10. Margaret Cavendish on Art, Nature, and Textiles

Tapestry Bolsover Sept 2015
Tapestry in the Star Chamber, Bolsover Castle

In the Star Chamber at Bolsover Castle, the door behind the tapestry leads to William Cavendish’s bedchamber and a room called “the nursery,” but obviously the tapestry can be dropped down, probably for formal occasions, so that the door does not show. There is a second door on the same wall and a second tapestry, which can be raised and lowered in the same way as the first.  With the tapestries down, the doors are hidden and the effect is of a single wall with a great expanse of color.

The tapestries contain large figures, but also small items, especially along the edges.  On the edges of the tapestries pictured above, there are various sorts of fruit, including grapes.   These particular tapestries had not been woven at the time of Margaret and William Cavendish.  Rather, they are recently woven and intended by English Heritage to accurately portray the sorts of tapestry that hung in such places as Bolsover in the seventeenth century.

Bess of Hardwick Print
Bess of Hardwick

A poem by Margaret, “Of a Wrought Carpet Presented to the View of Working Ladies” (Poems and Fancies, 1653), describes a carpet that includes many of the pictorial elements of the tapestries currently in the Star Chamber.  For instance, the edges of the carpet are decorated with fruit, including grapes.  Parts of the poem’s title are a little unclear for the modern reader, though it is possible to make some reasonable guesses.  The Oxford English Dictionary online explains that “wrought” can mean “decorated with needlework” when applied to fabric.  The working ladies are probably Cavendish’s “waiting ladies,” for whom needlework would have been a recommended occupation.  They are not “working class,” of course, but working with fabric was felt to be a good activity for upper-class women.  The situation of the poem, then, might well involve waiting ladies who are examining a carpet with a view to duplicating designs in needlework in cushions.  The wealthy and powerful Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury,  was famous for loving to do needlework, and Bess, when alive, had lived at nearby Hardwick Hall. Margaret may have had the example of Bess in mind when writing the poem

Readers of the poem, along with being given a description of the carpet, are treated to a discussion of art and nature.  Literary discussions of this sort were common in Margaret’s time, but this poem has some interesting and comic turns. Margaret makes a joke of the traditional story of actual birds pecking at representations of grapes painted by the classical Greek Zeuxis’.

The fruits [in the carpet] so hung, as did invite the taste,
And small birds picking seen to make a waste.

The birds do not “peck” at the grapes but “pick” at them.  In the 1668 edition, various revisions to the poem have been made, but the word “picking” remains unaltered, suggesting that “picking” is not a spelling variant of “pecking.”  In a play on words, the birds are seen to pick, I would say, at the threads in the carpet.  The result is a “waste,” i.e., a tatter. Now my reading is not the only one possible.  One can pick at food, though normally that does not lay waste to what is on the plate. In any event the poem draws attention to itself as a poem, a work of art commenting on another work of art.  The fact of multiple, alternate readings, reinforces the self-consciousness of the poem as a poem.  It is not simply a praise of a carpet.

Zeuxis grapes Oct 2015
Print of Zeuxis Painting Grapes

Another instance of Margaret asking her readers to share a laugh appears when the lustful gods in the carpet are said look natural because they resemble statues.

Those figures [the gods] all like sculpture do bear out
To lie on flats many will make a doubt.

Looking back at the tapestries that are hung in the Star Chamber, I am inclined to see the large figures there as resembling statues more than living people. Flemish painting of the time (which Margaret knew well) was very good at creating what looked like living people, but that may never have been the intent of the creators of tapestries and carpets. Fabric, it seems to me, does not lend itself to capturing the nuances of actual life, and especially faces, but it is not at all bad at representing people as statues. People depicted as sculpture in set poses fit nicely into a world where statues of biblical and classical figures were highly valued.

Still, there is comic irony in the poem in the way that art imitates art and not nature.  In a final example, a priest is convinced by the play of light and shade in the carpet that a grove of trees is actual, a part of nature.  He feels he is in a genuine wood and apparently prays to the trees.  This might be a Roman priest, though Margaret does write about Druids.  But, of course, the priest is himself a part of the carpet.  How can he be fooled as she suggests?  She is, I think, asking us to chuckle.

Margaret ends the poem by saying,

This piece [the carpet] the pattern is of artful skill
Art, imitator is of nature still.

But mostly this particular poem actually says something quite different from what is suggested in its final lines  Art often imitates itself.  I doubt that Cavendish would claim that art always imitates art, but she does like to consider complications and conundrums.  Her approach brings to mind Magritte’s painting of a pipe which is accompanied by the title, “This is not a pipe.”

There is a final irony that does not come out of the poem but out of other writing by Margaret:  She says in a preface to Sociable Letters (1664) that she does not want her waiting ladies doing needlework.  Rather, they should be reading, presumably improving their minds.  We, of course, should not see her as as someone who disliked the world of fabric.  She loved to create very original “fashions” in clothing for herself, but she also loved to shift her self-presentation around for various reasons.  One of those reasons was that she liked to keep people guessing.

By the way, behind the second door concealed by a tapestry in the Star Chamber was a withdrawing room called the Marble Closet.  Perhaps a place for a private chat if one were an honored guest at a large gathering.

Fainting couch marble closet off of Star Chamber Bolsover
Behind the Second Door — the Marble Closet

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