Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World

Cover: Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World

Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World

by Zara Anishanslin

Dr. Anishanslin’s new book explores the story behind one of the treasures at Winterthur Museum, Robert Feke’s portrait of Anne Shipping Willing. Organized into five parts, her book focuses on four historical figures central to the creation of the painting: Anna Maria Garthwaite, who designed the expensive floral silk featured in the portrait; Simon Julins, who wove it; Anne Shippen Willing, who wore it; and Robert Feke, who painted it.

Although all four individuals are, to a certain extent, recognizable figures in the canon of early American material culture studies, they left little of the paper trail that most mainstream historians rely upon for their research. Anishanslin turned to material culture for her methodology, linking themes of design, production, consumption, and empire. The fifth section covers the subsequent history of the silk dress, which was later borrowed by her sister-in-law for a portrait at the moment relations between Great Britain and Colonial America were unraveling.

At 413 pages, Portrait of a Woman in Silk is not a casual read but benefits from beautiful writing and skillful organization. Anishanslin begins each section with a short chapter of micro-history that links the biography of the main figures to their material record. Subsequent chapters within the section explore thematic ideas, including the use of exotic botanical imagery in consumer products of the British empire; the adaptation of portraits of royalty and nobility for Colonial portraits (Mrs. Willing’s is inspired by a pose used in portraits of Queen Caroline); and the furnishing and staffing of merchant townhouses, particularly the Willings’ use of slave labor at their Philadelphia residence.

Notable is Anishanslin’s decision to explicate only a few key pieces of each craftsman’s work, be they Garthwaite’s designs or Feke’s paintings, which gives readers a deeper understanding of the compelling historic and cultural context of each individual work without burdening the reader with a comprehensive catalogue raisonné, a task already accomplished by others.

The book thus tends to be episodic, focusing on a few compelling moments. One of the most interesting snapshots involves an incident in 1749, when Mrs. Willing prevented a humiliating slight against James Hamilton, the recently named Deputy Governor for Pennsylva­nia. Hamilton was tasked with opening a merchant’s ball but was rebuked by the first two ladies he invited onto the dance floor, who objected to his royal appoint­ment even though he was a native Philadelphian and longstanding public official. Willing’s decisive action speaks to the political tensions present decades prior to the Revolution as well as the public role a determined woman could carve out for herself in the era.

Regardless of whether she was wearing her English silk dress during this incident, the gown was yet another tool at Mrs. Willing’s disposal to declare the social, economic, and political capital of her husband, and by extension her own power. The rest of Anishanslin’s book is equally provocative and thought provoking. (Yale University Press, 2016, $45)

UPCOMING EVENTS

Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World

by Zara Anishanslin

Dr. Anishanslin’s new book explores the story behind one of the treasures at Winterthur Museum, Robert Feke’s portrait of Anne Shipping Willing. Organized into five parts, her book focuses on four historical figures central to the creation of the painting: Anna Maria Garthwaite, who designed the expensive floral silk featured in the portrait; Simon Julins, who wove it; Anne Shippen Willing, who wore it; and Robert Feke, who painted it.

Although all four individuals are, to a certain extent, recognizable figures in the canon of early American material culture studies, they left little of the paper trail that most mainstream historians rely upon for their research. Anishanslin turned to material culture for her methodology, linking themes of design, production, consumption, and empire. The fifth section covers the subsequent history of the silk dress, which was later borrowed by her sister-in-law for a portrait at the moment relations between Great Britain and Colonial America were unraveling.

At 413 pages, Portrait of a Woman in Silk is not a casual read but benefits from beautiful writing and skillful organization. Anishanslin begins each section with a short chapter of micro-history that links the biography of the main figures to their material record. Subsequent chapters within the section explore thematic ideas, including the use of exotic botanical imagery in consumer products of the British empire; the adaptation of portraits of royalty and nobility for Colonial portraits (Mrs. Willing’s is inspired by a pose used in portraits of Queen Caroline); and the furnishing and staffing of merchant townhouses, particularly the Willings’ use of slave labor at their Philadelphia residence.

Notable is Anishanslin’s decision to explicate only a few key pieces of each craftsman’s work, be they Garthwaite’s designs or Feke’s paintings, which gives readers a deeper understanding of the compelling historic and cultural context of each individual work without burdening the reader with a comprehensive catalogue raisonné, a task already accomplished by others.

The book thus tends to be episodic, focusing on a few compelling moments. One of the most interesting snapshots involves an incident in 1749, when Mrs. Willing prevented a humiliating slight against James Hamilton, the recently named Deputy Governor for Pennsylva­nia. Hamilton was tasked with opening a merchant’s ball but was rebuked by the first two ladies he invited onto the dance floor, who objected to his royal appoint­ment even though he was a native Philadelphian and longstanding public official. Willing’s decisive action speaks to the political tensions present decades prior to the Revolution as well as the public role a determined woman could carve out for herself in the era.

Regardless of whether she was wearing her English silk dress during this incident, the gown was yet another tool at Mrs. Willing’s disposal to declare the social, economic, and political capital of her husband, and by extension her own power. The rest of Anishanslin’s book is equally provocative and thought provoking. (Yale University Press, 2016, $45)

Cover: Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World

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