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The Saturday Book
Clarkson N. Potter, Inc. / Publisher   NEW YORK
image of The Godiva Ribbon, woven by J. C. Ratcliff
ON THE TENTH of February, 1860, Mr Gladstone anounced
details of the Cobden Treaty in the House of Commons,
one clause of which provided that the duty was to be
taken off imported ribbons. This caused a general panic in
Coventry, which had been the seat of the English ribbon indus-
try for two centuries, and had for most of that time enjoyed
protection from the better designed and manufactured conti-
nental productions. Within a few months thousands of weavers
were put out of work. While Gladstone certainly acted dis-
courteously in not first consulting the Coventry manufacturers,
it could also be argued that the Treaty only completed a process
which had begun in 1846 when the protective duties had been
reduced to the 1860 level.
  Forced to abandon the weaving of dress and furnishing ribbons
for which there was no longer a market, many manufacturers
turned their looms to the production of woven pictures and
bookmarkers. The Jacquard loom used for weaving patterned
ribbons was particularly well suited to the production of these
ornate silks, and had been employed in Lyons since its invention
in 1801 for the manufacture of black and white portraits. James
Hart and John Caldicott had both experimented along similar
lines in Coventry before the 1860 collapse, the former producing
what was probably the first Jaquard woven pcture to be made
in the town in 1855. Entiled the 'Alliance' ribbon it depicted
Victoria and Napoleon III surrounded by flowers and the
English and French flags, and was made specially for the Paris
exhibition of the same year. Hart's production could hardly be
said to be representative of Coventry ribbons in general, it had
been produced, like so many of the objects shown at these large

The Godiva Ribbon, woven by J. C. Ratcliff
for the International Exhibition of 1862
(Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry)

Stevengraphs                                38

exhibitions, for prestige purposes alone. Caldicott's portrait of
Coventry's Member of Parliament, Edward Ellice, on the other
hand, was made in 1858 purely for commercial reasons. He adver-
tised the picture on the front page of the Coventry Herald and
and exhibited it at Ralph Smythe's, the local art gallery,
where it attracted large numbers of visitors.
Caldicott and Hart were among the few ribbon masters who
were able to weather the 1860 disaster. Thomas Stevens, the
brothers John and Joseph Cash, the old fashioned firm of
Dalton and Barton, John Ratcliff, and several others, all survived
too. Of these Thomas Stevens and the Cashs are perhaps the
best known, the former for his large production of pictures
called Stevengraphs and the latter for their woven name tapes.
  Stevens had set up business in his house in Queen Street in
1854, where for the first few years he experimented with the
Jacquard, producing patterned ribbons for a living. The know-
ledge of the loom's function which he gained during these years
enabled him after 1860 to adapt it to the production of more
lucrative book-markers. The first intimation we have of this change
is a paragraph in the Coventry Herald and Observer on May 16,
1862: 'Mr Thomas Stevens ribbon manufacturer of Queen Street
has presented sets of his beautifully illuminated bookmarkers to
the churches of Holy Trinity and St Michaels.' Stevens must
have had several looms at work by this time since it would have
been very uneconomical to change the warps in one loom every
time that a new pattern was required. This theory is substanti-
ated by his registry at the Patent Office on May 30 of nine different
designs for bookmarks, including examples depicting Shakes-
peare, Bunyan, and Wesley, and others bearing ecclesiastical
sentiments and symbols which were intended for prayer books
and bibles. The Art Journal called them 'a new branch of art
manufacture'; The Bookseller, rather unusually at a loss for words,
described them as 'register ribbons'; and the Coventry Standard
hailed 'a new branch of art that gives additional employment
where new employment is much needed'.
  Success assured, Stevens registered the designs of new
examples in June, July, October and November of 1862, amongst
which were ribbons entitled 'Thy Bridal Day', 'Thanksgiving',

