Friday, 3 June 2016

Hannah Smith's Casket


17th century cabinets are greatly admired by embroiderers and collectors alike for their beauty and the needlework skills needed to accomplish their execution.

It is rare for the name of the cabinet's embroiderer to be known and what makes Hannah's casket particularly special is the note she placed in one of the drawers giving us a rare glimpse of an individual 17th century embroiderer. Hannah was aged eleven when she started the cabinet.

Written in 1657 one year after she completed the cabinet it tells of the two years she spent working on the project in Oxford (a Royalist stronghold) and of her excitement at sending the embroidered panels to London to be mounted onto the cabinet. Can you imagine Hannah's delight when those panels came back from London beautifully mounted on the cabinet and edged with shimmering silver braid ?

She must have been so excited opening the cabinet doors and exploring the rows of drawers ornamented with laid silk.


Hannah tells us that she wrote the note in order to record her satisfaction and sense of achievement on completing her work lest at some later time in her life she might have forgotten about it.

The cabinet is embroidered in tent stitch, queen stitch, stem stitch, long and short stitch, with seed pearls and spangles. The lion and leopard on the lid is in raised work which is now known as stumpwork.

The lid of the casket depicts Joseph being raised from the Pit and sold to the Midanites. The draughtsman took the central group from Gerard de Jode's Thesaurus but added two gentlemen in contemporary dress and a smiling sun.

The sides have scenes depicting Autumn and Winter warming their hands at a fire and resourceful Deborah and Barak, and  the courageous Jael and Sisera on the door panels. Scenes from the Old Testament were very popular at this time.

Hannah altered the scenes which has added additional meanings appropriate to her personal and political situation. The biblical scenes represent powerful actions by women. The lion and leopard on the front of the box executed in raised work are Royalist symbols. Did Hannah imply a parallel between the oppressed Jews in Canaan and the Royalists under Oliver Cromwell's Protectorate?

Hannah has added to Joseph's scene a figure who is given extra importance by being excecuted in raised work. This figure could be Charles I seen as Joseph reborn. There are further symbols of Royalist sympathy. The sun which symbolises the god given right to rule, partly hidden by a cloud (Commonwealth) suggesting that the sun (Royality) will emerge (Restoration) to shine. The butterfly and caterpillar were used by Royalists suggesting that the king never dies without being replaced by another as a butterfly emerges from the chrysalis made by the caterpillar.

The cabinet is in the collection of the Whitworth Gallery which was founded in 1889 and is part of the University of Manchester. Today the Whitworth is a place of research and academic collaboration.


Originally known as the Whitworth Institute and Park, it opened its doors to “people of all social classes”. During the Industrial Revolution, Manchester was the world’s largest centre of manufacturing, and so it followed that the city should furnish itself with the sorts of internationally relevant museums, galleries and libraries that befitted its global status.  One of the reasons that the Whitworth’s textiles collection is so strong is because the gallery’s founders bought samples of the world’s best textiles, old and new, to inspire the makers of the Manchester cloth on which the city’s fortunes were founded.

Images copyright The Whitworth Gallery


In the Book of Judges, it is stated that Deborah was a prophet, a judge of Israel and the wife of Lapidoth. She rendered her judgments beneath a date palm tree between Ramah in Benjamin and Bethel in the land of Ephraim.  Some people today refer to Deborah as the mother of Israel, as she is titled in the Biblical "Song of Deborah and Barak"


The people of Israel had been oppressed by Jabin, the king of Canaan, whose capital was Hazor, for twenty years. Stirred by the wretched condition of Israel she incites a rebellion, and sends to Barak, the son of Abinoam, at Kedesh of Naphtali, and directs him to muster ten thousand troops of Naphtali and Zebulun and concentrate them upon Mount Tabor, the mountain at the northern angle of the great plain of Esdraelon. At the same time she states that she will draw Sisera to the River Kishon. Barak declines to go without the prophet. Deborah consents, but declares that the glory of the victory will therefore belong to a woman. As soon as the news of the rebellion reaches Sisera he collects nine hundred chariots of iron and a host of people.

When Deborah saw the army, she said, according to Judges 4:14:

“Go! This is the day the Lord has given Sisera into your hands. Has not the Lord gone ahead of you?” So Barak went down Mount Tabor, with ten thousand men following him.

As Deborah prophesied, a battle is fought, and Sisera is completely defeated. He himself escapes on foot, while his army is pursued as far as Harosheth of the Gentiles and destroyed. Sisera comes to the tent of Jael; and he lies down to rest. He asks for a drink; she gives him milk; and while he is asleep she hammers a tent-pin through his temple.

The Biblical account of Deborah ends with the statement that after the battle, there was peace in the land for 40 years.

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