Botanical Artwork

Quillwork Shadow Box

By Brandy Culp, Richard Koopman Curator of American Decorative Arts

Quillwork shadow box, c. 1720 American, probably Boston, Massachusetts. Bridget Noyes (Stonington, Connecticut, 1710–1774). Paper, shells, wax, gum Arabic, silver wire, mica, glass, and pine. Gift of Frank S. Pratt through William B. Goodwin, 1949.637

With gilded paper edges, silver wire, and glittery mica flecks, young Bridget Noyes’ quillwork shadow box would have flickered in the candlelight of her parent’s parlor or best bed chamber, the most important rooms in the house. Such an object proudly proclaimed her talent, genteel education, and family’s financial status. In New England, quilling, or paper filigree, was popular in the early eighteenth century as professionals taught the craft to wealthy young ladies, and by the last quarter of the century, the art form received an even greater uptick in interest. Through today’s lens, these rare objects offer insight into the expectations and limitations women faced—from the perspective of both the young maker and the school mistress. They also reveal global networks of goods and people and expose the human cost of luxury in the early eighteenth century.

Like paintings and prints, needlework, waxwork, gum-flower creations, and paper filigree adorned walls and brought color and texture to early household interiors. Quillwork imitates the ancient art of metal filigree, delicate work of intertwined gold or silver wire threads. Small strips of gilded and painted paper were rolled with the shaft of a feather, or quill, into various shapes and often combined with wire, wax, glass, and other materials to form elaborate designs. Shadow boxes or sconces often incorporated various techniques as seen in the Wadsworth’s example, and the term quillwork is used broadly. Within this ebonized and gold-gilt double-arched frame, a quilled-paper vase is filled with exuberant silver wire and gum-Arabic flowers—all situated in a bed of wax-work grass. Mica sprinkled paper and ground glass covered flower petals create a reflective, sparkling surface. Often a silver candelabra was fitted to the base of the frame, but in this instance, there is no indication this was a sconce. The frame appears unaltered and in original condition. 

An early, paper label on the back of the Wadsworth’s shadow box attributes this quillwork to Bridget Noyes (1710–1774). A descendant of Rhode Island’s founders Anne Hutchinson (1591–1643) and Governor Peleg Sanford (1639–1701), she enjoyed wealth and a privileged education. The label reads, “When only eight years old, she went from Stonington [Connecticut] to Boston/To learn how to make flowers.” At school, she would have learned more than just the art of gum and quilled flower creations. Curriculum often included reading, writing, math, music, dancing, drawing, needlework in addition to the more tedious “female accomplishments,” such as paper filigree and wax work. In her treatise, The Young Ladies School of Arts (1767), Hannah Robertson advised, “…I know it by experience, that a child of eight or nine years of age will learn to make flowers better than at any time of life, and will learn their sowing [sewing] better at ten and eleven than sooner.” Younger girls were thought to have more nimble hands, and when sent to school in Boston, Bridget was the perfect age to learn the art of paper filigree.

Detail of Quillwork shadow box

There are approximately thirty-five documented eighteenth-century American examples of this artform known today, and Bridget Noyes’ quillwork shadow box, with a vase of flowers surrounded by birds, foliage and vines, is one of the finest. This object is notable, not only because of its excellent condition and provenance, but also because it is one among a small grouping attributed to the school of George and Pleasant Brownell, the earliest documented colonial-American teachers of paper filigree. Thanks to scholar Dr. Jonathan Clancy’s research and extensive survey of extant American quillwork, it is now thought that Bridget Noyes was taught by this couple, who would have provided the design, materials, and tremendous instruction necessary to complete her quillwork shadow box. An English-born itinerant school master, George Brownell (d. 1750), called by former pupil Benjamin Franklin “famous,” worked with his wife Pleasant (d. 1738). They established a school in Boston in 1712 to teach “Writing, Cyphering, Dancing, Treble Violin, Flute, Spinnet &c. Also English and French Quilting, Imbroidery, Florishing, Plain Work, marking sorts of Stitches and several other works.” (The Boston News-Letter, March 2-9, 1712). In 1716, just before young Bridget Noyes arrived in Boston, Brownell informed readers that “also young Gentlewomen and Children taught all sorts of fine Works, as Feather Work, Filegre and Painting on Glass, Embroidery in a new way…” (The Boston News-Letter, August 20-7, 1716). In the scant historical record, George gets most of the credit. However, Pleasant likely taught needle work along with these finer accomplishments while her husband guided students in other areas of instruction, namely music and dance. In her obituary, Pleasant is remembered as “a gentlewoman well known and much respected in New England and New York, as well as this province [Philadelphia], for her excellent and happy method of educating young ladies; in which useful employment she had been engag’d many years” (Pennsylvania Gazette, July 6, 1738).  As prominent influential instructors, who worked in multiple colonial cities, the Brownells were significant in the development of quillwork in early America. 

While school mistresses, such as Pleasant Brownell, used samplers to teach girls basic sewing and needlework skills needed to run a household, these elaborate paper filigree shadow boxes were pure fancy and ostentation. They were extremely expensive to make, averaging over £30, close to $2,000 in today’s money, and the cost of raw materials alone would have far exceeded the actual cost of a young girl’s tuition. Quillwork sconces and shadow boxes involved specialized craftsmen as well as sourcing supplies via complicated trade and labor networks. Such an object required the work of the silversmith, papermaker, glazier (glass fitter), cabinetmaker, and bookbinder, who gilded and trimmed the pieces of paper. Supplies often included but were not limited to glass, glue, gold gilt, gum Arabic, paper, paints, silver wire, silk, turpentine, wax, and wood. For instance, the colorful gum Arabic and silver wire flowers alone are windows into the global world. Silver would have been mined in the Americas by indigenous and slave labor, refined into wire in Europe, shipped to the Colonies, and sold by a local retailer. The gum Arabic, a binder made from the sap of an acacia tree, was imported as a raw material from the Senegal River region of Africa and made its way to the Americas via African traders and European merchants. There are many hands that contributed to such an object.

A special thanks to Dr. Jonathan Clancy for sharing his research regarding George and Pleasant Brownell, which was also presented to the Wadsworth’s Design + Decorative Arts Council.