Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Stevengraphs: silken Valentine’s Day gifts

February 14 presents something of a double whammy on my wallet: not only is it Valentine’s Day, but it’s also the Business Manager’s birthday. Mrs P and I have known each other for a long time and it has always caused a problem.

See a slideshow of silken Stevengraphs

One year I recall buying her a wonderful Nailsea glass ship under a glass dome – a Victorian fancy that I thought she would like as much as me. She did, but she’s never let me forget just whose present it really was.

Then there was the year when, following mutual agreement, we decided not to buy anything

for each other’s birthdays. I didn’t even send her a card and she’s given me cause to regret it ever since.

This year I’m taking her to dinner followed by the theatre. I had thought about buying her the picture illustrated here – it’s a woven silk picture of Lady Godiva’s Procession, but then I remembered the Nailsea ship squabble.

Leofric (968–1057), the Earl of Mercia, had a similar problem with his missus. He was forever being nagged by Lady Godiva to take pity on the people of Coventry and stop taxing them so harshly.

In the end, he tried to silence her by challenging her to ride through the streets in the buff. If she did so, he would relent.

Ever the clever one (aren’t they always) she did just that, hiding her modesty behind her long hair and having first commanded everyone to stay indoors and close their curtains.

Apart from the knights who accompanied her, only one other man saw her – a tailor named Tom, which is where the expression “Peeping Tom” is said to originate.

Fittingly, the woven picture of her ride was made by Thomas Stevens of Coventry, a silk manufacturer, whose idea of producing them saved his entire workforce from penury.

Over the years until about 1938 literally hundreds of the so-called Stevengrahps were produced, featuring every subject imaginable.

Fancy silk ribbon weaving began in Coventry in about 1700. However, when the French invented the Jacquard loom in 1801, it was they who led the way in mass-production of silk woven designs.

The Jacquard produced mile after mile of ribbon to patterns reproduced on punched cards which were fed automatically through the looms. The machines were adopted by Coventry manufacturers and by 1840, half the city's workforce was employed in the industry.

Thomas Stevens went into the business straight from school and established his own mill in 1854. However, in 1860, the British government adopted legislation removing duty on imported silk goods and cheap foreign material flooded the home market.

Coventry was one of the victims with mill closures and mass unemployment but entrepreneur Stevens hit on the simple idea of adapting the Jacquard looms to produce vertical rather than horizontal designs. When cut into short lengths and finished with silk tassels, they made charming bookmarks.

Three years after the slump, Stevens had created a new market and his woven bookmarks were selling like hot cakes. The continued livelihood of his loyal workforce was assured.

Instead of selling his wares to the drapery trade, Stevens persuaded booksellers and stationers to retail the bookmarks which were eye-catching and colourful creations depicting illuminated texts from the Bible, poems, Christmas, new year, birthday and – yes - Valentine's Day greetings, portraits of royalty, and contemporary scenes.

Stevens subsequently claimed to have produced 900 different bookmark designs for the home market, the Continent and the United States, although only about half that number has been catalogued by current research.

Encouraged by his early success, in 1879 Stevens introduced mass-produced woven silk pictures, which he fitted in simple cardboard mounts so they would last longer.

They were introduced at the little-known York Exhibition which opened on May 7 that year, where two Stevens looms could be seen producing scenes of local interest: the London and York Stage Coach and Dick Turpin's Ride to York.

Their striking almost three-dimensional effect impressed visitors who were able to buy them straight from the loom for a shilling (5p) each.

New pictures were issued at the rate of one a month and at least 70 different topics are covered including portraits of royalty, sporting, military, religious and political figures; exhibitions, castles and well known buildings; horse racing; coursing and fox hunting; sports; battleships and even fire engines. Some are surprisingly rare, others relatively common, with prices to match.

Stevens died in 1888, but the factory continued to be run by his two sons until it was made a limited company in 1908. Fashions had changed by about 1914 and demand for Stevengrahps dwindled.

The portraits of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother produced in 1938 were probably the last to be made before the factory was totally destroyed in the Coventry blitz of 1940.

The hallmarks of a good Stevengraph are brightly coloured silks, with an unstained and original card mount. Their enemies are strong sunlight, which will bleach out the colour; dampness, which will cause the colours to stain or run and card mounts that become brittle with age.

Avoid faded examples or those with dirty or damaged mounts. They are impossible to restore and values can be affected seriously. Bookmarks change hands at between £5 to £50, depending on their size and how elaborate they are.

Mounted pictures can be eight or 10 times that amount depending on condition, rarity and subject. Pious or religious scenes are least desirable and therefore cheapest. Queen Victoria is worth more than Gladstone, but much less than cricketer W.G. Grace, for example.

Pictures show, from top:

Stevengraphs need not cost the earth. This and others are coming up for sale at Peter Wilson’s in Nantwich, Cheshire, next Thursday (Feb 19). Godiva’s Procession is being offered together with “Turpin’s Ride to York on his Bonnie Black Bess” and “The Present Time” showing an early steam train. with an estimate of just £30-50, they sound like a bargain

“The First Over” a scarcer Stevengraph with a cricketing theme, estimated at £100-150

“The Water Jump”, one of a series of five Stevengraphs with a horse racing theme, together estimated at £80-120

“God Speed the Plough”, being sold with four others including the well known hunting trio “The Meet”, “The Chase” and “The Kill”, together estimated at £50-70

Labels: ,


Anonymous Lucy Ruggier said...

I have two silk portraits of jockeys, which are nicely framed and in good condition. I have just put them in a local auction in Tavistock in Devon on the 1st of July and need to know if I should put a good reserve on them or withdraw them for private sale. Can you advise?

Many thanks

24 June 2010 at 04:42  
Anonymous Christopher Proudlove said...

I always recommend vendors to put reserves on anything they offer at auction. It is the safeguard against objects being sold too cheaply. Ask your auctioneer to give you a saleroom estimate of the value of your two portraits and what he suggests they should be reserved at. The final say on what that figure should be is up to you, although try not to be greedy. There are pluses and minuses to selling at auction, the main minus being that you have to pay the auctioneer a commission. However, the pluses are that your goods will be put before a large number of buyers and the competitive nature of auction bidding means there is no upper limit to what things can fetch. Selling privately takes more effort on your part, and you might not necessarily get what the objects are worth. However, you do get you money straight away without losing any onf it in fees to the auction house. Good luck with the sale.

24 June 2010 at 06:11  
Anonymous Ros Bushill said...

Hi, Noticed your website on Thomas Stevens and wondered if you may be able to help me. I have a triple set of 3 silks from 1864 of Shakespeare, his birthp[lace and Stratford church, these are all pinned together with a crest button on the back of the button is a white round sticker with T. Stevens, 32 Queen Street, Coventry. They are in beautiful condition and still firmly together. From bits of research I guess these to have been made at his first factory. Please can you help with any advise of them.
Many Many thanks

18 May 2012 at 08:18  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home