An Orchard in a Box

Detail of a 17thc raised work panel, Bonhams

Nowadays we think nothing of eating exotic fruit shipped in from round the world regardless of season and sold in supermarkets, and few of us grow much of our fruit supply. Apparently we prefer bananas to apples, perhaps not surprisingly since most apples on sale are bland in taste and stored for months on end in inert gases.  But this is a relatively recent, largely post-1945 change and until storage and transport improved to allow the mass importation of exotic fruit most people had to reply on the home-grown crop often grown in their own gardens.

detail of a pear tree from a 17thc raised work panel, Bonhams

I used to wonder why there were so many different varieties of basic fruits such as apples and pears until I realised their importance to the pre-globalised domestic economy not just for eating, but preserves, cordials, liqueures, cider and physic so varieties which stored for long periods, or fruited at different times were crucial.

This importance of fruit  is reflected in early gardening books,  with probably the most famous of all being Ralph Austen’s   A Treatise of Fruit Trees which was published in June 1653, together with his tract on  The Spiritual Use of an Orchard.  It describes the propagation and care of fruit trees,  and the benefits which will accrue to the Commonwealth from keeping them. Its experimental and horticultural discussions are accompanied by extensive spiritual meditations, which may be drawn from trees and from orchards to improve the soul of the husbandman. In other words it was also a deeply political text reflecting Austen’s Parliamentary and religious adherence.

But that’s not what I want to concentrate on this week, although it is the starting point. Instead I was to talk about how and why an orchard was put in a box…

The frontispiece of the Treatise features a well-known image of a formally laid out orchard and it was that which reminded me of one of the V&A’s lesser known treasures: a small wooden casket covered with satin which has been heavily embroidered worked with silk and metal thread with a large amount of  “raised work”, [ sometimes known  as stumpwork] which  was very fashionable in the mid/late 17thc.




The casket, which is extremely elaborate in design, has embroidered panels on the top, doors and sides which depict excerpts from the story of Abraham. It was presumably embroidered by SV whose initials are sewn just beneath the sun in the cartouche on the lid.  This shows the meeting of Isaac and Rebekah. There are small floral motifs including poppies, pomegranates, and sunflowers, as well as parrots and butterflies around the lid.


All very interesting I hear you mutter but whats it got to do with orchards or garden history.?

Not much is the answer …until the casket is opened.

Inside is an orchard. I kid you not. A 3D orchard with miniature fruit trees set in a four-square orchard that bears at least a passing resemblance to Austen’s frontispiece.

It is an embroider’s version of a collectors cabinet.  In those the collector assembled and displayed a range of often unconnected, or apparently unconnected, items which were valued for their “curiosity” value.  In this casket SV put together not jut the standard embroidery threads and wires in different materials, but added tiny shells and pearls, small pieces of coral and mica as well as fragments of other materials to create the overall effect.

The statues in the centre of each square are worked from ivory knife handles.

detail from Embroidered Casket, by SV, c.1660-85, V&A

Unfortunately The V&A website has  very little information about the orchard in a box, and, as far as I can see, not much seems to have been written about it either, apart from a few sentences by Thomasina Beck in Gardening with Silk and Gold 1997. [But please let me know if you have seen it described/analysed anywhere.]

unfinished panel, late 17thc, Bonhams

detail from a panel sewed by SC in 1661, Bonhams

Yet English embroidery worked from the Elizabethan and Stuart periods has long been regarded as amongst the most important and appealing of the domestic decorative arts reflecting as it did the culture, religious belief and aesthetics of the period.  Although there were some male embroiderers  they were professionals and in London would have been involved with the Worshipful Company of Broderers which received its charter from Elizabeth 1 in 1561. But most needlework was carried out by women and exemplified the contemporary belief that it was  a virtuous and morally beneficial occupation indicative of female accomplishment.

detail from a panel depicting an Allegory of Music, c.1660, Christies

What is clear is that SV was not only  accomplished but also comfortably off, because although needlecraft was an important skill for a woman in the 17th century and was taught to girls of all classes from an early age, only a privileged few, however, were able to afford the time and materials for embroidery. The V&A suggest there were  a number of accepted markers in the development of a competent needlewoman.

First, at a very young age, a sampler was completed, illustrating the range of stitches and techniques that the girl had mastered. Then these skills were developed by sewing a more complex and demanding cut-work sampler. In many cases the final challenge was the production of decoration for a small casket or workbox. These used rich materials and were usually elaborately ornamented. In particular they often employed “raised work”, the technique of embroidering over padding which was later called “stumpwork”.  These would be made separately – in a form known as a slip – and then assembled and sewn onto the panel.

