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OBJECT SPOTLIGHT: The Needlework of Mary Ann Crocheron

by Leslie A. Rahuba

The needlework of the Nineteenth Century encompassed a wide variety of styles and subjects, ranging from samplers, to lacework, crewel embroidery, applique, beadwork and more. Berlin wool-work, particularly popular mid-century, refers to a style which used brilliantly colored wools stitched on soft canvas using a pattern. The materials originally came from Germany, and the finest patterns from Berlin, hence the name Berlin work.1 Two well-preserved, Texas-made examples of Berlin work are Mary Ann Crocheron's David Playing before Saul and Flight into Egypt, which were donated to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, by descendants of her sister.

Mary Ann Tipple was born in England to Elizabeth Weaner and George Tipple in 1816. George Tipple died while she and her sister Ruth were still quite young. The three Tipple women later immigrated to the U.S. and settled in Staten Island, NY. There Ruth met and married another native of England, James Nicholson, in 1838. James set out for the Republic of Texas in 1839, with an eye to establish himself there. Ruth, together with their son, her mother Elizabeth, and sister Mary Ann, followed sometime later, arriving in Bastrop, Texas, south-east of Austin, where Nicholson had built a house for them. In Bastrop, Mary Ann would soon meet and marry Henry Crocheron, originally of New York. Henry was a successful land investor and merchant, and the 1850 census indicates he owned real estate valued at $10,000.2 Mary Ann's sister Ruth died in 1847, and Mary Ann and Henry took in several of her children in the 1850s. It does not appear, however, that they had any children of their own, but she and Ruth's children remained close. In particular, Mary Ann's niece Mary Ann "Mollie" Nicholson McDowall spent many years looking after her aunt in old age.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Biblical stories were frequent subject matter for needlework. Many large family Bibles of the time contained chromo-lithographed illustrations of contemporary paintings and drawings, possibly influencing the use of such scenes in Berlin patterns.3 These two works on canvas by Mary Ann Crocheron illustrate both an Old Testament and a New Testament scene. The first, David Playing before Saul, depicts King Saul seated with a servant beside him and the young David standing in front of him playing a harp. Based on the Old Testament story from 1 Samuel 16:14-23, Mary Ann likely worked the scene from a commercially published Berlin pattern, using Berlin wool yarn on a linen canvas. More than 160 years later, the colors remain vibrant and distinct. She signed, titled, and dated the work at the bottom of the canvas, "Mrs. Crocheron / David Playing before Saul / March 1852." The second work, Flight into Egypt, was completed nine years later. It illustrates the journey of Joseph, Mary, and the Christ child out of Israel where King Herod had ordered the massacre of the innocents, as recounted in the Gospel of Matthew 2:13-23. Again Mary Ann signed, titled and dated the work at the bottom of the canvas, this time as "M. A. Crocheron / Flight into Egypt / August 1861."

Together these two Berlin works represent the popularity of Biblical depictions in the work of amateur needleworkers in nineteenth century America and on the Texas frontier. In them, we see the use of dozens of different shades of wool yarn with naturalistic attempts at shading and careful attention to detail. Their quality and craftsmanship was such that they were recognized with a silver trophy cup from their exhibition at the Texas State Fair.4

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1 Georgiana Brown Harbeson, American Needlework: The History of Decorative Stitchery and Embroidery from the Late 16th to the 20th Century (New York: Bonanza Books, 1938), 119.
2 Crockron, Mary A. (Census record) Seventh Census of the United States, 1850; (National Archives Microfilm Publication, Bastrop County, Texas, Series: M432, Roll: 908, p. 147, entry 20.); Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29; National Archives, Washington, D.C.
3 Molly G. Proctor, Victorian Canvas Work: Berlin Wool Work (London: B. T. Batsford Limited, 1986), 94.
4 Object File B.91.20 & B.91.21, Bayou Bend Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.