39                               Michael Darby

'Unchangeing Love', and 'I wish you a merry Christmas'.
  Besides the production of bookmarkers he also wove several
much larger ribbons at this time. One issued in August, 1862, was
described in the local press as 'a new and more ambitious effort
in portrait weaving by Mr Stevens, the piece being intended as a
memento of the Nonconformist Bicentenary; not at all adapted
to be used as a bookmark but rather to be framed and hung in
the drawing room where its merits as a picture entitle it to the
place of honour'. This ribbon depicted Baxter, Owen, Charnock
and Howe surrounded by an architectural framework obviously
inspired by Pugin's Gothic revival. This style was also chosen by
the ribbon's designer Jessie Lee for a similar picture commemor-
ating the Oxford Martyrs, Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer, which
came out in September, 1862. These pictures, which are among
the most interesting of all Stevens' productions not only for
their early date of manufacture but also because they were
consciously designed in the contemporary idiom, ill deserve their
present lowly position in the estimation of collectors.
  With the exception of the one other picture depicting the Prince
Consort surrounded by his daughters, Stevens produced no
more ribbons of this type for another sixteen years, concentrat-
ing instead on the rapidly expanding bookmarker trade. He
shared this market initially with several other manufacturers.
John Caldicott, continuing his earlier trend, registered several
designs in 1862 at the Patent Office. It is interesting to note that
Caldicott's first registration of the bookmarker depicting Christ
and the cross was made on February 18, over one month before
Stevens' first registration. Caldicott and Stevens are not the
only contestants in the race to produce the first bookmarker.
Mr Aaron Lester, a warehouseman in the employ of John
Cleophas Ratliff, claimed during a piracy of designs case in the
courtroom on October 24, 1862, that 'Our firm produced the
first bookmarkers at the beginning of this year, I believe I
draughted the specimens produced in January last'. Some future
research may help to solve the problem of precisely who did
make the first bookmarkers, but what is clear is that Stevens did
not have their production entirely to himself during this early
period, as has been assumed by many collectors.

Stevengraphs                                40

  The death of the Prince Consort on December 14, 1861, and the
International Exhibition of 1862 provided the incentive for a rash
of lettered and pictorial ribbons besides bookmarkers. John and
Joseph Cash, whose business had been founded in 1846, brought
out two ribbons to commemorate Albert's death. One appeared
in March, 1862, and was described in the Coventry Herald and
: 'Certainly the best ribbon of this class we have yet seen
is this portrait, not so much for the likenes of the Prince which
seems not to have been taken from one of the best originals, but
for its accessories of Rosenau, the birthplace of Prince Albert,
and of Windsor where he died, which are exquisitely done, each
making a pretty little picture as if it were in the best style of
engraving.' This ribbon was designed by Thomas Clack, a pupil
of the local school of design who later went on to become a
principal at the Royal College of Art. Cash's other portrait
appeared in June and depicted the Prince, with the Exhibition
buildings of 1851 and 1862.
  Dalton and Barton, whose business was described by their
manager William Andrewes in 1863 as the most progressive in
Coventry, also produced two portraits of Albert. One was in-
scribed 'His Royal Highness the Late Prince Consort' and depicted
Albert full face, whilst the other was inscribed 'Albert the Good'
and showed him in profile in an oval medallion with Gothic
ornament above, and, below, the royal coat-of-arms. A profile of
Queen Victoria in a similar framing was woven at about the same
time, and undoubtedly formed a pair with this portrait.
  John Cleophas Ratliff produced what was probably the most
outstanding ribbon of 1862. Called the Godiva ribbon, it was
specially made for the 1862 exhibition. It consisted of a passage
from Tennyson's poem 'Godiva' with suitable embellishments
designed by Richard Rivington Holmes, then Keeper of Manu-
scripts at the British Museum. Holmes later became the Queen's
Librarian at Windsor and received a knighthood before his death
in 1911. The ribbon gained for its producer a gold medal at the
exhibition and the commendation of the jury, who stated that
'the more closely it is examined the greater is the astonishment
that such a multitude of exquisitely finished details could be
produced in such a small space'.

