stumpwork casket (cabinet)


This casket, made between 1670 -90, consists of a wooden carcass surrounded by panels decorated with raised embroidery. Originally referred to as raised or embossed work, from the 19th century this intricate form of embroidery was known as stumpwork. It was particularly popular during the second half of the 17th century. Stumpwork panels are often found on boxes, mirror frames and other small household goods.

Panels were typically worked by young girls. Needlework was an essential part of their education; they would begin by practising on small canvases or samplers, later progressing to more advanced projects. The elaborately embroidered scenes we see on this casket would be considered a crowning achievement of skill and refinement, allowing its maker to show-off what they had learnt. The cultivation of these skills was viewed as important for later in life, when women were expected to effectively manage their household.

It is likely that girls worked from a kit or pattern. A professional could then furnish the work into a casket or frame. The high cost of the materials, as well as the skill needed to create these caskets, means they could only have been made by girls living in wealthy households.

The casket includes metal handles built into the side panels and a key hole on the front. Decorated caskets like this were used by girls in the 17th century for keeping small personal possessions safe. Keepsakes might have included jewellery, letters, writing equipment, needlework tools or little toys. They were often fitted with different compartments and some caskets even had secret drawers for particularly precious items. RAMM’s casket would have been used as both a storage cabinet and a writing case.

A variety of surface stitching was incorporated into each panel of this casket using silk and metallic threads. The front panel of the lid shows a unicorn and what could be a horse sitting beside a tree. A large cat with a stag sit on the other side. The creatures are all surrounded by abundance of wildlife, including flowers, birds and caterpillars. On the left of the front panel a king, identifiable by his crown, stands beneath a canopy. He faces his Queen who occupies the right side of the panel and is followed by a servant. The figures are accompanied by flora and fauna in the foreground, whilst in the distance we glimpse castles.

Depicted on the back panel is a woman seated on a hill besides a flowing fountain. She listens to a tune played by a man with a flute. The interior of the lid also follows a musical theme; here a woman entertains her male companion with a lute. Again, they are set within a pastoral idyll: the sun shines on little cottages in the distance whilst flowers sprout up in the foreground.

Contemporary politics is often detected in the subject matter of stumpwork; this piece was likely made during the reign of Charles II. Monarchical power was restored to England in 1660 with Charles II’s accession. England had experienced great turmoil in the years prior to this. King Charles I was executed in 1649 during the English Civil War (1642-51) leading to the Commonwealth Period in which the country was ruled as a republic (1649-1660). The country was divided between the Royalists who supported the king and the Parliamentarians who challenged monarchical authority. As well as reflecting the skills of its maker, this panel may hint at their Royalist loyalties, signified by Charles I’s caterpillars and Charles II’s butterflies. Embroidered figures often represented allegorical kings and queens to demonstrate loyalty to the crown. Other popular themes for stumpwork included stories from the bible and classical mythology.

This object is not on display.

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