Exhibition: Designing Spitalfields Silks

Exhibition dates: 14 September – 20 October 2019

The remit of this group is, strictly speaking, Asian textiles so I realise I am stretching things here blogging about an early 18th century designer of Huguenot descent living in Spitalfields, London, but some of his designs are clearly influenced by other areas – just look at this gorgeous depiction of a pineapple!

James Leman was born in 1688 and most of his designs were produced in the first quarter of the 18th century. The V&A has a wonderful album containing 97 different designs, many of them with very vibrant colour schemes. The album was in a poor condition and had clearly been rebound too tightly, causing damage to 77 of the drawings. In 2002 the album was disassembled. In 2016 this was chosen as the subject of a multi-disciplinary research project, the intention being to digitally reproduce its contents.

Later the V&A were able to acquire an example of silk which 300 years ago had been woven from one of the designs in this album. This has given them an amazing opportunity to see how the designs on paper were translated into an actual piece of fabric.

The paper design on the left and the fabric on the right.

Lots of further analysis was done on the dyes used in this textile. Among those identified were indigo, weld, cochineal, annatto and safflower. As Lucia Burgio points out in her blog “The results of the dye analysis paint a nice picture of the trade links that London, or at least the dyers which provided coloured silk yarns to the weavers of Spitalfields (where James Leman lived and worked), had with the rest of the world: weld was likely cultivated in Europe, indigo could have originated from both Asia and South America, cochineal was definitely from South America and safflower was originally from the near East. Annatto was originally from South America, but its cultivation had already spread to Southern Europe well before Leman was active.”

The colours used in the paper designs were also analysed and it was found that large quantities of arsenic glass were used to produce the vibrant orange colours.

For more information go to the V&A website or follow the links in this blog to a variety of V&A articles.

Location: NAL Library Landing, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

 

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