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.”