In that remarkable revival of the arts and handicrafts of design, which has, curiously enough, characterised the close of a century of extraordinary mechanical invention and commercial development, that most domestic, delicate, and charming of them all, perhaps, the craft of the needle, holds a very distinct position.
In its various applications needlework covers an extensive field, and presents abundant scope both for design and craftsmanship, from the highly imaginative kind - represented by such designs as those of Burne-Jones - to the simplest and most reserved ornamental hem upon a child's frock. The true order of its development, indeed, is rather from the child's frock to the imaginative tapestry-like hanging - from the embroidered smock of the peasant to the splendour of regal and ecclesiastical robes, with all their pomp of heraldry and symbolism.
In the history of needlework, no less than in that of all art, one may follow the course of human history upon which it is the decorative commentary and accompaniment, just as the illuminated initials, borders, and miniatures are the artist's commentary on the books of the Middle Ages.
If taste can be said to be of more importance in one art than another, it is certainly all important in needlework. It enters in at every stage - in planning appropriate design, in choice of scale, in choice of materials, and, above all, of colour.
Embroidery is essentially a personal art, and this, perhaps, in addition to the fact of its adaptability, not only to daily domestic use and adornment, but also to ordinary conditions - not requiring special workshop or expensive plant for its production - has contributed to the success of its revived practice, which is due to the enthusiasm, taste, and patience of our countrywomen.
Even considered as an art of expression - over and above, although of course never dissociated from, its decorative value - the work of the needle within its own limits, and by its own special means and materials, has quite a distinct value; certain textures and surfaces, such as the plumage of birds and the colour and surfaces of flowers, being capable of being rendered by the needle with a beauty and truth beyond the ordinary range of pictorial art.
In the retinue of beauty, among her sister crafts of design, Embroidery, then, seems likely to hold her place.
Revived at first by a few ladies of taste and skill, important schools, such as the Royal School of Art Needlework, have since been founded for the study and practice of the art, the subject being now included in their list by the Technical Education Board of the London County Council.
The foundation-stone has just been laid of the new building in Exhibition Road, which is to house the Royal School in its new development, and under such able instructors and lecturers as the author of this work, needlework, as an art, should have an important future before it.
Mr. W. G. Paulson Townsend deals with the subject mainly from the practical point of view, although not unmindful of the historic side; and in view of the great interest now taken in the craft, and its many followers, such a work, with its reproductions of existing examples and its practical diagrams of stitches, will be both timely and useful.
June 29th, 1899.