Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Margaret Ansell, Needlework Artist

Margaret Ansell, Artist in Needle and Thread (estate sale, 20 February 1782)


Recently I've posted about two English artists who specialized in "needle painting," Mary Linwood and Mary Morris Knowles. We know a fair amount about both of those women: Linwood exhibited her own work and had something of an international reputation, while Knowles was a writer and anti-slavery activist as well as an artist.

Much less is known about Margaret Ansell, like Linwood and Knowles an artist whose medium was needle and thread.

Along with Mary Linwood and six other female artists, Margaret Ansell was included in the 1776 Society of Artists of Great Britain's exhibition in London. Something of the attitude toward their work is indicated by the exhibition catalog: they were considered "honorary exhibitors." 

Ansell's pieces for the 1776 exhibition included needlework renderings of two paintings by Benjamin West, The Death of General Wolfe (oil painting, 1770) and Penn's Treaty with the Indians (oil painting, 1771-72).* Interestingly, as Lea C. Lane notes, "Engraved versions of both West paintings rendered by Ansell also appear in the 1776 Society of Artists exhibition, but [the artists] are given full billing (i.e., not [listed as] honorary exhibitors)."

Further, as Lane indicates, "needlework artists had a rapidly dwindling number of venues that would accept their work. . . . The rival Royal Society of Artists explicitly stated in newspaper notices for upcoming exhibitions that “NO COPIES WHATSOEVER, Needlework, artificial Flowers, Models in coloured Wax, or any Imitations of Painting will be received.” (And thus, perhaps, Mary Linwood's decision to exhibit her own work at her own gallery.)

Nothing more is known about Margaret Ansell until February 1782, when a sale of her household and boarding school is recorded. This sale may mean that Ansell had died. (A label on the back of her version of Penn's Treaty adds a corresponding bit of information: the artist is said to be "of the Boarding School/ Lordship Lane Tottenham/ Middlesex.")

In her analysis of Ansell's work, Lane adds one further intriguing possibility. The final exhibition of the Society of Artists occurred in 1791, and its catalog includes a "Mrs. R," who saw twelve of her needlework pieces exhibited.** In Lane's estimation, these works are "startlingly similar to those shown by Margaret Ansell." Lane has also discovered that a woman named Margaret Ansell, a spinster from Tottenham, married a man named James Roberts in 1781: "Perhaps the 1782 sale of the 'late Miss Ansell’s' property only marked the close of one chapter of her life, but not the end of her participation in the evolving landscape of public art in London." 

Lane's 2017 essay on Ansell, "Freak Pictures: The Needlework Paintings of Margaret Ansell," represents research conducted after a piece of embroidery work was donated to the Winterthur Museum. The piece proved to be Ansell's Penn's Treaty with the Indians.

Ansell's needlework version of Benjamin West's
Penn's Treaty with the Indians,
now at the Winterthur Museum

*The catalogue also indicates Ansell exhibited a piece titled "Dutch Boors"--likely based on one of David Teniers's paintings of peasant life. According to a "complete dictionary of contributors" to the Society of Artists of Great Britain, "M. Ansell, Needle Worker" also exhibited a third piece, a "Dutch Landscape; from Teniers." This list of contributors and their work also identifies the M. Ansell who exhibited in 1776 as "at the Boarding School, Tottenham."

**Interestingly, the dictionary of contributors to the Society of Artists of Great Britain also notes that "M. Ansell" contributed two needlework paintings to the 1780 exhibition, "Dead Game" and "A Bird."