To an accomplished needlewoman embroidery offers every scope for art, short of the pictorial; and the artist is not only justified in lavishing work upon it, but at times bound to do so, more especially when it comes to working with materials in themselves rich and costly. A beautiful material, if you are to better it (and if not why work upon it at all?), must be beautifully worked. Costly material is worth precious work ; and there should be by rights a preciousness about the needlework employed upon it, preciousness of design and of execution. To put the value into the material is mere vulgarity.
It seems to an artist almost to go without saying, that the labour on work claiming to be art should be in excess of the value of the stuff which goes to make it. What we really prize is the hand work and the brain work of the artist; and the more precious the stuff we employ, the more strictly we are bound to make artistic use of it. That does not mean pictorial use. You can get, no doubt, with the needle effects more or less pictorial - most often less pictorial than the worker means to get; but, when got, they are usually at the best rather inferior to the picture of which they are a copy.
Work done should be better always than the design for it. That was a project only, a promise: the fulfilment should be something more. A design of which the promise is not likely to be fulfilled in the working-out is, for its purpose, ill-designed. To say that you would rather have the drawing from which it was done (and that is what you usually feel about " needle pictures ") is most severely to condemn either the designer or the worker, or perhaps both. Only a competent figure painter, for example, can be trusted to render flesh with the needle; her success is in proportion to her skill with the implement, but in any case less than what might be achieved in painting : then why choose the needle ?
Admitting that a painter who by choice or chance takes to the needle may paint with it satisfactorily enough, that does not go to prove the needle a likely tool to paint with. It is anything but that. There was never a greater mistake than to suppose, as some do who should know better, that, to raise embroidery to the rank of art, figure work is necessary. The truth is that only by rare exception does embroidered figure work rise to the rank of art: the rule is that it is degraded - the more surely as it aims at picture. And that is why, for all that has been done in the way of wonderful picture work, say by the Italians and the Flemings of the Early Renaissance, the pictorial is not the form of design best suited to embroidery.
Needlework, like any other decorative craft, demands treatment in the design, and the human figure submits less humbly to the necessary modification than other forms of life. Animals, for instance, lend themselves more readily to it, and so do birds; fur and feathers are obviously translatable into stitches. Leaves and flowers accommodate themselves perhaps better still; but each is best when it is only the motive, not the model, of design. If only, then, on account of the greater difficulty in treating it, the figure is not the form of design most likely to do credit to the needle, and it is absurd to argue that, figure work being the noblest form of design, therefore the noblest form of embroidery must include it.
The embroidress entirely in sympathy with her materials will not want telling that the needle lends itself better to forms less fixed in their proportions than the human figure; the decorator will feel that there is about fine ornament a nobility of its own which stands in need of no pictorial support; the unbiassed critic will admit that figure design of any but the most severely decorative kind is really outside the scope of needle and thread; and that the desire to introduce it arises, not out of crafts-manlikeness, but out of an ambition which does not pay much regard to the conditions proper to needlework. Those conditions should be a law to the needlewoman. What though she be a painter too? She is painting now with a needle. It is futile to attempt what could be better done with a brush. She should be content to work the way of the needle. Common-sense asks that much at least of loyalty to the art she has chosen to adopt.
Wonderful and almost incredibly pictorial effects have been obtained with the needle ; but that does not mean to say it was a wise thing to attempt them. The result may be astonishing and yet not worth the pains. The pains of flesh-painting with the needle (if not the impossibility of it for all practical purposes) is confessed by the habit which arose of actually painting the flesh in water colour upon satin. Paint on satin, if you please: there are occasions when there is no time to stitch and it may be necessary, perhaps, for some ceremonial and more or less theatric purpose, to paint what had better have been worked. The more frankly such work acknowledges its temporary and makeshift character the better. Scene painting is art, until you are asked to take it for landscape painting. Anyway, the mixture of painting and embroidery is not to be endured ; and it is a poor-spirited embroidress who will thus confess her weakness and call on paint to help her out. It does not even do that, it fails absolutely to produce the desired effect. The painting quarrels with the stitching, and there is after all no semblance of that unity which is the very essence of picture.
An instance of painted flesh occurs upon Illustration 99 (Renaissance Ornament). Can any one, in view of the bordering to the picture, doubt that the worker had much better have kept to what she could do, and do
perfectly, ornament? An example, on the other hand, of what may be done in the way of expressing action in the fewest and simplest chain stitches (if only you know the form you want to represent and can manage your needle) is given in the wee figures in the landscape above (78).
In speaking of the necessary treatment of the human figure (as of other natural form) in needlework, it is not meant to contend that there is one
only way of treating it consistently, or that there are no more than two or three ways. There are various ways, some no doubt yet to be devised, but they must be the ways of the needle. The flesh, of course, is the main difficulty. A Gothic practice, and not the least happy one, was to show the flesh in the naked linen of the ground, only just working the outlines of the features in black or brown. Another way was to work the face in split stitch, as already explained, and over that the markings of the features, the fine lines in short satin-stitches, the broader in split-stitch, as shown in the figure of King Abias in Illustration 87 (Gothic Church Work).
The general treatment of the figure there is of course in the manner of the fourteenth century, better suited, from its severe simplicity, for rendering in needlework than later and more pictorial forms of design. That needlework can, however, in capable hands, go farther than that is shown in Illustration 79 (Fifteenth-Century Figure Work), a rather threadbare specimen of fifteenth-century work, in which the character of the man's face is admirably expressed. It is first worked in short, straight stitches, all of white, and over that the drawing lines are worked in brown. The artist gets her effect in the simplest possible way, and apparently with the greatest ease.
More like painting is the head in Illustration 80 (Sixteenth-Century Italian Figure Work,), worked in short stitches of various shades, which give something of the colour as well as the
modelling of flesh. This is a triumph in its way. It goes about as far as the needle can go, and farther than, except under rare conditions, embroidery need go. But it may be carried to that point and yet be essentially needlework.
Equally wonderful in their miniature way are the faces of the little people on Illustration 81 (Chinese Figures), about the size of your finger nail. They are worked in solid satin-stitch, and the two layers of silk (back and front) give a substance fairly thick but at the same time yielding, so that when the stitches for the mouth and eyes are sewn tightly over it they sink in, and, as it were, push up the floss between and give relief. The nose is worked in extra satin-stitch over the other, and the slight depression at the end of the stitch gives lines of drawing. This trenches upon modelling, but, on such a minute scale, does not amount to very pronounced departure from the flat. The method employed does not lend itself to larger work.
The last word on the question as to what one may do with the needle is, that you may do what you can; but it is best to seek by means of it what it (or you with it) can best do, and always to make much of the texture of silk, and of the quality of pure and lustrous colour which it gives - in short, to work with your materials.