A collection of 17thc raised work slips, Christies

But don’t think these more complex tasks took a lifetime to learn. Such skills were expected from teenage girls, indeed one of the other star attractions of the V&A’s textile collection is a casket embroidered by an 11 year old.  Follow the link under the image to see a short video about it.

So where did SV and Martha get their ideas from?

There were certainly pattern books around for inspiration. Federico Vinciolo, an Italian, who worked for the French royal court published a pattern book, Les Singuliers et Nouveaux Pourtaicts, in 1587, which was  available in London and constantly reprinted until the 1620s.

In England inspiration was also taken from illustrations in herbals and  later in the 17th century not only were these available as patterns from print sellers like Peter Stent who had by 1662 accumulated the most extensive and diverse stock of engravings of any of his English competitors or predecessors, publishing at least 218 different plates of natural history subjects which were used by artists, teachers and embroiderers and were available at different prices, as broadsheets or as books including a three part work, A Book of Flowers, Beasts, Birds and Fruits, in three parts, 20 leaves in each part.  Obviously fruit and fruit trees were included

[For more on Stent see Peter Stent, London Printseller By Alexander Globe 1985]

“The delightfull Orchard, or a Book of most Pleasant and Desirable Fruits” from A View of Creation a pattern book published by Robert Walton, c.1666

Mid 17thc needlework casket , Christies

However it was also possible to buy panels pre-marked with designs. These could then be worked by the embroiderer in the techniques and colours desired. The completed panels would be taken to a specialist joiner or upholsterer be fixed to the casket,  the interior of which which could of course also be individualised.

So I wondered if SV and Martha and their boxes were rare and was surprised to find that they weren’t, although there aren’t many quite as complex in design, although a tiny one – only 8 inches high auctioned at Christies in 2001 for a mere £32,000 has an entire garden hidden away inside.

Unfortunately the quality of the photography makes it difficult to see the detailing but Christies say the garden  comprises “pressed silk and featherwork magnolia, gillyflowers, pears and strawberries growing from a green featherwork lawn set with a woollen path , the whole reflected again the mirrored sides of the casket.”

17thc casket panel depicting an Allegory of Music, Christies




The lute player in this panel  represents both harmony and hearing follows the  well established convention of using women to represent the senses.  Her setting, in a garden of flowers and/or orchard of fruiting trees links directly back to Austen’s treatise.

Of course the use of flowers, fruit and trees  had an obvious aesthetic appeal whilst the language of flowers, popularised by the Victorians was also already well established by the mid-17thc. Equally importantly at least they also  illustrated the Protestant interpretation of nature as God’s creation, an embroidered Garden of Eden,  and  as a metaphor for the bond between man and God.

Jesus walking on the water, in front of fruit trees – Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge


A mix of different flowers and oversized fruits sprouting from the same stem, which occurs quite regularly, could well reflect the growing interest and experimentation with the grafting of fruit trees, and highlights the importance of the skills required to run an orchrd properly, and particularly those required to successfully prune graft and propagate orchard trees. William Harrison in 1587 described gardeners who were “not only excellent in grafting the natural fruits, but also in their artificial mixtures whereby one tree brings forth sundry fruits of divers colours and tastes, dallying with nature in her course, as if her whole trade was perfectly known to them.”     Other traits, such as the use of dwarfing stocks, which might think were modern were also well known by the early 17thc and Sir Hugh Platt advised his readers what to do “if you would have an orchard of dwarfe trees, suffering none to grow more than a yard high.” He may well have had access to such stocks but he told the gardener to “nippe off all the green buds when they first come firth, which you find at the top of the tree, with your fingers.”

Mid-17thc raised work panel, Bonhams




Perhaps the most extraordinary one of all must surely be the casket now in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle where the trees are not hidden away inside the box but stand on top of it. Unfortunately it isn’t strictly an orchard scene but includes a rare pastoral ‘tableau’ on its lid of a shepherdess sitting beneath trees with her flock and dog and depicts popular Old Testament subjects including that of David and Bathsheba.

So these caskets although worked by young fingers reveal the workings of the 17th mind. Science, Natural History, Politics  and Theology all rolled seamlessly into one world view – although of course there were several very different world views on offer but all with orchards pretty close to their heart.

detail from a raised work panel, Bonhams



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2 Responses to An Orchard in a Box

  1. tonytomeo says:

    Those people had WAY too much free time on their hands!

  2. jenrenjsy says:

    What brilliant t piece of research and the images are incredible. What skills they had to do this work.

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