Bess of Hardwick: Cyphers and Ownership of Needlework
Unlike painters, needleworkers didn’t sign their work. Unlike silversmiths and potters, needleworkers didn’t add a mark to their work. Even thatchers would cut in a design pattern in the roofs that they worked on to proclaim their workmanship. But embroiders didn’t follow this tradition, even if they were professional men.
The major exception to this are samplers where the girls who worked a sampler would sometimes include their name, a date, and, depending on the style, a location or a saying (such as this one by Elizabeth Arnold from the collection at the National Headquarters of the DAR in Washington, DC).
What was more common was to include a cypher to show ownership or patronage and one of our favorites who made a practice of this was Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury, more commonly known as Bess of Hardwick.
Bess was born to a modest gentry family who faced serious financial hardships but through her intelligence, personality, and several smart marriages, she was able to become one of the wealthiest and most powerful women of her time (behind Elizabeth I). Bess was very conscious of making a statement about her name and the power behind it which is why she put her initials (ES at the end of her life) on as many things as possible, including her home.
This is an embroidery still displayed at New Hardwick Hall with her initials all over it in a repeating pattern.
Here is a tent-stitched panel, one of a series, with her cypher:
Interestingly, this panel was likely worked by Bess and to our modern eye it seems appropriate that she “signed her work.” But her cypher here is more about ownership and less about workmanship.
This example, below, of a heraldic panel was most likely made professionally and, therefore, the cypher was not of an artist signing her work but of a patron proclaiming her ownership and lineage.
As is this next example, a large and elaborate panel which not only has Bess’s initials but is also topped by a coronet to illustrate her status as Countess of Shrewsbury (sorry for the quality of the photos, the lighting was very poor at the time).
Cyphers were a way to put a stamp of authority and power on items, to associate the owner with the work and Bess used them to proclaim her identity as the founder of a great and powerful family -- a remarkable thing for anyone, and especially for a women of her time.