Monday, 10 January 2011

Embroidery by Helen A Lamb

Illustration: Helen Adelaide Lamb. Embroidered panel, c1909.

Helen Adelaide Lamb was part of the Scottish embroidery revival of the very early twentieth century. Although producing work in a number of disciplines including illustration, it is perhaps her contribution to the craft of embroidery that we remember today. It is a misnomer to call Scottish embroidery during this period a craft as in many respects a whole group of embroiderers from Ann Macbeth, Jessie Newbery, and indeed Helen Lamb, helped to develop the craft into a near fine art. A number of critics during this period went even further and saw the history of Scottish embroidery reaching its most valued and productively creative period.

Of the two examples shown in this article, both from the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, the first appears as a typical example of what would be termed Scottish embroidery, or perhaps to be more exact the embroidery of Glasgow. Lamb had studied at Glasgow Art School and was involved with the Arts & Crafts movement of that city which placed her at the forefront of the contemporary decorative arts of Scotland. Although both studied and formal, there is still something relaxed and creatively decorative about the piece. Living roses are scattered across the composition, which are then picked up and re-represented within the pattern work of the figure's dress. The rose motif, whether pale and living or darker and part of a dress pattern, are all brought together with the rose in the woman's hair. A butterly is noticeable on the left hand side of the composition, its colour tying it in with the figure's sleeve. It is a charming representation that straddles both the formalised traditional as well as the casual and contemporary.

Strangely the second example seems more English in tone and has connotations that place it somewhat closer to some of the nursery rhyme work of Walter Crane and  Kate Greenaway and in this respect perhaps it is a little less satisfactory an example of Scottish embroidery. However, by drawing conclusions between the two pieces displayed it makes it all the more apparent what an individual and unique creative direction the Scottish decorative arts really took.

Illustration: Helen Adelaide Lamb. Embroidered panel, c1910.

It is a mistake to think of placing English and Scottish crafts under the heading of British as the two cultures, while sharing one island were and are uniquely separate, having different influences and origins. The English Arts and Crafts movement for example was much more insular and retrospective, while the Scottish was relatively forward looking, contemporary and much more European based. It should always be born in mind that the Scottish Arts & Crafts movement had more in common with the Wiener Werkstatte for example than it ever did with the English Arts & Crafts movement. In fact Scottish decorative arts during this period of the early twentieth century was much more focused, creative and imaginative, dealing with contemporary issues of decoration and design and therefore should be seen as being at the forefront of British decorative arts during this period, rather than that of the English.

Increasingly, Scottish design and decoration during the early years of the twentieth century, has seen itself become more closely aligned with other contemporary European movements during this period. It is perhaps a more realistic approach to the different origins and aspects of Scottish creative culture, compared to that of the English. Tying the history of Scottish decorative arts into the main frame of the larger European decorative arts history, independently of England, has been a long time in coming.

Lamb herself produced creative work in a number of disciplines other than embroidery. A good place to still see a range of these pieces in Scotland is Dunblane Cathedral. She produced work that ranges from prayer books, illuminated hangings to glass etching, most of which are still in situ at the cathedral. A number of examples can be seen at the Dunblane Cathedral website, which is listed below in the Reference links section.

Reference links: 
Dunblane Cathedral
Scottish Embroidery: Mediaeval to Modern
Embroideries From Needlework Development Scheme
Catalogue of the Embroideries Given to the Museum By Needlework Development Scheme
Scottish Crafts
Arts and Crafts Movement (World of Art)
Hand, Heart and Soul: The Arts and Crafts Movement in Scotland
Glasgow 1900: Art and Design
The Arts and Crafts Movements in Dublin & Edinburgh 1885-1925
A Guide to the Mansfield Traquair Centre
Phoebe Anna Traquair 1852 - 1936
Glasgow Girls: Women in Art and Design 1880-1920
The Glasgow Style: Artists in the Decorative Arts, Circa 1900 (Schiffer Book with Values)

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