Object of the Month

An “obscure, rather nerve-racking art”: the quillwork sconce of Mary Woodbury of Beverly, Massachusetts

Quillwork sconce gilded paper, wax, and mica in original glazed, gilded wood frame

Quillwork sconce


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    • Main description

    [ This description is from the project: Object of the Month ]

    This candle sconce featuring paper quillwork, metal, wax, and mica in a shadow box frame was worked ca. 1730 by Mary Woodbury of Beverly at a school for young women in Boston

    What is quillwork?

    In the 18th and 19th centuries, young women from well to do New England families could attend academies where, in addition to traditional academic pursuits, they could learn forms of ornamental and decorative arts. At these schools, young women could be instructed in arts such as painting, waxwork, Japanning, painting on glass, quillwork, feather-work, and ornamental needlework. Among these endeavors, quillwork such as Mary Woodbury’s stands out, not only for its complexity and beauty, but from the sheer cost of the materials required to create one—on top of the cost of tuition. Brandy Culp, writing of the Wadsworth Athenaeum’s sconce, estimated that the cost of producing it could have been as much as $2000 in today’s money!

    At its most basic, quillwork (also called quilling or quillery) is a process of rolling narrow strips of paper into tight or loose rolls either freehand or around a quill, gluing, then pinching the edges to make teardrops, eyes, and other shapes, pushing the centers up out of the rolls to create cone shapes, and then fashioning the tiny shapes together into elaborate designs like Mary’s. Although these days, paper can be purchased in long narrow strips and myriad colors to produce designs, things weren’t so easy for 18th century schoolgirls. In her Young Ladies School of Arts published in 1767, Hannah Robertson describes part of the process:

    Filligree is very pretty work, and when executed with judgment, will last hundreds of years, and may be made to represent various figures such as beasts, birds, houses, flowers, trees, coats of arms, &c. The first thing proper to be done is to stain paper fit for the purposes with the various colours you chuse … when dry, let it be glazed over; then delivered to a book-binder to be gilded and cut in very narrow slips; after which your own judgment, or a pattern, will direct you, whether you intend for picture or glass frames, boxes, &c. … Take care not to let any of the glue fall on your work after the filligree is laid on; because it will dim the gilding …

    Quillwork was just the beginning of Mary’s labors, however. The sparkling flowers each had to be fashioned petal by petal. Although the exact process is difficult to determine, artificial flowers at the time were fashioned of wax, gum Arabic, or isinglass. Other contemporary quillworks are embellished with wax figures, shells, and other materials (see “For further reading” for links to works in other institutional collections).

    The intricacy and beauty of these quillwork pieces belie the age of the maker. According to Hannah Robertson, “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.” We’re not sure exactly how old Mary was when she created her sconce, but probably younger than one would think.

    Who was Mary Woodbury?

    Mary Woodbury was born in Beverly, Massachusetts in 1717, the daughter of Josiah and Lydia (Herrick) Woodbury, both descendants of founding families on the North Shore of Massachusetts. In 1737, she married Dr. Benjamin Jones of Beverly, a prominent physician. Mary died one day shy of her birthday in 1748, leaving four children under the age of 10. Her husband remarried twice, yet held on to her sconce and other artworks, which were then passed down through the family of their daughter Lydia and given to the MHS in 1931.

    For further reading

    Mary Woodbury’s sconce is only one element of her artistic legacy to survive at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Her portrait of Pocahontas and an exuberantly embroidered (although unfinished) apron were also worked during her time as a schoolgirl in Boston.

    A brief history of quillwork can be found at the blog "Regency Redingote".

    Similar quillwork sconces, likely worked in Boston at about the same time that Mary Woodbury worked hers are in the collections of WinterthurMetropolitan Museum of ArtWadsworth AthenaeumBoston Museum of Fine Arts; and Historic New England.

    Other examples of quillwork in museum collections include a unique and colorful example from the Beauport Sleeper-McCann house in Gloucester and a quillwork hatchment (coat of arms) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

    Carlisle, Nancy. Cherished Possessions: A New England Legacy Boston: Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, 2003.

    Cooper, Wendy A. In Praise of America: American Decorative Arts, 1650-1830 New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980.

    Downs, Joseph. “A Quillwork Hatchment,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 33, no. 12 (Dec. 1938), p. 267-268.

    Little, Nina Fletcher. Little by Little: Six Decades of Collecting American Decorative Arts New York: E.P. Dutton, 1984

    Parmal, Pamela. Women’s Work: Embroidery in Colonial Boston Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 2012

    Robertson, Hannah. The Young Ladies School of Arts: Containing, a Great Variety of Practical Receipts … Edinburgh: Printed by Wal. Ruddiman Jr., 1767.

    Smith, Greg. “Boston Schoolgirl Filigree & Wax Sconce …,” Antiques and the Arts Weekly, Dec. 8, 2020.

    Vogel, Anne H. “Fancy Figures: Boston Waxworks from the Early 18th Century,” Antiques and Fine Art, (6th anniversary, 2005), p. 245-251.