It’s time for Sock of the Week!
This portrait – now in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh – shows a young woman knitting a plain white stocking, from the cuff down, on double pointed needles. She’s rolled up the top of the stocking as she speeds down the calf shaping and on to the heel. Yarn held in her right hand in the “English” style, she pauses and looks up at the artist, caught in the middle of her work.
The portrait was painted by Philippe Mercier, an artist of French Hugenot descent who popularly practised his trade in Britain during the early to middle decades of the eighteenth century. After working in London for a few years, Mercier was appointed to the prestigious position of painter to Frederick, Prince of Wales. Being associated with a member of the royal family certainly helped his career and during the 1720s and 1730s, he painted many prominent members of the British aristocracy, as well as cultural celebrities like Georg Frederic Handel. Mercier is also often credited with spearheading the British craze for that “informal” style of group portrait that became known as the conversation piece
In the mid 1730s, Mercier fell out of royal favour and, finding fewer wealthy and fashionable clients, turned his eye towards the commercial print market. In the 1740s and 50s, as he moved his household between York and London, he created several “genre” series with connecting popular themes. One series focused on the figures of respectable young women in simple interiors engaged in different kinds of domestic labour: sewing, knitting, washing garments, and teaching children to read.
Our stocking knitter belongs to what was probably Mercier’s most commercially popular series, and she was often reproduced by a range of London print makers (Robert Sayer, Henry Parker, Richard Houston) between the 1740s and early 1760s.
. . .her fame spread to the continent as well.
Mercier’s stocking knitter most often appeared in mezzotint – a style of print reproduction that familiarly smoothed the hard edges of its subjects away into soft-focus sentimentality. For eighteenth-century audiences, then, this neat young woman, diligently working away at her stocking, was there to provide a Good Example of the morally improving effect of “domestick employment.” But for us contemporary knitters, she offers a fascinating historical example of the creative work of women’s hands
Mercier’s stocking knitter has a special significance for me, because I see her every day. A few years ago, I received the kind gift of a1750s mezzotint after Mercier’s portrait from my friends and fellow eighteenth-century enthusiasts, Harriet Guest and John Barrell. Framed and hanging on the wall above my knitting chair, she works away in perpetuity on her half-finished stocking, as I, seated below, knit up my own socks or sweaters as my own “domestick employment.”
I do like the portrait but cannot get past her bulbous eyes (hyperthyroidism) . I hope I haven’t spoiled it for youl
not at all . . . especially as someone with rather bulbous eyes myself (who has on several occasions been investigated for what’s been incorrectly assumed to be hyperthyroidism – but it’s just the way I look!). In general, I don’t regard physical differences or disabilities (whether observed in person, or via artistic representation) as in any way offputting – or as things I can’t “get past”.
Thank you, I was a little concerned after I wrote that!
I’m so happy that you have a mezzotint print of this delightful painting hanging behind your knitting chair. She’s looking over your shoulder in encouragement and delighting in your work. What treasured friends to gift you with this!!
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Oh, but the textile lover in me cannot get over the fact that the knitted and woven fabrics are depicted as exactly the same in the painting – it’s like watching those photographs of neatly arranged pencils with just one of them sticking out unevenly in the row, one just cannot unsee it :) Even if the yarn of the stocking was of something like cobweb quality (which it clearly is not, look at the ball and the pins), which could make the individual stitches invisible from this distance, the light would still be hitting the linen of the shirt and the wool of the stocking differently. The painter was clearly not a knitter himself ;)
It’s probably because what she’s knitting is not what matters in his portrait. The girl knitting is. Besides, to make all the details of stitches are 1. Not easy, 2. A lot of work, and 3. Maybe that’s something related to his style of painting as well, maybe he’s not into hyper realistic stuff. Hyper realism can be a never ending hole, there’s always something to improve in your painting.
The other details of the painting are gorgeous, but you’re right to point that out.
She looks less happy in the reproductions than in the original. I guess by the fourth sock the moral improvement was wearing thin.
So interesting! In Berlin, last september, when we could still travel, I saw at the Altesmuseum plenty of women knitting – children, young, old -, mostly from the 19th century. I suppose it was indeed a fashionable theme, maybe hinted with a moral meaning. You know, idle hands etc etc…
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Not only for its content, both narrative and imaginal (wrong word, I mean ‘relating to images’) but also for highlighting that you have altered the layout of your blog front page slightly, n’est pas?
Loving the clean deisgn with lots of white space,
very unlike mine which seems to be stuck with the WordPress ‘Theme’ that I chose – randomly and inappropriately (it’s a gastronomy theme I think) – five years ago when I started blogging poetry and perambulations.
And now I’m too busy writing and wandering to grip with my teeth the challenge of re-designing my portal …. May I ask what theme you have used, or did you build your own from scratch?
Anyway, back to knitting – have you read Rose Tremain’s brilliant novel ‘Music and Silence’?
Knitting features, as – if my memory serves – the King of Denmark’s flame-haired mistress is introduced knitting (a new 17th century fad) in a small rowing boat.