41                               Michael Darby

  The year 1863 saw the marriage of the Prince and Princess of
Wales, and Coventry Town Council decided that they should
honour the occasion by drawing up an address of congratulation
to the royal couple. At their meeting om March 10, 1863, Alderman
Lynes stated that it had been suggested to him that 'the address
be woven on a broad Coventry ribbon loom'. It was decided to
implement this suggestion and a production committee was set
up with the Mayor at its head. The methods used by the com-
mittee to select a design for the address caused great dissatisfac-
tion in the town and evoked considerable criticism from the
other members of the Council. A Mr Cowsell, manager of the
Corn Exchange, was declared the winner of the competition for
designs advertised in the local press, but his winning entry was
never used. The reason for this was that Ratliff unexpectedly
placed at the committee's disposal the loom on which he had
woven the Godiva ribbon, thus considerably cutting their
expected costs. Ratliff must have mentioned that he could
probably obtain the services of Holmes to design the address too.
It is hardly surprising that the Council should have jumped at
this opportunity, since Holme's ability as a draughtsman had
been proved, and his knowledge of illuminated manuscripts was
beyond question. When completed, the address, which is per-
haps the most remarkable of all Coventry ribbons, was presented to
the Prince and Princess in October, 1863, in a casket 'enriched with
lobed crystals, amethysts, carbuncles and ivory', specially made
for it in Coventry by Skidmore's Art Manufacturers Company.
  Besides this particularly handsome ribbon many favours were
produced by a number of manufacturers designed to be worn
during the wedding festivities. Similarly, in the following year,
which marked the tercentenary of Shakespeare's birth, many
favours were woven to commemorate the event. Stevens himself
produced three or four different bookmarkers portaying
Shakespeare and his birthplace, and adapted the designs for a
rosette which was intended to be worn on the day. The three
ribbons forming the rosette often become detached from the
silk-covered button bearing Coventry's arms which held them
together, and have been mistaken for separate bookmarkers.
  After the initial rush to produce pictures many manufacturers

Stevengraphs                                42

either went out of business or settled to the weaving of fancy
trimmings and elastic goods, leaving the field clear for Stevens
to make bookmarkers unhindered. His trade continued to
expand, and by the late 1880's he could claim to manufacture
more than nine hundred different varieties. For a short while
during the 1870's he experienced some competition from the
firms of E. Bollans and Welch and Lenton, who had manufac-
turies at Leamington and Coventry respectively, but neither of
whom appear to have been very successful.
  In 1875 Stevens constructed an entirely new factory in Cox
Street. As originally built it consisted of a basement and two
upper floors, each 182 feet long and 40 feet wide, with boiler and
engine houses at the rear. It was designed on the most hygienic
and economic principles, with a large dining room for the staff
and adequate lighting and ventilation. When surveyed in 1901
the factory was described as still catering for the welfare of the
employees better than any other premises in the town. The title
'Stevengraph Works' appeared along the front façade, and
Stevens specifically refers at this time to Stevengraphs or 'pure
silk woven illuminated bookmarkers'. The term Stevengraph
nowadays has become synonymous with the silk pictures which
Stevens sold in cardboard mounts.
  The first picture of this type depicted a stage-coach and horses
and was registered at the Patent Office on May 12, 1879. This is the
earliest date known in connection with any of these cardboard-
mounted pictures. Stevens obviously made the registration with
the Yorkshire Fine Art and Industrial Exhibition of 1879 in mind,
because here he exhibited a loom, and sold souvenir pictures of this
stage-coach with 'London and York' appropriately emblazoned
on its door. It is interesting to note that the identical coach and
four had been registered as a bookmark in 1872, seven years earlier.
  Stevens also sold two other pictures at the exhibition, one
depicting Dick Turpin's ride to York on Black Bess, which was
registered on May 28, 1879, and the other depicting the first train
to run from Stockton to Darlington; this was not registered, but
appeared in bookmark form several years earlier. These three
pictures proved enormously popular and sold in large quantities
for more than forty years.

