Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Object of the Day, Museum Edition: The Martha Edlin Beaded Jewelry Case, 1673

Martha Edlin's Jewelry Case, 1673
The Victoria and Albert Museum

Decorated with beadwork--a fashionable embroidery technique in the Seventeenth Century--in which tiny glass beads were threaded and sewn into a pattern, this jewelry case features a padded central panel which lifts open to reveal a compartment for organizing jewels. It is lined with pink taffeta. On the lid, surrounded by an oval wreath formed by silk-wrapped leaves of parchment, is a cockatrice in a tree, with flowers around, worked in glass beads. Outside the wreath, flowers and a leopard are worked in silks in tent and rococo stitches. On the frame surrounding the lid are birds and flowering plants worked in beads. The corners of the frame rest on four round, hand-turned wooden feet. The underside is wholly lined with marbled paper and the edges and seams are covered with silver braid.

Such a fancy case, especially one with such high-quality glass beads and other materials, could only have been made for a very wealthy household. Furthermore, a cabinet-maker would have been employed to make the structure of the case itself if the estate did not already have a man who was proficient in woodworking.

This case once belonged to one Martha Edlin. Her name and the year (1673) have been embroidered on the case. Clearly, Miss Edlin worked the case herself. Given the value of the case itself, we can see that Martha and her successors handled it with extreme care. For this reason, it remains in near pristine condition over three hundred years later.

Martha Edlin (1660-1725) is a name which has become very familiar to me over the past two years as I’ve studied, in detail collection of the V&A. Several items from Martha’s home are now housed in the museum. Martha worked a series of embroideries during her childhood, including this jewelry case, which were cherished by her descendants and passed through the female line of her family for over three hundred years.

Beyond her obvious skill with embroidery, sadly, we know very little about her life, except for the fact that she was married to a man called Richard Richmond. After Richmond’s death, Martha appears to have been a prosperous widow with a handsome home in Pinner in Greater London. She left the bulk of her estate to her daughters and grandchildren.

Among the other treasures created by Martha Edlin, the V&A owns an embroidered sampler in colored silks which Martha created at the age of eight, and a more complicated piece in white-work and cutwork which she crafted at nine. We have looked at those previously. By 1671, Martha’s eleventh year, she had embroidered the panels of an elaborate casket, and two years later. At thirteen, this beadwork jewelry case.

Curiously, for many years, this case became separated from the other Martha Edlin embroideries (which stayed in her family's possession until their acquisition by the Museum). In the Nineteenth Century, the case was purchased at an auction by an unknown buyer. Then, in 1927, the case was again sent to auction where it was purchased by by Sir Frederick Richmond—an ancestor of Martha’s who donated it to the V&A so that it might, once again, join the other beautiful work created by Miss Edlin. 

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