- Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World by Zara Anishanslin
How do we write the comprehensive history of an object? While this question has inspired a great deal of interdisciplinary scholarship in recent years, it was also one that eighteenth-century Britons asked themselves about the expanding world of commercial goods. Banknotes, coats, coaches, and corkscrews all divulged their secrets to readers in the pages of object-narrated novels, telling meandering tales about the producers and consumers they encountered as they circulated across space and class. In many ways, Zara Anishanslin's Portrait of a Woman in Silk is reminiscent of an eighteenth-century it-narrative: although Anishanslin does not draw connections between her own work and recent interest in thing theory, she describes her book as "a methodological celebration" of object-centered history, adopting an episodic "narrative structure that allows [material things] to speak" (21). The thing, in this case, is a 1746 oil portrait of Philadelphia matriarch Anne Shippen Willing by the American portrait painter Robert Feke. Anne was the wife of a wealthy Bristol-born merchant and mayor of Philadelphia, Charles Willing, and Feke rendered her in an olive-and-gray English silk damask gown with a large floral design. The gown was actually owned and worn by Anne, stitched by an anonymous mantua-maker of Spitalfields silk woven by Simon Julins using a pattern he commissioned from the London silk designer Anna Maria Garthwaite in 1743. In this remarkable and unique book, Anishanslin uncovers the multiple histories embedded in this single material object, which connected these four individuals—designer, weaver, wearer, and painter—in a transatlantic community of taste, aesthetics, and imperial ideologies.
The book is divided into four parts as it follows this material-visual object from its origin in Garthwaite's fabric designs through Feke's completion of the painting, exploring the interconnected worlds, ideas, labor, and material communities of these four "protagonists" (13). While Anishanslin is not the first to recognize that Willing wore in her portrait a silk damask woven by Julins and designed by Garthwaite—both Natalie Rothstein and Linda Baumgarten have recognized this connection—her book is the first to focus so completely on the intertwined and layered histories of this canvas, which Anishanslin deftly uncovers to reveal the lives, intellectual networks, and imperial commerce that shaped people and goods as they circulated within the British Atlantic world. Despite their positions and professions, Garthwaite, Julins, Willing, and Feke left almost nothing in the way of written archival material such as letters, diaries, and business records; their histories emerge instead from the visual and material objects that they produced [End Page 347] and purchased. Anishanslin analyzes these in relation to a broader collection of sources, including illustrated books on botany and architecture, scientific and aesthetic treatises, popular engravings, and letters sent between groups of natural historians, traders, and amateur sericulturists on both sides of the Atlantic.
Part 1 follows the little-known Garthwaite, spinster daughter of a Lincolnshire minister, as she moved from York to London with her widowed sister in the later 1720s to design silk patterns. Garthwaite favored elaborate floral and botanical arrangements, as evinced in the more than eight hundred labeled water-color patterns that she left behind, and she was one of only a handful of women working in skilled aspects of Spitalfields' silk industry. By reconstructing the scientific and natural history networks of which Garthwaite was a part, Anishanslin argues that her designs celebrate the georgic improvement (and acquisition) of land and Enlightenment networks of intellectual exchange, while also demonstrating that women and material objects were central to imperial knowledge networks. Part 2 examines the life and labor of Julins, a master weaver of French Huguenot extraction and an important member of the Weavers' Company. Here we learn about structures of apprenticeship and the guild's continued political influence in mid-eighteenth-century London, as well as the various ways in which silk became...