Since childhood, I have always been drawn to antique objects; they bring a relevance and history which contemporary objects do not offer. This experience led to my exploration of historical drawings and etchings from the Victorian period, starting with Edwin Landseer, who was one of the most popular animal illustrators during this time period.
Images of animals and children started to proliferate at the turn of the century as people sent greeting postcards and also read magazines like Harper’s Weekly which contained stories written and illustrated in serial fashion. Printed magazines were available all over the country as reading became an important cultural activity and literacy increased. In addition, life was documented and shared in wonderfully illustrated children’s books. One can imagine domestic scenes by the fireside involving reading and the slow activity of embroidery.
Artwork and literature are rife with cultural symbols; they are a tool which teach our youth as well as shape adult behaviors. Morals abound in these tales, both about humans and animals. At this time, animals started to be seen as domestic companions and valued for their loyalty and compassion. Many of these prints show scenes of tenderness and altruism, while others illustrate acts of aggression and barbary.
These stories and the prints which accompanied them, had a profound effect upon public perception of the treatment of animals and children leading to new organizations for their protection including the Society for the Care and Protection of Animals (SCPA) and new child labor laws. Using research from this important historical period, I created a series of embroidered drawings on wool. There is a kind of nostalgia in these images, not of a perfect world, but a slower paced life with some sweetness. It is also important to note that the cultural awareness which awakened regarding children and animals unfortunately did not extend to all humanity, especially African Americans and immigrants. The resulting embroideries seek to shine light upon our collective potential for acts of altruism and bravery, amidst the presence of depravity. How can we extend the generosity of animals and children into contemporary society so that all people can find tenderness, sensitivity to others and begin to understand our collective value?
Nathaniel Grauwelman as well as various staff and volunteers.