A call last fall from the Nantucket Historical Association brought this spectacular embroidered mantlepiece to Museum Textile Services for remounting and reframing. Made of silk, wool, and metal-wrapped threads on linen, it is attributed to Susan Colesworthy, c 1765. Referred to as a ‘fishing lady’ embroidery, it is one of a series of works that stands out in the realm of American Colonial needlework for its focus on women’s courtship and agency.
Most works of early New England embroidery are samplers, meant to showcase skill, or practical items like wallets and linens. A smaller quantity are pastoral scenes and art pieces, meant instead to display affluence. The known fishing ladies probably number around twenty examples and were made across the length and breadth of New England between 1730-1790. Almost all known examples use the same motif of a woman at a fish pond who is holding a rod and has a basket full of fish at her feet, looking toward a male figure who seems to be interrupting her idyllic (and successful) work. The two are dressed luxuriously and surrounded by rolling hills. An embroidered mantlepiece is a larger work of art, meant for ostentatious display. The Nantucket example, which is intact and not a fragment, may have been intended as part of a triptych, like the MFA example appears to be.
Author Andrea Pappas in her seminal work “’Each Wise Nymph that Angles for a Heart’: The Politics of Courtship in the Boston ‘Fishing Lady’ Pictures,” theorizes how the series represents the fleeting time during courtship in which women have control: when a man has been ‘hooked’ – declared his intent and offered his hand – and the woman may accept or reject him. Various artists illustrate this in different ways, with figures, background, and background activities altering to suit their purpose. We know that Susan Colesworthy never married, and yet she gave birth to a daughter in 1773 – perhaps she so firmly believed in the moment of freedom emphasized in her embroidery that she never wanted it to end.
Fishing lady embroideries invariably show these women as skilled, with baskets full of fresh fish that were caught before the man ever wandered over. This motif stands out clearly when compared with contemporary prints of fishing activities made by male engravers, in which women are shown being helped and overseen by men.
The Nantucket embroidery was humidified and blocked to reduce the inherent slant of overcast, or tent stitching. MTS Director Camille Myers Breeze then mounted it to an acid-free, fabric-covered board with hand stitching. To complete the treatment, Morgan located a modern frame in a similar style as that seen on the MFA's fishing lady mantlepiece. Sarah Colesworthy is one of the few Colonial American women whose names managed to remain with their work over the generations, and we are fortunate to play a role in her embroidery's preservation.