Many 70-year-olds are happy with a nice meal or a cupcake by way of birthday celebration. Vancouver’s Leslie Durst, a philanthropist and art collector, got a major exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland.
Sometime in the very distant future, “after I get hit by a bus,” Durst chuckled, her world-class collection of needlework samplers will go back to Scotland to stay.
What’s a sampler? It’s a “simple exercise in needlework,” according to a small volume about the huge exhibit by Helen Wyld, the textile curator at the museum. Scottish girls, and just a few boys, practiced making them as part of — or, more likely, instead of — their formal schooling in the 1700s and 1800s.
Many samplers started off and stayed simple, as stitchers practiced basics: alphabets and multiplication tables, prayers, family names and important dates. Others grew more sophisticated and skilled, including depictions of local landscapes and landmarks, parents’ occupations (a sailing ship, the blacksmith shop), local and world maps, flora and fauna, Bible scenes and characters.
The girls who did this stitching didn’t mean to be preserving history, Durst said, but that’s exactly what happened. They embedded detailed information about their lives and times into artworks that got passed down the generations and even wound up in museums.
Explore the stories and details of the Leslie B. Durst collection of Scottish samplers — and design and download your own too, using drag-and-drop elements like borders, Bible verses, sailing ships, crowns and more:
“History has been written by men for men” by way of formal, book-driven education, said Lisa Haisch, Durst’s friend and the self-imposed “librarian” of the sampler collection. (Durst cops to starting too many projects; she said she’s grateful to volunteering friends like Haisch, who are skilled with organization, photography and materials preservation.) Women’s history, by contrast, has mostly been preserved in “folksy artifacts” like songs and samplers, Haisch said. Durst’s samplers are “subtle but clear indicators of women’s social history,” she said.
Madly in love
Durst grew up loving and learning stitchery from her mother, she said, and came across these handmade samplers decades later — but they didn’t engage her natural predilection for collecting until she went to Scotland “and fell madly in love.”
Scotland may be a modernizing nation, she said, but it’s also still amazingly “Brigadoon-esque.” Durst described exploring quaint little towns and villages that remain fiercely proud of their micro-local customs, legends and landscapes. Scots are individualistic and eccentric people, she said, and their landscape seems alive with history.
“I never understood why Leslie was so excited until I visited a couple of times,” Haisch said. “There’s a quirky, artistic bent to everything. They live and breathe their cultural history and genealogy. They’re still living in the same farmhouses that their ancestors lived in, 200 years ago.”
Durst started collecting Scottish samplers that struck her fancy, and she got to know dealers and curators along the way. The practice evolved into a real obsession, she said, until she’d built what is reportedly the largest private collection of Scottish samplers in the world. You know your collection has become “an entity unto itself,” Haisch said, when experts and dealers start seeking you out with offers and inquiries.
A previous curator at the Scottish museum was uninterested in her samplers, Durst said: a male who couldn’t see that these scraps of cloth were actually important historical documents. But a new curator, hired about two years ago, sat Durst down and informed her that he wanted to celebrate her important, upcoming birthday with an exhibit of her fantastic collection. (A nearby underling reminded him that the museums’ schedule was already full, Durst said, but he simply shrugged that off and made it happen anyway.)
Durst was delighted. “My Scottish girls needed to go home,” she said.
Stories in stitches
What do the samplers say about Durst’s Scottish girls and their homes? The following comes from “Embroidered Stories,” and a related website full of additional information, by textiles curator Helen Wyld.
Margaret Alexander’s home was a harbor village called Blackness in the county of West Lothian. She was 10 years old in 1811, when she stitched a sampler that details the different sorts of soldiers garrisoned at Blackness Castle, where French captives were imprisoned during the Napoleonic Wars. Her sampler shows the distinct green uniform of the new 95th Regiment (Rifles), the red coat of a 1st Regiment officer (Royal Scouts), and the checkered blue kilt and blue bonnet of the 42nd Highlanders (Black Watch).
Margaret Doig’s 1834 sampler includes relatives’ initials and decorative Scottish thistles and English roses, but its focus is a proud whaling ship with a small harpooner’s boat tethered behind. Doig was from Dundee, an east coast whaling town, which launched whaling fleets annually. “The risks were high, with forty Dundee whaling ships lost in the Arctic between 1753 and 1900,” Wyld writes.
Jane Lindsay created a remarkable sampler when she was an adult, in 1838, to commemorate important family dates, including her marriage and the death of her husband’s brother in the same year. She decorated the sampler with animals and birds copied from popular contemporary reference sources (like Bewick’s “History of British Birds”). At the sampler’s center is a generic building whose label has worn away except for an “oth”; it’s probably a historical guess at Bothwell Castle, in ruins for over a century when Lindsay was stitching.
Isabella MacKay was only 9 years old in 1796, when she stitched a map of Scotland that’s not as simple as it appears. For one thing, it demonstrates that girls were being taught geography, a new development in the late 1700s. Each county (or shire) is meticulously bordered by black and other colored, layered cross stitches; the map label in the upper right corner features an unusual memorial urn; the map also includes latitude and longitude lines, which was rare for Scottish samplers.
Even more unusual and poignant is a map of the world, in two hemispheres, by 10-year-old Agnes Spence — who died at age 15. The map is embedded in a larger sampler teeming with details including family initials and the Lord’s Prayer; the map itself is an interesting version of the globe in 1826, showing “New Holland” (the future Australia) in the lower right. The only North American landmarks important enough for labels are Chesapeake Bay and the city of Philadelphia.
Made the trip
You still have time to see Durst’s samplers exhibit, which remains on display at the National Museum of Scotland through April — but we’re not making any promises about air fare to Edinburgh.
One person who made the trek specifically for the samplers was Kevin Weaver, Durst’s friend and the curator of Vancouver’s downtown Art on the Boulevard gallery.
“My wife Kristy and I traveled to Scotland to attend the opening night at the museum and … it was absolutely amazing,” Weaver wrote in an email. When he took a stack of copies of Wyld’s book to the museum shop cash register, he said, several of the cashiers told him how much the “absolutely stunning” exhibit meant to them, and to all of Scotland.
“They had never seen a collection quite like this before, and told me how there was a lot of excitement and anticipation from the public,” Weaver said. “Several of them got quite emotional upon seeing the show and the amount of dedication, passion and love that Leslie had put into collecting and preserving this part of Scottish history.”