In Part III of this series I mentioned two pieces now held in two different museums that I suspect were cut from the same original artifact. That would make them bona fide twins, separated at birth. I don’t believe that was an unusual happenstance. Here is another example of a pair of items, now separated in two different collections, that I believe to have a common origin:

“Border,” Art Institute of Chicago. Accession 1907.664. 17th century, Italy. 8.5 x 31.4cm (3 3/8 x 12 3/8 inches).

“Embroidery,” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Accession 95.1126. Undated. Italy. 17 x 78 cm (6 11/16 x 30 11/16 inches). Dimensions include several repeats and a considerable chunk of unworked linen.

The Art Institute’s photo is sharper, but these are spot-on identical in pattern count and execution, color placement, stitch and edging detail. The Chicago write-up details the stitches used as being “back, hem, satin, and split stitches; edged with silk floss in buttonhole and detached buttonhole stitches.” The MFA says “worked with line stitch, chain stitch, and laid work, and with red and yellow silk… The linen is joined by fagoting, and is edged with buttonhole stitch and loops and knots.”

I am not daunted by the discrepancy. This is pretty typical. Terminology for stitching techniques and stitches isn’t universal over time or place. One expert’s “line stitch” may well be another expert’s “back stitch.” And neither one may be back stitch as we know it today. Sometimes that term is used for double running, even though the two stitches are produced differently and can be distinguished from each other by looking at the work’s reverse. It’s almost impossible to know from the descriptions posted on line when they were written or by whom. In fact, descriptions within a single museum’s collection may not be consistent – having been written by different curators of varying degrees of familiarity with the type of work, decades apart. I would trust Santina M. Levey’s descriptions the V&A in totality. But I’m not so sure I’d trust an unattributed blurb in another museum that may or may not have accompanied the piece when it was originally donated in 1909, and may not have been revisited since.

I’ve worked in a museum and I know that the archivists and curators, no matter how educated and experienced, do not know everything about every artifact; and not every artifact in the collection has been studied and corroborated by experts in that specific area of endeavor. Lots of times an artifact languishes for decades in a storage case with the tag that was on it when it was donated. It would not be unusual for something acquired before 1925 to have a “best guess” attribution that’s never been re-evaluated. Documentation standards have risen over the years, but these older acquisitions are not upgraded and retagged unless they have a bearing on a specific line of (funded) inquiry. So artifacts just sit there with speculative provenances and dates. One of the problems dilettantes like me face is that having no academic yardstick, we accept all published or museum attributions at face value. Or we reject them, or cherry pick the ones that fit our pet theories. (I’m no different in this. My pet theory du jour is that these are from the same original.) My point is that without validated and serious study, even the grandest and most augustly respectable museum’s taggings can be incomplete or open to question.

I’d love to see these two items in person, and I’d love to see their reverse sides. Just looking at them I know I could re-create them using several techniques, depending on whether or not the originals were one or two sided. Double running stitch for the red and yellow linear elements, and carefully laid satin stitch on the count for the yellow diamonds? Sure! Providing ends were carefully managed, that would be the same on the front and back. Back stitch and pattern darning? Also would work on the front, although that would result in a one-sided finished product.

So until I have the entree to actually peruse these in person, I’ll just contemplate the photos. I don’t know if these two museums know of the commonality of their holdings. But I do posit with some amusement that somewhere back around the turn of the last century, a dealer in Europe made a killing, snipping an original (possibly already damaged), and selling the fragments to two wandering American collectors; who in all probability each went home each thinking he or she had snatched up the only remains of this masterwork.

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2 responses

  1. If you decide to pursue the research (which sounds like it would be fun!) my experience is that the textiles people at the Boston MFA are pretty willing to welcome scholars to look at stuff from the collections, given enough advance notice. I spent two days studying stockings there a couple of years ago. You won’t be able to touch things, but there will likely be a curator around who can turn things over for you so you can see the backs. And you can photograph things for your own research use, though they would like copies of your photos afterward and you can’t publish or post them without further authorization.

  2. […] Long Lost Twins, Part VI. Two instances of a column design, very probably once cut from the same artifact. Fragments of which are held in two museums […]

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