The fascinating silk pictures that we know today as Stevengraphs actually had their origin in a depression in England’s far flung textile industry. In 1860 a free trade treaty (the Cobden Treaty) removed the protective import tariffs on silks, brocades and ribbons and the effect in Coventry, where English ribbon weaving had been concentrated for 150 years, was devastating. Forty per cent of Coventry’s population were employed in ribbon weaving. Looms were destroyed and during a two year period 9,000 people emigrated to seek alternative employment. But there was one man, Thomas Stevens, who was resourceful enough to overcome the blow sufficiently to provide for his own family and the weavers of his employ.
Thomas Stevens learned his weaver’s trade at the firm of Pears and Franklin in Coventry and, at the age of 26 years, he set up his own business. He had learned all the aspects of his trade well and the jacquard loom was of particular interest to him. The principal of the loom is based on the fact that the mechanically operated devices controlled loops and pulleys to weave patterns in textiles. Stevens improved, adapted and refined the loom by a series of inventions so that he could produce silk pieces in multiple colours with exquisite detail and a seemingly three-dimensional effect.
The first stage in producing a picture or bookmark was an artist sketch that could be an original or a copy of a print. This sketch was then transferred to squared paper graph paper) that would be 8-10 times the size of the original. This would show where the individual coloured silk threads would appear. The next stage would be the cutting of large cards – perforated for every single woven line of the picture – a process that would take one employee several months to complete. The (punched) cards were then threaded together in an endless chain arrangement and placed in the loom to regulate the operation of the warp threads. Every time the shuttle carrying the weft was placed across the loom, a different card called for a variation in the warp threads and consequently the pattern was produced. Many pictures used 10 or 12 colours. The individual silk item was then cut and either mounted in a card for the pictures or folded and a tassel added for the bookmarks. An average size bookmark would require some 5,000-6,000 perforated cards.
By 1862, Stevens had produced nine bookmarks of different designs. He patented the word “Stevengraph” to refer to the multi-coloured bookmarks (although this term is now more usually given to the silk pictures). They were an instant success, praised by the press and bought by an enthusiastic public in large numbers. By the late 1880s, Stevens had produced some 900 different bookmark designs on all matter of subjects. He also extended the range to produce Christmas and New Year greetings, Valentine cards, perfumed cards, sashes, favours and all manner of silk items. In the mid 1870s, Stevens had been experimenting with silk pictures and presented the first four designs at the York Exhibition in 1879 using another Stevens invention – the portable loom. People attending the Exhibition could see their picture being woven before their eyes. The pictures sold in their thousands and, over the next 10 years or so, Stevens was awarded some 30 medals and diplomas for his wares.
Almost 200 designs of pictures and portraits were recorded covering all aspects of late Victorian life. For the modest cost of sixpence, you could own a picture of Queen Victoria or other members of the royal family, a politician of the day – Gladstone or Disraeli perhaps – a sporting hero (jockeys, boxers), – a military general etc. etc.. The scenes included buildings and bridges, sporting events, trains, ships and all other manner of subjects – all costing just one shilling each. Stevens exhibited at Exhibitions in Britain but also abroad enjoying particular success in continental Europe and the United States.
Stevengraphs are today much prized by collectors, but a collection can still be started for a relatively modest sum. Paradoxically, it was the Victorian best selling subjects that are common (and affordable) today whereas the unpopular rarer subjects tend to take the auction records. A word of warning though: the colours of the silks are very light sensitive and should be stored away from sunlight.
Good luck with your collecting and happy hunting!