Sketchbooks are the notebooks of artists. They use them to explore influences, capture quick impressions, and save ideas for later work, all in (mostly) visual form. But like many notebooks, sketchbooks are often fragile, made of inexpensive paper that over time disintegrated, and often discarded by the artist her/himself, or tossed later after the artist's death.
Compared to Europe, there were relatively few artists in colonial America, and even fewer of their sketchbooks survive today. Only three are currently known: one each by John Singleton Copley and Benjamin West, and the one featured here by Ann Flower. Copley (1738-1815) and West (1738-1820) are prominent names in art history, men whose talent was encouraged and supported, and whose skill eventually carried them from the colonies to London and the celebrity of noble, even royal, patrons.
Ann Flower (1743-1778) was a Quaker woman from Philadelphia who would never have considered a career as a professional artist, or have travelled to Europe to pursue such a career. This modest sketchbook, or drawing book, and several pieces of her needlework are all that remain of her youthful creative spirit. It's believed to date from around 1753-1760, when Ann would have been an adolescent, living in the largest city of the American colonies.
I saw Ann's sketchbook and her embroidered book cover, bottom right, as part of the Embroidery: The Language of Art exhibition currently at Winterthur Museum (see here and here for other posts I've written about this exhibition), and I learned more about her and her work at the Winterthur conference inspired by the exhibition this weekend. Amanda Isaac, Associate Curator, George Washington's Mount Vernon, has extensively studied Ann Flower and her work, and spoke about her drawing book as well as women's artistry in colonial Philadelphia.
Ann's sketchbook is small, only about 8" x 5" and made from fifteen sheets of paper. While it was purchased commercially, over time she tore some pages out, and added another. She drew in pencil and in ink, and added color with watercolor paints purchased from Philadelphia shops. The early pages of the book are filled with the kind of brightly colored, fanciful birds popular in 18thc embroidery, including a stupendous peacock, middle left, plus a rabbit, and a cat. Ann was a skilled needleworker, and it's possible she was experimenting with new designs or archiving older ones. There are also designs for flowers, vases, and animals.
But later in the book, Ann also drew from her life: pictures of Philadelphia women, middle right, detailing their dress, and a view of a house that may have been her own. (I particularly liked the thin black ribbons worn around the throat of one of the women that, according to Ms. Isaac, were a worldly fashion embraced by young Quaker women around 1760, and deplored by their elders - exactly the kind of thing that a teen-aged artist would note.) Fragments of faces in faded pencil peer from the pages, and more realistic drawings of flowers and birds were likely copied from botanical prints. Although untutored and unsophisticated, there's an undeniable energy to her drawings, and a quick eye for detail.
The final section of the sketchbook contains carefully inked patterns for embroidery, as well as colored drawings of flowers copied from a well-known 18thc book: Augustin Heckel's The Florist; An extensive and curious collection of Flowers/For the imitation of/Young Ladies,/Either in Drawings, or in Needlework. Ann's versions weren't literal copies of Heckel's work (so much for ladylike imitation), but her own interpretations. When she designed the embroidery for the book cover, she combined Heckel's flowers with her own to create a new design, a bouquet tied with curling ribbons, and clumps of strawberries on the spine.
The book cover is the last known example of Ann's needlework, and it likely must have held special significance for her. It covers a copy of the Anglican Church's Book of Common Prayer that was given to her by her father around the time of her marriage in 1765. Ann left the Quaker meeting to marry a man who was an Anglican, and the prayer book may have been her father's way of supporting her as she left her old faith behind. As Ms. Isaac suggested, the elaborately worked cover, too, may also been Ann's way of making her new religion and new life her own by surrounding it with familiar flowers and needlework.
While I know most of you won't be able to visit Wintherthur to see Ann Flower's sketchbook in person, the museum has made it available to read or download online here.
Many thanks to Amanda Isaac for sharing her research on Ann Flower.
Above: Illustrations from a Sketchbook, by Ann Flower, watercolor, pencil, and ink on paper, c1753-1760. Winterthur Museum.
Below: Embroidered Book Cover, by Ann Flower, wool and silk on linen, c1765. Winterthur Museum.