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Women Artists

The lives and works of creative women

MARY KNOWLES (1733-1807)

Needlework picture


RCIN 11912

A rectangular needlework panel depicting Mary Knowles at half-length, facing three quarters to the right, working at an embroidery picture of George III; wearing a lace cap and black ribbon choker. In a gilt wood frame set with a hinged glazed door in the front.

Mary Morris Knowles, born of a Quaker family in Rugeley, Staffordshire, was celebrated as much for her intellect, religious conviction and unusual powers of conversation as for her skill with the needle. A friend of the poetess Anna Seward (‘The Swan of Lichfield’) and of Dr Johnson, she is now regarded as an important early protagonist of the feminist viewpoint in English cultural life. Her support for the abolition of slavery, her investigation into mystical science and her knowledge of garden design, in addition to her accomplishment as a needlewoman, suggest the breadth of her interests. In 1771 she was introduced by her fellow Quaker Benjamin West to Queen Charlotte, who remained on terms of friendship with her over the next thirty years and whose interest in female accomplishments, notably needlework, was well known. Mrs Knowles’s visits to Buckingham House included an occasion in 1778 on which she presented her 5-year-old son George to the King and Queen.

Following the first visit in 1771, the Queen commissioned Mrs Knowles to make a copy of Zoffany’s portrait of George III in needlework or ‘needle painting’ as it was also known. This technique ‘so highly finished, that it has all the softness and Effect of painting’ was achieved with a combination of irregular satin-stitch and long-and-short stitch, worked on hand-woven tammy in an arbitrary pattern and at speed, using fine wool dyed in a wide range of colours under her own supervision. Eight years later Mrs Knowles embroidered the self portrait showing her at work on the Zoffany which, like the earlier piece, she signed with initials and dated. This appears always to have been in the Royal Collection and was presumably also commissioned by Queen Charlotte.

Catalogue entry adapted from George III & Queen Charlotte: Patronage, Collecting and Court Taste, London, 2004

    The income from your ticket contributes directly to The Royal Collection Trust, a registered charity. The aims of The Royal Collection Trust are the care and conservation of the Royal Collection, and the promotion of access and enjoyment through exhibitions, publications, loans and educational activities.