Wearable Landscapes: Science on Silk

30.01.2017 | category: General
Anna Maria Garthwaite, silk design with spotted lilies, 1743, watercolor on paper. T.391-1971, p. 109, Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Anna Maria Garthwaite, silk design with spotted lilies, 1743, watercolor on paper. T.391-1971, p. 109, Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Appreciation of horticulture wasn’t confined to the outdoors during the eighteenth century. Anna Maria Garthwaite was a silk designer in Spitalfields and her silk patterns were a riot of exotic North American plants and flowers which were starting to arrive in Britain via the transatlantic trade routes. Author Zara Anishanslin explores.  

From her London townhouse, Anna Maria Garthwaite (1688-1763) drew hundreds of silk patterns, flowered designs blossoming in watercolor and pencil curves across grids of ruled paper. Her silks spread throughout the Atlantic World. From Scandinavia to South Carolina, men, women, and children walked, ate, danced, and posed for portraits wearing Garthwaite-designed silks. Her silks survive in museums today, mutely shimmering testament to her long-ago popularity.

But Garthwaite’s success was improbable. Her distinctiveness lay most fundamentally in the simple fact that she was a woman. Although other women certainly worked in London’s silk industry, few worked as silk designers. Garthwaite is the only woman whose designs survive. Most women who practiced skilled trades like weaving did so because their father or husband did too. Instead, Garthwaite, who never married, was no weaver’s daughter. Rather, she was the daughter of a Cambridge-educated Anglican minister from Lincolnshire, with family connections to the English nobility.

How did this spinster daughter of a Lincolnshire minister manage, in her forties no less, to launch a successful London design career? Despite Garthwaite’s prolific career and popularity, she remains an enigma. Records make it evident that she was not only literate but educated and financially solvent. There is no obvious reason her historical trail should be so faint. Yet she left little more documentation than an anonymous, illiterate, impoverished woman of her time might have. There is minimal archival material beyond her will: no letters, diary, business or advertising records.

But Garthwaite did leave a rich trove of objects and images, including more than eight hundred labeled watercolor designs. They can be read much like a diary, and they begin to give voice to this otherwise mute figure.

Garthwaite’s designs were produced in Spitalfields, but they owed their existence to global natural history networks and the demands of the North American colonial market, the English silk industry’s most important market outside of London. Her popular designs both mirrored the larger British cultural fascination with gardens and helped foster a craze for wearing botanical landscapes in silk around the British Empire. Her designs shaped a shared visual experience throughout the British empire. In the 1750s and 60s, for example, women in colonial New York, Ireland, and England all wore dresses made of the same Garthwaite pattern—each woven in different colors (red, yellow, and pink). These women never met, or even knew of one another. Yet their lives materially connected by touching and wearing Garthwaite silk.

Garthwaite, like many eighteenth-century Spitalfields silk designers, had personal ties to London’s scientific community. Garthwaite’s relationship with her brother-in-law apothecary—a member of the Royal Society—was a particularly important one for fostering her ties to these networks. As a member of the apothecaries’ guild, which maintained it, her brother-in-law had access to Chelsea Physic Garden.  Women like Garthwaite frequented the Garden to view and sketch plants and flowers, a reminder that in eighteenth-century Britain, women did not serve as passive recipients of male knowledge about botanicals. Less obviously than Royal Society members or male apothecaries, but no less truly, Garthwaite and the women who wore her flowered silks were members of a global network in which the scientific and the fashionable coalesced. 

Garthwaite often combined prosaic florals with exotic plants, showing them growing intertwined and grafted together. Mingling the exotic with the local, for instance, Garthwaite grafted an aloe onto an English rose. Woven into a brocaded tabby silk, her aloe-rose hybrid blossomed across a silk in which the multicolored botanical plants and flowers floated on a cream background. Viewers of this silk saw something very similar to a botanical illustration on white paper. Garthwaite used North American plants that were the popular subjects of such illustrations, all of which could be found exported into English gardens, including magnolia, Turk’s cap lilies, and mountain laurel. Pennsylvania botanist John Bartram first sent live mountain (or what he called “common") laurel plants across the Atlantic to London in 1735. By 1740, they had bloomed in England. Bartram also sent Turk’s cap lilies between 1738 and 1740. Only a few years later, both specimens also flowered in Garthwaite’s designs.

Like gardens in England and North America, flowered silk was material embodiment of the global culture of the curious. Far from being simply a frivolous fashionable commodity, flowered silk could signify its wearer’s participation in a global network of Enlightenment intellect. We are accustomed to thinking of how men (and some women) exchanged natural history knowledge through plant and seed specimens; in published books; and in exchanges of letters between the curious on both sides of the Atlantic. But in traveling around the empire, fashionable commodities like silk also transported natural history knowledge. This was especially important for women, excluded or under-represented as they were in groups like the Royal Society.

A woman’s silk might advertise her erudite hobbies as well as her fashion sense. A woman wearing a dress decorated with aloes or spotted lilies could use her silk to interject her own knowledge of such exotic botanicals into a conversation. In an eighteenth-century world that delighted in visual and verbal puns and allusions, such fashion, like the scientific study of botanicals, also built transatlantic communities.

About the Author: Zara Anishanslin is is Assistant Professor of History and Art History at the University of Delaware. Her first book Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World (Yale University Press, 2016) has recently been published by Yale University Press. Zara can be contacted via www.professorzara.com or Twitter: @ZaraAnishanslin