I feel that is has been a privilege to have been able to research the Brereton bed hangings for they are not only a wonderful set of early patchworks and interior design of the early nineteenth century but also give a poignant history of a Norfolk family.
Anna Margaretta Lloyd (1756 – 1819) married her first cousin John Brereton on in 1780 and was to make her home at Brinton Hall, near Melton Constable in Norfolk. In the following 20 years she was to know both great happiness and terrible sadness for 5 of her 10 children died, 4 in infancy. It is said that the death of her son John at the age of 14 in 1800 was an event that altered Anna Margaretta’s life forever.
The Rev. William Upjohn in his ‘Testament to Departed Worth’ after Anna Margaretta’s death in 1819 gives some indications of the trauma of this event. He describes how John’s sudden and unexpected death plunged her into an ‘abyss of sorrow’ which nearly destroyed her mind and body. Rev Upjohn attributes her salvation to religion but I believe that the art of patchworking also played a part for we know that the act of designing and making patchwork is known to be therapeutic for those who suffer both mental and physical stress and illness. The very act of stitching gives help to those in need. Additionally the conversation of any group of women who are sitting round a table at their sewing will be wide ranging for the lack of eye contact caused by a concentration on stitch allows women space to air their problems and personal feelings.
The hangings are said to have made been made, from cotton and linen fabrics, between 1801 and 1805. This is a time when elite women such as Anna Margaretta would have had considerable input into home furnishings. Patchwork hangings were not uncommon and would have provided a considerable ‘project’ for any competent needlewoman, particularly someone who wanted something to fill empty time.
The first years of the nineteenth century were a time when cotton and in particular cotton chintz was starting to become widely available. Manufacturers embraced their freedom to trade with enthusiasm and developed new designs, new dye stuffs and new methods of printing for cotton cloth. There is no count of the number of individual fabrics in the hangings but there are certainly a great number of different designs. The family have suggested that visiting friends and family provided fabrics but this seems unlikely unless such people were part of the textile trade. It seems more probable that her husband John used his business interests within the textile trade to access to off cuts and samples and even books of samples for his wife as some of the patches show marks consistent with sample fabrics. In 1792 John is variously described as trader, draper, grocer, tallow chandler, soap boiler and feed factor and we can surmise that he may have returned with fabric on his frequent trips to London.
In her patchwork Anna Margaretta used a variety of geometric shapes, including hexagons and long, sometimes called ‘coffin’ hexagons, pieced blocks and appliqué. Perhaps most remarkable is her use of ‘broderie perse’ for the baskets of flowers that she frames with wreaths of hexagons. She uses her embroidery skills to create patchwork pictures from lengths of chintz fabric. The researcher can ponder how she learnt this technique. Was her inspiration provided by floral designs on quilted petticoats or had she admired Indian embroideries of the eighteenth century? The hangings are like an early nineteenth century garden for they use a large number of floral fabrics; we see examples of large sun flowers, daffodils, peonies, morning glory, chrysanths, roses and many other flower types. We forget the seasons but marvel in their associations.
It is possible that Anna Margaretta had help in her work. Family history states that Anna Margaretta’s daughter Mary helped her mother and may have even finished the set of hangings after Anna Margaretta’s death. It is true to say that the coverlet does show fabrics that were produced in the late 1820s and 1830s and also exhibits evidence of remodelling. We know also that Anna Margaretta’s sister Elizabeth married her husband’s twin Abel Brereton and that they and two unmarried daughters lived nearby. Whoever the helpers or any subsequent needlewomen were, they reinforce the lasting vision of Anna Margaretta Brereton in providing posterity with a unique set of early bed hangings that represent a full compendium of early nineteenth century chintz fabrics.
Additionally as Rev. William Upjohn writes of Anna Margaretta, we must ‘cherish her memory as a bright example of cheerful godliness’ and ‘imitate her example in everything’.