By Bill Poese.
THE FASCINATING silk pictures that we know today as Stevengraphs actually had their origin in a depression in England's far flung textile industry, and Richard Cobden, a 19th century English economist and statesman, may claim some of the credit.
In 1860, the so-called Cobden Treaty, a free-trade treaty negotiated by Cobden and removing England's protective tariff on silks, brocades and ribbons, among other things, took effect. Its impact upon Coventry, where English ribbon weaving had been concentrated for 150 years, was devastating. Forty five per cent of Coventry's population earned their livelihood from ribbon weaving. Looms were destroyed, and during a two-year period 9,000 persons emigrated to foreign countries in search of employment.
But there was one man who was resourceful enough to overcome the blow sufficiently to provide for his own family, the weavers in his employ, and, in a small way, to bolster the economy of Coventry. This man was Thomas Stevens, born in 1828 in the outlying district of Foleshill.
As a boy, Thomas Stevens had learned the ribbon weaver's trade at the firm of Pears and Franklin in Upper Well Street, Coventry, and in 1854 he set up his own business in Queen Street. He had learned all the aspects of his trade well and the jacquard loom was of particular interest to him.
This loom was a French invention of about 1790 of Joseph Jacquard that had been introduced into England in 1820, and its excellence was recognized quickly, so that by 1838 as many as 2,200 jacquard looms were thumping in Coventry. The principle of the jacquard loom is based upon the fact that mechanically-operated devices controlled loops and pulleys to weave patterns in textiles.
Thomas Stevens improved, adapted, and refined the loom by a series of inventions so that he could produce silk pieces that have exquisite detail with what seems to be a three-dimensional effect. He produced pictures, musical notes, lettering and portraits of amazing beauty. The first step in producing Stevengraph works was an artist's drawing on squared paper. These designs were originals, copies of portraits, copies of prints, and often of texts in the manner of illuminated manuscripts. The Victorian love of covering the entire surface of the piece is often in evidence in these pieces. The squared paper pictures look like designs for cross-stitch embroidery work.
Large cards were made that carried out the artist's picture and a separate card was made and per- forated for each color in every single woven line of the picture. The cards were put into an endless chain arrangement and placed in the Jacquard loom to regulate the operation of the warp threads. Every time the shuttle carrying the weft was placed across the loom, a different card calling for a variation in the warp threads and consequently in the pattern was brought into use. Many pieces used ten to 12 colors. After the entire pattern was completed, a space was provided and the pattern began to repeat itself. In this way, the weaver produced spools of beautifully woven picture ribbons that were later cut apart at the separating areas. Because of the work involved in placing the cards in the loom, many picture ribbons were woven before a change was made and a different set of cards was used. One 13-inch-long bookmarker that Stevens produced required 5,500 perforated cards.
Thomas Stevens was not the only Coventry weaver who was able to survive the depression by weaving pictorial ribbons nor was he the first to produce pictures on the Jacquard loom. As early as 1801 in Lyons, black-and-white portraits had amazed people. In 1855, James Hart wove silk pictures depicting Queen Victoria and Napoleon 111, and in 1858 John Caldicott wove a ribbon with a portrait of Edward Ellice, who was the Member of Parliament from Coventry. But the best known of the jacquard picture weavers was Thomas Stevens. It is he who stands out above the others and it is he who invented the term "Stevengraph."
By 1862, Stevens had produced nine bookmarkers of different designs. During 1862 he registered four new patterns: "Unchanging Love," "I wish you a Merry Christmas," "Thanksgiving," and "Thy Bridal Day." During this same year he pro- duced a few larger pieces that were desirable for framing, but he evidently changed his mind about the pictures because he produced no more of them during the next 16 years, confining himself, instead, to producing his popular bookmarkers.
Just who made the first Stevengraph-type bookmarker is a matter of considerable dispute and the contenders for the honor are John Caldicott, John Ratliff, and perhaps Thomas Stevens. Among Stevens's contemporaries who did the same sort of jacquard picture weaving were, in addition to those just named, the brothers John and Joseph Cash, and Dalton and Barton.
In 1863, the royal marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales, and in 1864, the tercentenary of Shakespeare's birth gave the weavers ample subject matter to satisfy the demands of a souvenir-hungry nation. Strangely enough, at this time Stevens's competition dropped out of the race and left him a clear field for a period of time to produce his bookmarkers and allied items.
