spinning further

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(Several Hamiltons. By George Romney)

I so enjoyed the discussion on the last post, I thought I’d continue the theme. Above you see a few more of Romney’s Hamiltons. I think you can see how Kirsty’s point — about the essential kinkiness of the spinning portrait — is reinforced in most of these paintings of Hamilton. So much of her is about performance, and certainly the most persuasive way of reading her famous ‘attitudes’ (in which she embodied the essential characters of classical and eighteenth-century heroines for an assembled audience of connoisseurs) is as a form of elegant striptease. She would start off upright, as the repellent figure of Medea, but end up on the floor as a Bacchante, in a sort of sprawling disarray. Anyway, the more I look at her spinning portrait the more entirely about fantasy and artifice it becomes.

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(here she is again)

Hamilton is not spinning in a cosy domestic interior, but in the artist’s studio. She is depicted against a generic leafy backdrop, a woodland and a hillside with the suggestion of a cottage in which her labours might more appropriately take place. This is spinning at one remove from itself: it is spinning on a stage. And the frank exchange of glances between the spinner and the watcher — the use of her work as an opportunity to display for us her wrists and hands — suggests an awareness of herself as a confection. The way that this portrait produces its own fantasy of the spinning woman is interesting to consider in the light of those fabulous, luminous French genre paintings that Rhian mentioned. All of these images seem to call up questions about what it means to watch women performing activities (spinning, knitting, crochet) that are not just laborious, but contemplative. The women are not idle (and therefore they are not sexually dissolute) but still: their minds are not entirely on their work. Though their hands are busy all of them are clearly thinking about . . . a something else. And these images feed the nineteenth-century viewer’s fantasies (about feminine industry, performance, desire, whatever) by positioning them where they think they know what that something else might be.

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Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson

Not entirely unrelated, and as (I hope) a sort of treat for you American spinners, I here reproduce Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson’s song The American Spinning Wheel. I doubt you’ll have seen it before, and I hope you like it. This song appears in several of Fergusson’s manuscripts and is included in one of her commonplace books (that I’ve been editing). Unlike Hamilton, Fergusson was herself a practiced spinner — of fleece and of flax — and was well-aware of the political implications of producing American homespun. She engaged in her own revolutionary performance in the winter of 1777, when the linen thread she spun on her wheel at Graeme Park was sent to be woven into cloth to clothe the American prisoners of war then held in British-occupied Philadelphia. Fergusson wrote the song for the people of Horsham (close to her contested estate) and in her headnote says it is: “to be sung at a country spinning frolic, written in the late war when it was the custom for the young people to collect to help to spin and then in the evening be joined by the lads of the neighborhood and have a little hop.”

Fergusson is so much in my head at the moment, that if I start talking about her — her economic and political position; what it meant for her to spin, or indeed to write this song — I’m afraid I’ll never shut up. So I leave it up to you spinners to make of it what you will.

The American Spinning Wheel

1
Since Fate has assigned us these rural abodes,
Remote both from fortune and honor’s high roads;
Let us cheerfully pass through life’s innocent dale,
Nor look up to the mountain since fix’d in the vale.
When storms rage the fiercest, and mighty trees fall;
The low shrub is sheltered which clings to the wall.
Let our wheels and our reels go merrily round,
While health, peace, and virtue amongst us are found.

2
Though the great deem us little, and do us despise;
Let them know it is wise to make little suffice.
In this we will teach them, though ever so great;
It is always true wisdom to yield to your fate.
For though King or Congress stand to carry the day;
We farmers and spinners at last must obey.
Let our wheels and our reels go merrily round,
While health, peace, and virtue amongst us are found.

3
Our flax has it’s beauties, an elegant green;
When it shoots from the earth it enamels the scene.
When moistened and broken in filaments fine,
Our maidens they draw out the flexible line;
Some fine as a cobweb, while others more coarse,
To wear but on work days for substance and force.
Then the wheels and our reels go merrily round,
While health, peace, and virtue among us are found.

4
Since all here assembled to card and spin;
Come girls, lets be nimble and quickly begin,
To help neighbor Friendly, and when we have done,
The boys they shall join us at close of the sun.
Perhaps our brisk partners may lead us through life,
And the dance of the night end in husband and wife.
Let our wheels and our reels go merrily round,
While health, peace, and virtue amongst us are found.

Graeme Park, 1782

11 responses

  1. I’ve found your writing (especially the historically and visuality oriented bits) to be just an absolute delight. Really, thanks so much!

  2. Your posts are such a pleasure to read. My art history degree feels like a lifetime ago (I wasn’t a knitter yet then), but you’ve made me want to dig out all my textbooks again.

  3. Oh my, that’s marvelous. (de-lurking after a month or so of reading your lovely posts)

    As I read Fergusson’s song, I kept imagining a female version of Jefferson’s independent yeoman. There seems to be a very determined independence and self-conscious populism in her words. What a fascinating lens on early American womanhood, craft, revolutionary thought… and so many other things, I’m sure. Her writings must be great fun to work with – please do talk about her more here, as your fancy leads. Thanks for a fun pair of posts.

  4. i hope this doesn’t offend your gentle readers, but when i first saw the spinning picture i was reminded of a kind of searing encounter with feminine performance i had.
    i live in the gay neighborhood of washington d.c., because the streets are safe. always somebody out here day or night, not interested in mugging me.
    the gay pride parade goes down the street in front of my house — on halloween every year, for like 30 years, it is the place to be. they have a high heeled race –that is a footrace for men dressed as women and wearing stilettoes. power to the people!
    so i’m out there, with 10,000 of my dearest friends, watching the parade after the race and one of the marchers is a petit person in a PVC nude woman outfit. anatomically correct, and made of some plastic that was very life life and sexy but also deeply creepy.
    the petite person was wearing an elaborate wig and false eyelashes, so you couldn’t tell hir gender.
    and hi caressed hir plastic breasts and curves, and posed hir false legs and arms, and pouted hir painted lips and tongue, in what i presume (not being a great connoisseur) is the female performance in porn movies.
    it was mind boggling, and hir pose, hand on hip, right knee flexed over left to make an hourglass shape from waist to knee, lips extruded, is what popped into my mind when i saw the tilt of this chick’s head, the lifted pinky and the strangely sexual tension she’s keeping on the wool.
    good one.

  5. The artist has the woman’s left hand posed in the wrong direction for spinning. Whether doing a long or short draw, the hand would be posed with the thumb and index finger facing the orifice. It almost seems the artist adapted a pose more suited for plucking a harp, with which he was likely more familiar.

    On another note, your first spinning efforts are lovely, and I see you designing your own yarns in the future. Much success…I love reading your very educating and visually appealing blog.

  6. These pictures of Emma Hamilton have been haunting me, and the whole idea of “dress-up”, as a muse or simply to amuse (oneself). I can see that a trip to the NPG and Kenwood is in the offing.

    The spun wool is very desirable too. Lovely job.

  7. So I went to the NPG in my lunchbreak and, in Room 17, a Romney Emma Hamilton and a Beechey Nelson. Next to each other, in a room devoted to illicit liaisons. Rather fitting as we come up to St Valentine’s Day, I thought.

  8. What a beautifully written song and sentiment. I love the imagery of the spinner close to the earth with her harvested flax, the rhythm of the spinning wheel a constant, steady pulse amidst the chaos of the uncertainty of a new nation. The words reflect the comfort of what is fundamental and necessary in life.

    Beautiful. Thanks for sharing this.

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