, is devoted exclusively to its possibilities. This book, which went through repeated editions, is called "The Art of Working in Pasteboard upon Scientific Principles"; and it gives minute directions for making boxes, baskets, tea-trays, caddies,—even candlesticks, and "an inkstand in the shape of a castle with a tower,"—a baffling architectural design. What patience and ingenuity must have been expended upon this pasteboard castle, which had a wing for the ink well, a wing for the sand box, five circular steps leading up to the principal entrance, a terrace which was a drawer, a balcony surrounded by a "crenelled screen," a tower to hold the quills, a vaulted cupola which lifted like a lid, and a lantern with a "quadrilateral pyramid" for its roof, surmounted by a real pea or a glass bead as the final bit of decoration. There is a drawing of this edifice, which is as imposing as its dimensions will permit; and there are four pages of mysterious instructions which make the reader feel as though he were studying architecture by correspondence.

Far more difficult of accomplishment, and far more useless when accomplished,—for they could not even hold pens and ink,—were the Grecian temples and Gothic towers, made of pasteboard covered with marbled paper, and designed as "elegant ornaments for the mantelpiece." A small Ionic temple requires ten pages of directions. It is built of "the best Bristol-board, except the shafts of the pillars and some of the decorations, which are made of royal drawing-paper"; and its manufacturers are implored not to spare time, trouble, or material, if they would attain to anything so classic. "The art of working in pasteboard," says the preface of this engaging little book, "may be carried to a high degree of usefulness and perfection, and may eventually be productive of substantial benefits to young persons of both sexes, who wisely devote their leisure hours to pleasing, quiet, and useful recreations, preferably to frivolous, noisy, and expensive amusements."

A pleasing, quiet, and useful recreation which wasted nothing but eyesight,—and that nobody valued,—was pricking pictures with pins. The broad lines and heavy shadows were pricked with stout pins, the fine lines and high lights with little ones, while a toothed wheel, sharply pointed, was used for large spaces and simple decorative designs. This was an ambitious field of art, much of the work being of a microscopic delicacy. The folds of a lady's dress could be pricked in such film-like waves that only close scrutiny revealed the thousand tiny holes of which its billowy softness was composed. The cleanness and dryness of pins commend them to our taste after a long contemplation of varnish and glue pots; of "poonah work," which was a sticky sort of stencilling; of "Japan work," in which embossed figures were made of "gum-water, thickened to a proper consistence with equal parts of bole ammoniac and whiting"; of "Chinese enamel," which was a base imitation of ebony inlaid with ivory; and of "potichomanie," which converted a piece of English glass into something that "not one in a hundred could tell from French china." We sympathize with the refined editor of the "Monthly Museum," who recommends knotting to his female readers, not only because it had the sanction of a queen,

Who, when she rode in coach abroad,
Was always knotting threads;

but because of its "pure nature" and "innocent simplicity." "I cannot but think," says this true friend of my sex, "that shirts and smocks are unfit for any lady of delicacy to handle; but the shuttle is an easy flowing object, to which the eye may remove with propriety and grace."

Grace was never overlooked in our great-grandmother's day, but took rank as an important factor in education. A London schoolmistress, offering in 1815 some advice as to the music "best fitted for ladies," confesses that it is hard to decide between the "wide range" of the pianoforte and the harp-player's "elegance of position," which gives to her instrument "no small powers of rivalry." Sentiment was interwoven with every accomplishment. Tender mottoes, like those which Miss Euphemia Dundas entreats Thaddeus of Warsaw to design for her, were painted upon boxes and hand-screens. Who can forget the white leather "souvenir," adorned with the words "Toujours cher," which Miss Euphemia presses upon Thaddeus, and which that attractive but virtuous exile is modestly reluctant to accept. A velvet bracelet embroidered with forget-me-nots symbolized friendship. A handkerchief, designed as a gift from a young girl to her betrothed, had a celestial sphere worked in one corner, to indicate the purity of their flame; a bouquet of buds and blossoms in another, to mark the pleasures and the brevity of life; and, in a third, Cupid playing with a spaniel, "as an emblem of the most passionate fidelity." Even samplers, which represented the first step in the pursuit of accomplishments, had their emblematic designs no less than their moral axioms. The village schoolmistress, whom Miss Mitford knew and loved, complained that all her pupils wanted to work samplers instead of learning to sew; and that all their mothers valued these works of art more than they did the neatest of caps and aprons. The sampler stood for gentility as well as industry. It reflected credit on the family as well as on the child. At the bottom of a faded canvas, worked more than a hundred years ago, and now hanging in a great museum of art, is this inspiring verse:—

I have done this that you may see
What care my parents took of me.
And when I'm dead and in my grave,
This piece of work I trust you'll save.

If the little girl who embodied her high hopes in the painful precision of cross-stitch could but know of their splendid fulfilment!