By the late 1880s he had produced more than 900 items and among them are sachets, birthday verses, Christmas and New Year greetings, calendars, fans, valentines, ladies' neckties and sashes, emblematic sashes for fraternal orders, pictures suitable for framing, and of course, the always popular bookmarkers, many with tassel-tipped ends. They vary in size from 1 1/4 by 4 inches to 7 1/2 by 13 inches for the mounted pictures and his various items sold for as low as 5 cents, to as much as $14 for a sash. Stevengraphs were given as premiums to people who subscribed to The Ladies Floral Cabinet in 1877.
Competition developed in the 1870s by Bolland and Welch and Lenton, who copied his bookmarkers, and in the 1880s by W. H. Grant, who imitated his mounted pictures.
Stevens became the father or seven children. In 1878 he moved to London to supervise his expanding business. By this time he had sales agencies in New York City, Cincinnati, Leipzig, Glasgow, Dublin, and Londonderry, in addition to London. To stimulate sales at the expositions that were popular during the period of his greatest activity he sent weavers with his version of the jacquard loom to many of them. There, people could watch a piece being woven, buy it and take it home as a souvenir of the fair. Among the places he or his sons did this were the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, 1876; York Exposition, 1879; Edinburgh, 1886; Manchester, 1887; Cincinnati 1888; London, 1890; Chicago, 1893; St. Louis, 1904; and Paris, Antwerp, Liverpool, Bristol, Boston, Brussels, and Paris.
After winning more than 30 medals and diplomas, Thomas Stevens died on October 24, 1888, in London and was buried in the family plot in Coventry. Two of his sons, Thomas and Inger, who, before his death managed the Coventry plant, con- tinued the business.
Thomas Stevens had established pleasant working conditions in an industry that was noted for poor conditions. His plant had adequate lighting, ventilation, a pleasant dining area, and it was sanitary.
The heavy German bombings of Coventry in 1940 leveled his buildings and his business, but he lives on in the appreciation of hundreds of antique collectors who specialize in Stevengraphs, including 175 active members of the Stevengraph Collectors' Association with its headquarters at Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y., and members in England, Canada, Scotland, Austrialia, South Africa, and New Zealand as well as the United States.
The highest price paid at auction for a Stevengraph was $1,560 in April, 1972, in London. The article was a mint example of L' Immaculee Conception and is extremely rare. Many examples of Stevens's work, however, are offered for modest prices that are within the price range of many collectors. Individuals are concerned with authenticating items in their collections as being made by Stevens and also with dating them. Both of these matters present difficulties. A pattern could be set up on the cards in 1865, and many times years later the same cards could be used again to produce identical items. There was no limited edition with the mold or etching plate being destroyed. Certain items can be dated by the events they portray and the dates they bear as the one for the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876. Some can be dated by the number of awards that are noted on the paper backing on some pieces. Many, of course, are signed in the weaving. A diamond-shaped registry mark like that on pottery dates many since this device was used from 1842 to 1883.
Thomas Stevens was a businessman who produced a salable luxury or souvenir product. If the subject matter was attractive and the sentiment appealed, people would buy them for themselves or as a little gift for a friend. As a result, he and his successors' designs reflect Victorian tastes that were, in many cases, universal tastes at the time. Among the portraits are those of Queen Victoria, Shakespeare, King Edward VII, John L. Sullivan, Robert Burns, "Buffalo Bill" Cody, Prince Otto von Bismark, and President and Mrs. Cleveland.
Under the general heading of views we find many English castles such as Balmoral, Kenilworth, Warwick, and Windsor. Other views include the Crystal Palace, Houses of Parliament, Tower of London and the Tower Bridge, and the Centennial Exposition of Ohio Valley and Central States, Cincinnati, 1888. Historical pictures include Columbus Leaving Spain, Landing of Columbus, Declaration of Independence, and the Death of Nelson. Classical and legendary subject matter can be found in those weavings that depict Peeping Tom, Leda, The Lady Godiva Procession, and Bath of Psyche. Certain items display the sentimentality of Victorians as God Speed the Plough, Good Old Days, Called to the Rescue, Grace Darling, and For Life or Death. Many battleships and trains are pictured and so are many sporting events. Among the latter are depictions of Spanish bullfighting, horse racing, fox hunting, cricket, bicycle racing, tennis, and baseball.
Thomas Stevens was a highly skilled master of a delicate craft that resulted in articles that will be held in high esteem as long as their silken fibers hold together.
The Silk Pictures Of Thomas Stevens, by Wilma Sinclair Le Van Baker. Exposition Press, New York.
Stevengraphs And Other Victorian Silk Pictures, by Geoffrey A. Godden, Barrie
Stevengraphs, by Austin Sprake & Michael Darby, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Thomas Stevens's Ribbon Pictures, by Wilma Sinclair Le Van Baker, The Antiques Journal, December, 1962.
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