on 1 August 2001
This beautifully produced book is a newer, updated and expanded version of the same Author's "Antique Needlework" from 1982. Whilst it covers similar ground to the original book, i.e. the development of embroidery in England from the Middle Ages to the end of the 20th century, it incorporates considerable quantities of new material, and is lavishly illustrated with beautifully clear coloured photographs. The new book also contains additional chapters exploring Chinese and Indian embroidery as they relate to the development of English embroidery, as well as chapters about embroidery for furniture and heraldic embroidery.
Although the author's enthusiasm and respect for the embroiderers of the 11th to 19th centuries is clearly expressed in the text, his reservations about 19th and 20th century standards are also apparent. One gains the impression that he is not much impressed by 20th century embroidery in particular, finding it difficult to place in an historical context of development and lacking in excellance. In this, I feel he does an injustice to the embroiderers of the twentieth century, and to current embroidery artists whose work is moving in new and previously unexplored directions, whilst maintaining the standard of excellance established by their forebears. It is, however, true that the historical significance of such developments is difficult to assess whilst they are still in progress.
Synge's metier is the past, where the context and significance of developments in embroidery can be explored and assessed, and this he does in a lucid, informative and entertaining manner. The photographs have been well chosen to illustrate the story told in the book, and include some less well-known as well as famous pieces, which almost makes the volume worth having for the illustrations alone.
The book is not without errors, and some surprising omissions. Although it purports to be a history of embroidery in Great Britain, with discussons of other lands where they are relevant to developments in Britain, the emphasis in the book is strongly in favour of English embroidery, and those expecting an account of embroidery in Scotland would be disappointed. For example, some well known Scottish embroiderers, such as Jessie Newberry and the Glasgow school, do not even rate a mention. Similarly a quote from Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus used to support the assertion that girls spent so much time sewing samplers that they lost their skill in conversation "Fair Philomel, she but lost her tongue and in a tedious sampler sewed her mind" shows ignorance of the Classical Greek myth from which this couplet is derived, in which Philomel, having been raped and had her tongue cut out, was only able to tell the story of what had happened to her by embroidering/weaving it. The sampler as means of communication, not as the destroyer thereof! This error was also contained in the original book, and was one that this reader had particularly hoped not to find in the new volume. The passage containing it is identical to the paragraph in the original book, which leads to the inevitable suspicion that despite the 'complete revision' described in the preface other passages will also have been transfered verbatim from the older book.
However, these fairly minor points aside, this is a well written, well constructed volume, and a fascinating read for anyone interested in the history and development of embroidery. For the modern day embroiderer, collector of antiques or student of social history or decorative arts, this book has a great deal to offer, either to read from cover to cover or to dip into from time to time.
In-depth academic-standard studies of embroidery are rarely published in popular book form. If embroidery is your 'thing', don't miss this book.