What you see: A pieced and appliquéd cotton memorial quilt, created circa 1863 by Mary (aka Polly) Bell Shawvan. Skinner estimates it at $40,000 to $60,000.
The expert: Chris Barber, deputy director of American furniture and decorative arts at Skinner.
How do we know that Mary Shawvan made this quilt around 1863? The answer to both is family tradition. [The family] consigned it in 2003, and it was well-enough documented when it was made to know it was 1863, more or less. He [John, Mary’s husband] died later in 1863. The supposition is she finished it in 1863, then he died. We found no reason to argue. The family always thought that she finished it before he died.
And the family showed it in quilt competitions after John’s death? They showed it because Mary was proud of her work, and it was a symbol of lamentation in the family. It was meant to be a homecoming gift for John [who was fighting for the Union in the Civil War when he was killed in the Battle of Chickamauga]. It was put away after his death. It doesn’t change the fact that it’s a pure distillation of folk quiltwork. Mary Shawvan shows herself at her most artistic. She didn’t follow a pattern. This is a fully freehand design.
How often do you see 19th century quilts designed like this–as if the entire thing is a single canvas? Not often. Certainly not to this degree. Quilts with one overarching design throughout are not unprecedented, but they’re rare.
What challenges did she face in making this quilt? To distill an image across 84 by 81 1/2 inches is difficult. It would require a lot of planning and effort. It’s easier to lay out 36 blocks. That’s why you don’t see many done like this.
Would she have worked alone on this quilt, or might her children have helped? Traditionally, this kind of thing was done by one person. There’s no reason to believe she had help. Certainly, she would have worked it over the course of several months. She was essentially a single mother when he was at war, and they had six children. She probably put hundreds of hours into it unless she was really good and really fast.
I was going to ask if she was inspired to make the quilt after learning that he died at the Battle of Chickamauga, but it sounds like he died after or around the time she finished it. We term it a memorial quilt, but it’s a memorial quilt by circumstance. It was not intentional. It imbues the whole thing with a sense of melancholy, but it doesn’t diminish its beauty.
Is it unusual to see a 19th century quilt with a yellow background? That is a lot of yellow. It is. You probably can’t see it, but there’s a pattern to it. It’s printed. It’s a very subtle pattern in the color itself. It’s not sewn on. It gives the background color of the quilt a bit more life.
Are there other details that don’t quite show up on camera? Every single bird is done by what’s called stuffed work. It’s cotton batting that gives them a three-dimensionality. It’s very unusual in quilt-making. The kind of stuffed work you see on this quilt is especially difficult work, requiring an incredibly talented hand to do it.
Are the birds and the flowers there just because they look nice, or is there an iconography to the quilt? Do the birds represent John, Mary, and the kids, for example? As far as I can tell, the only real symbol is the eagle, which denotes patriotism. It [any iconographic significance] was possibly known to Mary, but it was not passed down in the family. What you’re looking at are choices of design and color. There’s no memorial imagery here.
The quilt measures 84 by 81 1/2 inches. Is that a typical size for a 19th century American quilt? It’s about the typical size. The smallest dimensions you see are six feet, or 72 inches, and maybe they go up to 100 inches. It’s no bigger or smaller than typical quilts of the period.
Do we know how the Shawvans used the quilt? All we know is what we were told from family lore. John was such a beloved husband and father that [the quilt] represented melancholy, and it was put away and not used. Because it was not used, it remained as vibrant as the day it was made when it was consigned to us 130 years later. That’s unusual for a quilt of any kind, never mind a folk art masterpiece like this one. Usually, the reds and pinks have a tendency to go light brown quicker than others, or lose their vitality. The fact that they’re as vibrant as they are speaks to it not seeing the light of day for a century and a half. In addition, I think the birds’ wings use silk, which has a tendency to shatter in place, and shred. “Shatter” is a word used to describe what happens to silk when it loses its integrity. It shatters like glass, but it doesn’t come out of where it is. The black silk [on the birds’ wings] is totally intact.
Skinner first sold the quilt in 2003. How did it perform then? We offered it at $50,000 to $75,000 at the time, and it sold for $149,000. It was purchased by a private collector in the Boston area who knew the story, and knew it was put away in melancholy circumstances. He put it away in the same plastic bag that the family consigned it in. This is undoubtedly the best quilt we’ve ever sold.
Really? What makes it the best quilt Skinner has ever sold? All the different ways a piece of folk art can be valuable, this is [valuable]. It has a great story, it has great artistry, it has a charming and whimsical approach to composition, and the condition is as good as any quilt can be.
How many different types of collectors will compete for this quilt? Certainly quilt and textile people. Also, folk art people, which can include quilt people. The person who bought it in 2003 was not a quilt collector, but a folk art collector. And lovers of history, and American history, specifically. John Shawvan was a color sergeant and a father of six. He enlisted when he didn’t have to, for a cause he believed in. There’s a huge group of collectors of American historical items who appreciate it when you can identify specific persons and families [connected to the item].
How do we know he believed in the Union cause? He enlisted in October of 1861 though he had substantial family obligations. That implies to me that he believed so strongly in the cause he was almost compelled to leave his family. What other reason could there be?
Were you at Skinner when the quilt sold the first time? No. I was here in 2003, but it predates my tenure by about seven months.
Why will this quilt stick in your memory? I will never forget it because it’s so rare to have this confluence of characteristics. It’s a fully realized folk masterpiece of a quilt, with a full family history, a compelling story, and impeccable condition.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Skinner.
Chris Barber spoke to The Hot Bid last year about a Jess Blackstone robin and in February 2017 about an unusually charming double folk portrait that ultimately sold for $9,840.
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