King Charles II and Catherine of Braganza with allegories of the four continents


Not on view

This elaborate beadwork basket is one of a group of similar surviving examples that have been compared to silver baskets of similar form that were traditionally used to hold a child’s clothes during the christening ceremony. Although such beadwork baskets clearly did not lend themselves to this kind of practical use, their imagery is also usually celebratory and commemorative of marriage or betrothal. Such is the case with this piece, which celebrates the union in 1662 of King Charles II and Catherine of Braganza. They stand in the center of the satin panel, surrounded by a profusion of fruits and flowers that is generally suggestive of fecundity, although such elements as the butterflies, a radiant sun, and an oak sapling may have been chosen for their specifically Royalist associations. In this context, the peacock at the center beneath the royal couple may be an emblem of the Restoration, as the peacock’s traditionally incorruptible body was associated with rebirth and resurrection. The four female figures who stand around the royal couple are the Four Continents, identifiable by the creatures that accompany them. Europe with a stag stands at top left, Asia with a leopard at top right. The lower register is less clear because of the interchangeability of the figures’ attributes, but nonetheless the griffin probably represents Africa and the cockatrice America (see also MMA, 39.13.2a). The placement of the royal couple at the center of the Four Continents was to situate their union within the wider compass of a divinely appointed natural order.

A number of very similar beadwork baskets survive from the third quarter of the seventeenth century and share the same essential structure: a rectangular frame made from heavy gauge wire, spherical feet, and everted sides extending outward from the base, with regular intervals of wire of the same gauge forming square openings. The handles are bent in a trefoil shape and extend from the center of each of the four sides. The wire is wrapped in variegated colored patterns of beads.

It has been suggested that the introduction of beadwork into English embroidery was related to a growing trade with the Far East, Africa, and the Americas. Glass beads, or "bugles," were produced on a large scale in Venice and Amsterdam in the seventeenth century and shipped in quantity to ports near London, where they were destined to be traded for fine materials that were imported to Europe. Joan Edwards speculated that the use of these beads in embroidery must have developed suddenly after the 1630s when this trade first began. She posited that haberdashers, merchants, or bead traders, who often also sold wire, realized the market potential of the use of such beads in women’s embroidery. Many raised-work pictures of the period also incorporate glass beads, demonstrating an appetite for the unusual and exuberant.

It is probable that baskets of this kind were made by professionals or perhaps sold as kits. Certainly, it is likely that the intricate and lifelike fruits were professionally produced. Even the king and queen are produced on a slip of canvas and were probably prefabricated. This is substantiated by a strikingly similar basket, from the Untermyer collection, now at Colonial Williamsburg, which has the same form of frame and whose applied fruits and flowers with an identically posed king and queen are worked in the same beaded pattern and colors.

[Jonathan Tavares, adapted from English Embroidery from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1580-1700: 'Twixt Art and Nature / Andrew Morrall and Melinda Watt ; New Haven ; London : Published for The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York [by] Yale University Press, 2008.]

King Charles II and Catherine of Braganza with allegories of the four continents, Silk thread on silk, beads, British

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