• Lee Sigler

Decorating Fads

Around 1875, Turkish and Moorish influence resulted in room decoration where “more is better” reigned. Entire rooms were decorated in these styles – elaborate furniture with exotic patterns and colors, lively patterned carpets and Moorish or Turkish themed art. Portraits of exotic people in costumes were done in beadwork. The faces were petit point done in wool and the hair could be more wool or sometimes chenille thread. Beads were used to create cloths and head coverings. Most portraits included beaded lace and jewelry. Both men and women in exotic costumes were created reflecting the interest in theatrical appearances or revivals in Renaissance dress or dress from exotic places.


Portrait of a Young Man in Renaissance Dress Bead Embroidery likely English c 1870, unused panel


Portrait of a Gentleman in Renaissance Dress Bead Embroidery likely English c 1870, unused panel

Around 1890, there was a renewed interest in national costumes from around the world. New patterns were added for Romanian, Hungarian, and Czechoslovakian folk costumes. As parlor games, people would dress up in exotic costumes and would put on plays or pantomimes. These were reflected in the beadwork pictures.


Portrait of a Young Woman in Peasant Dress Bead Embroidery likely English c 1880

Portrait of a Young Woman in Eastern European Peasant Dress Bead Embroidery likely English c 1880

Portrait of a Young Man in Peasant Dress Bead Embroidery likely English c 1870, unused panel

Many of these portraits were used in fire screens. Fire screens had a practical as well as decorative use. In the early (1500-1600) Dutch living rooms chimney cloths hung over a fireplace in summer. This evolved to screens that sat in front of fireplaces in all rooms. Screens were documented in use as early as the 1400 for privacy and to protect people from drafts or the heat of a fire in a fireplace. They evolved to smaller decorative items in the 1700s and were used in all rooms with fireplaces. Rooms were heated with fireplaces and the banners were placed next to fireplaces to screen people from getting too hot. Ladies particularly did not want their faces to get red but wanted to warm themselves by sitting near the fireplace. Early fire screens in the late 1700s and early 1800s were matching pairs that flanked fireplaces. The screens were diamond shaped, round, oval, or shield shaped and were embroidered in silk, wool, and beadwork. These screens were suspended from poles that stood on the floor and could be raised or lowered.

Fire Screen Portrait of a Gypsy Woman Bead Embroidery likely English c 1880

Larger screens were placed in front of fireplaces in the summer to cover up the hearth. Some fire screens had elaborate wooden frames like the gothic one below. Others were suspended on poles of either wood or brass. Others were hung on brass armatures that attached to the mantel and could be extended and moved about.


Fire Screen Portrait of a Peasant Woman Bead Embroidery, mounted in a Gothic Carved Wood Frame likely English c 1880

Fire Screen Portrait of a Desert Dwelling Woman Knitting Bead Embroidery likely English c 1880

Early instructions for fire screen banners appeared in The Lady’s Manual of Fancy Work by Mrs. Pullan and published in 1858:


“Banner Screens - These are either mounted on a pole, or on an apparatus for fastening to the chimney-piece. In either case, the work must be lined with silk of the same color as the ground, the bottom cut into a handsome scalloped form, with a handsome fringe, the sides finished with gimp, and two pairs of tassels; the top draped with cord. The trimming for a banner screen must always be made exactly to match. Whether with a pole or chimney fitting, the top is always sewed on gilt rings run on the pole.”


I was told by one beadwork dealer in England that these portraits were likely done in professional studios. Possibly the portrait was done and the buyer did the background. I have not been able to find a reference to confirm this.

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