the crochet worker
' The Crochet Worker, Mary Ann Purdon', by William Etty., R.A
(Image courtesy of York Museums Trust, York Art Gallery)
“LADIES MADE HAPPY! It is the observation of one of our best writers, that 'elegant occupation is the source of happiness to the amiable sex...’"
From an advertisement for Guide to Knitting, Netting and Crochet, Manchester Times, 1844.
In the 1840s, the first written instructions for crochet appeared in print. In the same decade, William Etty painted this portrait of his great-niece, Mary Ann Purdon. The painting is often referred to as a ‘Study’ which means that it was a preliminary work for a painting that was never completed.
The 1840s saw a craze for crochet, which had formerly been called ‘Shepherd’s Knitting’. This uncharacteristic, quiet painting, a study for ‘The Crochet Worker’, is undated but was probably painted in the late 1840s, towards the end of his life.
Artist William Etty, R.A., (1787 - 1849) was infamous for painting nudes, not cosy domestic scenes. John Constable famously called Etty’s painting 'Youth on the Prow, and Pleasure at the Helm', the 'bumboat' - referencing the naked women clamouring to catch bubbles while adrift in a golden-prowed boat. Wikipedia calls it “particularly gruesome”. (Unfairly - it’s a rather brilliant painting).
Etty began life as the son of York gingerbread maker, but became a famous Royal Academician. His statue stands outside York Art Gallery, where there was recently a popular exhibition of his work, William Etty: Art and Controversy. He was born one of ten children, to Matthew and Esther Etty. Only five of the young family made it to adulthood.
Etty’s father rented a mill on the Mount, in York and ran a gingerbread shop on Feasegate. William’s earliest drawings were done in chalk or in the flour on the mill's walls. Sometimes the gingerbread the family sold was gilded with elaborate designs. It is said some were gilded by Etty.
At 14, William was apprenticed to a printer. He worked for seven years as a compositor for The Hull Packet newspaper, living with his master and his family in the backstreets of Hull. He hated every moment of it. During that time, one of William’s older brothers, Thomas, went to sea and came home with a box of watercolours for him. Etty decided to ask his wealthy uncle to fund his studies to be an artist in London, and although his uncle ignored his first begging later, he (fortunately) caved in with the second. Etty arrived in London determined to become a painter, not a printer and in 1807 became a student at the Royal Academy. In his day, he was to become the most famous artist in England.
In his later years, he retired home to York, where he continued to paint, although he was useless with money and left anything practical to his brother, Walter. Etty was fond of his extended family, writing chatty letters to his brothers and nieces. A Victorian biography quotes an affectionate letter written in later life to an unnamed niece, possibly the one in the painting:
'A pretty little Robin is in the Minster. And sometimes - often indeed - when the Choir is in full chorus, it joins its little voice and ‘o’ertops them all.'
This painting is often subtitled 'Mary Ann Purdon, the artist’s niece'. Mary Ann was in fact, Etty’s great-niece, as she was the grand-daughter of his brother, John.
John’s daughter, Catharine Etty married Robert Purdon at All Saints Pavement, York, in 1825. Mary Ann was born in Hull in 1832 - she had one older brother, Charles. Robert Purdon, was on the 1841 census as 'clerk'.
The Victorians believed that 'the devil makes work for idle hands', and so preachy manuals on virtue were published alongside the first crochet manuals. Another title advertised alongside various Crochet and Knitting manuals in the 1840s, was the Guide to Female Happiness Through the Paths of Virtue.'Domestic amusements', like crochet, were the way to avoid being sinful. ‘Mrs Griffiths’ in a foreword to The Winchester fancy needlework instructor of 1847, said that at least needlewomen can '..feel the satisfaction of knowing that we are...innocently employed'.
In The Ladies’ Handbook of Knitting, Netting and Crochet, (1843), the writer stresses that crochet is a fairly recent trend:
'Crochet work has long been known, but it has only become a favourite with the fair votaries of the needle during the last few years.'
The Handbook stated that crochet was suited to shawls, table covers, pillows, mats, slippers, carriage mats, 'and a great variety of other things of elegance and utility'. The Victorian female ideal combined usefulness with beauty. Crochet was possibly seen as more refined than knitting. Down the road from Mary Ann Purdon, working class women were busy knitting stockings and Humber fishermen’s ganseys for their families and maybe for sale to make some extra income. Crochet on the other hand, was seen as delicate and refined, and suited to the middle class lady who could spend her time more usefully on doilies (then called 'D’Oyleys'), carriage mats or slippers.
The writer, Mrs savage suggested that using 'an ivory hook is most desirable. It is so light and becomes, in use, so glassy smooth, that it greatly facilitates the operation'. For the finest of work she preferred a steel hook.
Mary Ann is using white yarn, probably linen or silk and maybe an ivory or bone hook. These can still be found for bargain prices at vintage fairs or antique shops. When it came to selecting just the right silk for a project, the 1843 author advised 'No young lady should trust, at first, to her own judgement...but a little attention will soon render her a proficient in the art of choosing the most profitable materials....'
Etty died in 1849, when Mary Ann would have been only 17.
In the Morning Post, May 13th, 1850, I found a poignant list of the items for sale from Etty’s studio, after he died. Amongst the works was ‘The Crochet Worker’, on sale for £48 and 6 shillings. It was listed under ‘Unfinished Paintings’ which suggests it really was one of his last works, and one of the most domestic and endearing. Only three years later, it was for sale again in the sale of 'A series of Capital English Pictures'. This time, it went for ninety guineas, doubling its price.
Mary Ann and both her parents and brother vanish from the censuses and eluded look ups in the marriage and death records. They are lost to us, for now, at least. She never owned the painting of herself. Looking down at her work, Mary Ann remains enigmatic. But this Hull lass must be one of the earliest English crochet workers recorded for posterity, at the height of the first every crochet craze.
I wonder if she’d agree with 'E.L', writing the preface to The Royal magazine of Knitting, Netting and Crochet, in 1848, who said, grandly:
'What an allegory of human life is Crochet!'
I know I do.
By: 'A Lady'.