Completed Dress and Textiles, Portraits: British 19th C, Scotland: Artists and Subjects 20 If not Emma (Jones) Soyer, who might have painted this portrait of a woman knitting?

Topic: Artist

Could this be by the artist Emma (Jones) Soyer? She painted a portrait entitled 'the Centenarian Scotch Knitter' who I think may be Elizabeth Love as this is the title of a work that was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1836 (no. 969) under her maiden name of Jones In the memoirs of her husband Alexis Soyer there is a mention of a painting that Emma did of this woman after an article in the papers about a Scottish woman reaching the age of 107. The woman would not stop knitting while Emma painted. It also says it was exhibited at the Louvre. [Art Detective Group leader: Ruth Brimacombe]

Gabriella Ramsden, Entry reviewed by Art UK

Completed, Outcome

This discussion is now closed. This previously undated work has been dated ‘late 1880s/1890s’ and the subject has been identified as a woman crocheting.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the discussion. To anyone viewing this discussion for the first time, please see below for all the comments that led to this conclusion.


The Collection has commented: ‘Artworks have temp numbers for all kinds of reasons, often because we are unsure about ownership and how they came into the collection. It would be great to find out who 'CAL' is. We certainly think that the woman in the painting looks to be in her 60s rather than over 100 years old.'

Dr Marion Richards, Art Detective Manager, Art UK added: ’Gabriella, thank you for prompting research on this painting. I agree with the Collection that this particular knitter looks to be in her 60s rather than over 100. It's such a lovely portrait and it would be great to find out more about it if we can.’

Alison Cross,

I would say that this is crochet, rather than knitting? I can just see one needle and it looks small, like a crochet hook.

Just to say that this woman isn't knitting. She has only one tool and she holds it in her right hand as one would using a crochet hook, which is a single tool. Knitting requires at least two needles. Her left hand holds the newly-made fabric as one would with crochet, as it helps if the left hand provides some tension while the other hand works the hook. The fabric is not held this way in knitting.

Jacinto Regalado,

The sitter is not a centenarian, and this does not look like an 1836 portrait. I expect it is later.

Peter Nahum,

Yes, it is around the time of the Glasgow School c. 1880+. The monogram reads something like ALC. I have not yet tracked down the artist.

Jacinto Regalado,

I doubt it, Marcie. Christie has more of an illustrator's style, and our picture looks later than 1860.

Lou Taylor, Dress and Textiles,

The clothes in this portrait could have been worn for the later stages of mourning, my guess is in the mid to late 1860s - including a possible mourning brooch- though the bonnet/cap of white ruffles is a bit of a problem as is the white shawl. The central hair parting is very much of this period.
OR could it be a type of nurse's uniform, a senior Ward Sister maybe? - again in the c late 1860s....
OR could it be a type of plain religious dress, thought is not Quaker…

Marcie Doran,

The white cap seems to be similar to the one in this c. 1899 photograph of Queen Victoria.

There was an artist named Charles Lyons Aitken in Glasgow in 1909 but I have not found names or images of any of his works on the internet. In 1893 he was an upholsterer. The Hayes/Aiken family tree on Ancestry shows a Charles Lyons Aiken (June 14, 1867, Marcross, Inverness – Q1 1938, Dartford, Kent). He was not the Charles Aitken who was a Director of the Tate.

Jenny Carlile,

It doesn't look like she's knitting to me. The way her hands are held she's crocheting or tatting. Check out images of "hands knitting" and "hands crocheting" on Google and you'll see the difference. The fibre below her hands doesn't even look spun - so I don't know what's going on.

Just to recap, the original question suggested both a possible artist (Emma (Jones) Soyer), a possible date (1836) and a possible sitter 'Centenarian Scotch Knitter' - a nice suggestion, but one that can be easily discounted as the style of the painting and dress signal the work was painted later in the 1880s or 1890s.

Further research into portraitists who used the monogram CAL or ALC could prove fruitful.

As for the sitter - her occupation and apparel seem key to zeroing in on her identity. She does appear to be crocheting (not knitting) and the familiar homeliness of this activity, and her personality, is being showcased. She is not wearing a widow's cap (these were usually peaked and were always worn with long streamers). Equally, it doesn't seem in keeping with the fashionable lace cap typically worn by Victorian women as they got older. However, it does look more like the kind of cap worn by maids, which makes me wonder if we are perhaps looking at the affectionate record of a household retainer?

Peter Nahum,

Sorry - I have now checked my latest monogram manuscript and I cannot find the artist in it. I do have a lot of Cs and some close misses, but no hits.

Many thanks for checking your monogram manuscript Peter. Though tantalising, in the absence of a definitive match for the monogram, it looks like we will need to close this discussion for now. I am assuming the collection has checked for any markings or clues on the back of the work?

While we can definitively say what it is not, at the moment we seem no closer to suggesting a possible alternative.

Arlene Reina,

She is doing crochet, not knitting. It is a crochet needle and the start of the piece typically swirls. The material could be mercerized cotton and she may be making a small tablecloth.

Jo Meacock (Curator of British Art) has checked the painting. It is unframed but the canvas is mounted on board, so she couldn’t see anything meaningful. The museum stickers reiterate what we already know.

Many thanks to Jo Meacock for checking the back. I think the time has come to close this discussion for now in the hope that more information about the monogram will emerge in the future. In answer to the original question, we have been able to move the dating of the work to c1880 or 1890 and to say conclusively that the sitter is crocheting not knitting. Thank you to everyone for their contributions on this question.