“It is amazing to me,” said Bingley, “how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are. . . . They all paint tables, cover screens, and net purses. I scarcely know anyone who cannot do all this, and I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished.” —Pride and Prejudice
As we saw earlier, Hugh Thomson’s illustrations in the “Peacock” Pride and Prejudice (the 1894 version with a proud peacock on the cover) are delightful. They are also apparently well-researched. Thomson gives us glimpses into an enchanting world very different from ours today. One of them, though, surprised me. Is his illustration of “covering screens” what Austen’s ladies actually would have done?
Ladies’ Accomplishments: Covering Screens
Hugh Thomson shows a young lady “covering a screen.” She is taking pictures and gluing them onto the screen. Presumably she will later cover them with some sort of varnish; this is called decoupage. Encyclopedia Britannica says decoupage was a fashionable art in eighteenth and nineteenth century England.
Bingley called covering a screen one of the “accomplishments” of young ladies. If you watched the new Emma. movie, you’ve seen screens used: they keep the drafts off Mr. Woodhouse! They also protected people from the direct heat of the fireplace. Some screens were several connected panels like the one in Thomson’s picture. Others were a single panel on a pole (a pole-screen) or hand-held screens, similar to fans. How were such screens “covered”?
Apparently, covering screens could be done in several ways. The Regency Redingote says that pole-screens:
“usually consisted of a panel on a pole supported by three or four feet. The panel of such a screen might be a framed piece of embroidery or other needlework, it might be covered with decoupaged prints, or painted in a pleasing design which complemented the decor of the room. Any of this artistic work may very well have been the product of one of the ladies of the house. The panel on these fire screens was usually adjustable and could be moved up or down the pole to accommodate the height of the lady whose complexion it protected from the heat of the fire.”
Thomson’s illustration above pictures a young lady pasting pictures on a fire-screen. The National Trust has examples of hand-held fire screens from the nineteenth century which appear to be pictures decoupaged on wood. Here’s another one. D.A.R. Museum curator Alden O’Brien directed me to this photo of a Victorian era decoupaged fire screen. She said that in the Regency era people sometimes decoupaged even the walls of their rooms with pictures.
Embroidered and Painted Screens
There was another popular way to “cover screens.” The Cambridge Pride and Prejudice (ed. Pat Rogers) says “covering screens” meant embroidering fire-screens. This embroidered pole-screen is dated 1770-1899. (Look at the second picture to see the embroidery; the first just shows the pole.) This one is for sale.
“Ways to Keep Warm in the Regency Era, Part 2” shows different types of fire-screens and explains how they were used. It also shows another embroidered pole-screen. A screen from 1774 is covered with pictures. They may be painted directly on the screen, which was another possible way to “cover a screen.”
By 1882, at least, fire-screens could be made of glass, leather, or brocade, or embroidered or painted with oil paints or water colors. So there were a wide variety of styles.
In the coming weeks, we’ll look at some of Thomson’s other illustrations and see what they show us about Jane Austen’s world.
Ladies of Austen’s world created beauty that could be enjoyed daily by the whole family. While we may not have the leisure time they did, we have many ways to beautify our own living spaces, large or small. What can you do today that will make your home more beautiful and more joyful?