43                               Michael Darby

  Joseph Gutteridge, a ribbon weaver who worked for Stevens,
has left an account of his life in a charming autobiography entitled
Lights and Shadows in the Life of an Artisan. He records operating
a loom for Stevens at an exhibition in the North of England.
  The day after I arrived the loom came and I had a most difficult time
owing to the dearth of assistance to get it together but after it was started
there was no lack of visitors who wondered that such a strange piece of
mechanism could weave eleven different colours of silk into a bouquet of
flowers, and form letters on the fabric as though they were printed. Oftimes
the number of people around the loom was so great that I had to stop it
working or the barriers that protected it would have been broken down.
Next to the loom was a stall well stocked with Mr Stevens manufactures.
  The press was full of enthusiasm for the new mounted card-
board pictures and a flood of similar items followed those made
at York. 'The Last Lap', depicting a penny-farthing bicycle race,
'Full Cry', depicting an hunting scene, 'The Start', depicting horse-
racing, and 'The First Point', showing coursing, were all regis-
tered in 1879. These were followed in 1880 by further pictures show-
ing the start of the Oxford and Cambridge boat race, Grace
Darling, more hunting scenes, a fire engine, and a picture of the
Lady Godiva procession, an annual event in Coventry. Within a
decade or so hundreds of different pictures were being made, and
the manufacture of new bookmarkers had almost ceased. The
majority of these framed pictures bear Stevens advertisements
pasted on the backs. These, like an earlier series of advertisements
which he inserted in The Bookseller, often provide a very good clue
to dating. The fewer the number of medals and other pictures
listed, the earlier the mount. Queen Victoria is listed as the late
Queen Victoria after 1901, and mounts bearing the title Thomas
Stevens Limited
date from after 1908, when the firm became a
limited company.
  Just as Bollans and Welch and Lenton copied Stevens' book-
marks, so W. H. Grant copied the mounted pictures. William
Henry Grant had started business in a single room in Foleshill,
Stevens' birthplace, in 1882, and expanded his trade so rapidly
that by 1884 he was able to exhibit a loom at the Wolverhampton
and Staffordshire Fine Art and Industrial Exhibition, where he

Stevengraphs                                44

was selling 'Framed pictures and portraits of distinguished
statesmen'. Many of Grant's productions are so like those of
Stevens that without inscriptions on the mounts it would be
impossible to identify them with any degree of certainty. Grant's
exhibit at Wolverhampton in 1884 was followed by participation
in exhibitions at Edinburgh in 1886, London in 1890 and Chicago
in 1893. On each occasion Stevens also sent a loom. Whilst Chicago
was almost certainly Grant's first exhibition in America, this was
by no means the case for Stevens, who had sent looms to Phila-
delphia in 1876 and Cincinnati in 1888.
  In 1878 Stevens had moved to Stoke Newington to manage the
London end of his ever-expanding business. Never too robust in
health, in September, 1888, he underwent an operation on his
throat. Complications set in, and he died on October 24, 1888.
Thomas Inger Stevens and Henry Stevens, two of his three sons,
inherited the business, which continued to produce woven
pictures until 1940, when German bombs reduced the Cox Street
factory to a pile of rubble. What was left was taken over by the
Leek firm of Brough, Nicholson and Hall, and until recently the
name Stevens was mentioned in their letter-head.
  Stevens was not the only firm to suffer during the blitz; several
others were also put out of business. With the closing of Frank-
lins some years ago J. and J. Cash are now the only ribbon weav-
ing firm left in Coventry, and it is gratifying to note that they
still continue the old traditions by producing lettered and
pictorial ribbons on special occasions.
  Until comparatively recently 'Stevengraphs' could be bought
very cheaply, but with the recent resurgence of interest in
Victorian popular art some of the rarer subjects as 'Leda
and the Swan' and pictures of Newcastle and Blackpool sell for
hundreds of pounds. Indeed, Coventry ribbons, and particularly
those of Thomas Stevens, have become so popular among
collectors that one London auction house holds regular sales
exclusively devoted to them, and a Stevengraph Collectors
Association has been formed, with its headquarters in New York
and members all over the world.

for the
market by
Stevens in
the 1880's

October, 31

A design
woven by
for the
market in
the 1880's

image of three Stevengraph woven silk pictures
image of three Stevengraph woven silk pictures
The start of
the Oxford
Boat Race:
January 10,
depicting the
finish of the
race was
made later

Depicting a
game of
in the

One of a
of racing
scenes. This
design was
registered on
December 15,

A woven
picture of
the Prince
of 1851 and
Made by
J. & J. Cash
in 1863.

image of J. & J. Cash woven silk picture of The Prince Consort
image of three Stevengraph woven silk pictures
First made at
the Chicago
Exhibition of
1893 where
a loom

Adapted from
the design for
a bookmarker
first produced
in the early

made during
the 'ninties

image of typical Stevens and Welch and Lenton printed lables
image of back page with credit to Stevengraph Collectors' Association

This page was created on 30 July 2018 © Peter Daws
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