spinning further

(Several Hamiltons. By George Romney)

I so enjoyed the discussion on the last post, I thought I’d continue the theme. Above you see a few more of Romney’s Hamiltons. I think you can see how Kirsty’s point — about the essential kinkiness of the spinning portrait — is reinforced in most of these paintings of Hamilton. So much of her is about performance, and certainly the most persuasive way of reading her famous ‘attitudes’ (in which she embodied the essential characters of classical and eighteenth-century heroines for an assembled audience of connoisseurs) is as a form of elegant striptease. She would start off upright, as the repellent figure of Medea, but end up on the floor as a Bacchante, in a sort of sprawling disarray. Anyway, the more I look at her spinning portrait the more entirely about fantasy and artifice it becomes.

(here she is again)

Hamilton is not spinning in a cosy domestic interior, but in the artist’s studio. She is depicted against a generic leafy backdrop, a woodland and a hillside with the suggestion of a cottage in which her labours might more appropriately take place. This is spinning at one remove from itself: it is spinning on a stage. And the frank exchange of glances between the spinner and the watcher — the use of her work as an opportunity to display for us her wrists and hands — suggests an awareness of herself as a confection. The way that this portrait produces its own fantasy of the spinning woman is interesting to consider in the light of those fabulous, luminous French genre paintings that Rhian mentioned. All of these images seem to call up questions about what it means to watch women performing activities (spinning, knitting, crochet) that are not just laborious, but contemplative. The women are not idle (and therefore they are not sexually dissolute) but still: their minds are not entirely on their work. Though their hands are busy all of them are clearly thinking about . . . a something else. And these images feed the nineteenth-century viewer’s fantasies (about feminine industry, performance, desire, whatever) by positioning them where they think they know what that something else might be.

Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson

Not entirely unrelated, and as (I hope) a sort of treat for you American spinners, I here reproduce Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson’s song The American Spinning Wheel. I doubt you’ll have seen it before, and I hope you like it. This song appears in several of Fergusson’s manuscripts and is included in one of her commonplace books (that I’ve been editing). Unlike Hamilton, Fergusson was herself a practiced spinner — of fleece and of flax — and was well-aware of the political implications of producing American homespun. She engaged in her own revolutionary performance in the winter of 1777, when the linen thread she spun on her wheel at Graeme Park was sent to be woven into cloth to clothe the American prisoners of war then held in British-occupied Philadelphia. Fergusson wrote the song for the people of Horsham (close to her contested estate) and in her headnote says it is: “to be sung at a country spinning frolic, written in the late war when it was the custom for the young people to collect to help to spin and then in the evening be joined by the lads of the neighborhood and have a little hop.”

Fergusson is so much in my head at the moment, that if I start talking about her — her economic and political position; what it meant for her to spin, or indeed to write this song — I’m afraid I’ll never shut up. So I leave it up to you spinners to make of it what you will.

The American Spinning Wheel

Since Fate has assigned us these rural abodes,
Remote both from fortune and honor’s high roads;
Let us cheerfully pass through life’s innocent dale,
Nor look up to the mountain since fix’d in the vale.
When storms rage the fiercest, and mighty trees fall;
The low shrub is sheltered which clings to the wall.
Let our wheels and our reels go merrily round,
While health, peace, and virtue amongst us are found.

Though the great deem us little, and do us despise;
Let them know it is wise to make little suffice.
In this we will teach them, though ever so great;
It is always true wisdom to yield to your fate.
For though King or Congress stand to carry the day;
We farmers and spinners at last must obey.
Let our wheels and our reels go merrily round,
While health, peace, and virtue amongst us are found.

Our flax has it’s beauties, an elegant green;
When it shoots from the earth it enamels the scene.
When moistened and broken in filaments fine,
Our maidens they draw out the flexible line;
Some fine as a cobweb, while others more coarse,
To wear but on work days for substance and force.
Then the wheels and our reels go merrily round,
While health, peace, and virtue among us are found.

Since all here assembled to card and spin;
Come girls, lets be nimble and quickly begin,
To help neighbor Friendly, and when we have done,
The boys they shall join us at close of the sun.
Perhaps our brisk partners may lead us through life,
And the dance of the night end in husband and wife.
Let our wheels and our reels go merrily round,
While health, peace, and virtue amongst us are found.

Graeme Park, 1782