Cutting Paper Valentines with Elizabeth Cobbold

PenBowDetailValentine’s Day has finally provided me with some inspiration and motivation to get back to my writing desk! Many of today’s holidays were celebrated very differently in the Georgian and Regency periods, but Valentine’s Day is an exception. Then as now, it gave an opportunity for sweethearts and friends to exchange tokens of love. Last year I looked at folded and decorated puzzle purses, and made some of my own. This year I am captivated by the delightful valentines made by one very accomplished Regency lady, Elizabeth Cobbold. I just had to try making some myself!

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Elizabeth Cobbold, painted by George Frost (BBC)

Elizabeth Cobbold of The Cliff

Elizabeth Knipe was already a published poet and novelist by the time she married her second husband, brewer John Cobbold, in 1792. Around 1806, she began to hold an annual St. Valentine’s Day ball at their home in Ipswich, Cliff House. As part of the festivities, Elizabeth devised a fortune-telling game on the theme of love and marriage which made use of her talents for two lady-like accomplishments: poetry and paper-cutting. These “Cliff Valentines” became famous enough that she published two slim volumes of the poetry from these games in 1813 and 1814, so we have a description of the process in her own words:

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Excerpt from Cliff Valentines, 1813 (Google Books)

The poetry in the published books is divided into one section of verses for gentlemen, which foretell the personality traits of the men’s fated brides-to-be, and another section for ladies that describe their destined husbands. There is also one poem in each section titled “The Prize.” While each verse purported to give a glimpse of a future spouse, Cobbold says that The Prize foretold an engagement or marriage in the year to come.

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“For you all the Choicest of Birds in the Air,” Cut Paper Valentine by Elizabeth Cobbold (Live Auctioneers)

“Some Degree of Neatness”

Cobbold’s modest description of her poetry and her cut-paper work really doesn’t express the intricate playfulness in her designs! Although familiar valentine images of hearts and cupids appear, Cobbold didn’t limit herself. She chose themes as varied as the Fairy Queen Mab, a Chinese Landscape, an Indian Boat, even a pyramid covered in hieroglyphs! We’re so lucky that any designs of these ephemeral party favors survive at all, and amazingly enough some of them survive in two different formats. Two extant copies of Cobbold’s Cliff Valentines 1814 contain pen-and-ink drawings attributed to Harriet Cobbold- possibly Elizabeth’s daughter. Fortunately for us, UC Boulder Libraries, which holds one of these hand-illustrated books, has digitised it and made it freely readable! Read Cliff Valentines 1814 and admire Cobbold’s designs here. One of my favorites is this “Lacerta Chameleon”, which must have shocked the gentleman who drew it out of Mrs. Cobbold’s basket! The verses explain that the recipient’s bride-to-be will not be a scaly lizard, but she will be a gentle creature that changes her emotional color to match her husband’s, just like the chameleon.

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Lacerta Chameleon, ink drawing by Harriet Cobbold in Cliff Valentines 1814 (UC Boulder Libraries)

Many examples of the actual cut-paper valentines with verses on them also survive and even occasionally come up for auction. One gorgeous cache of Cobbold’s work is now in the Johns Hopkins University Libraries’ Special Collections: an album of 123 paper cuts, some of which match the verses and designs in Cliff Valentines! The album is a recent acquisition and is not yet in the library catalog, but several images of the valentines have been made public on Flickr. That’s where I found it, and I am grateful to JHU Special Collections Outreach Librarian Heidi Herr for filling in more details on the album for me. And guess what? Our friend the Lacerta Chameleon is there! I was also delighted to find some Valentines on the theme of accomplishments, and those are the valentines I decided to try reproducing myself.  I’ve linked to the original valentine on Flickr at the beginning of each description.

Implements1

This Valentine must be for a gentleman, as it uses typically feminine textile “implements” to predict that the lucky recipient will have a “meek domestic bride.” I love how the scissors, thimble, and netting tools seem to be spilling out of the unrolled sewing case or “housewife”. On the lower edge, you can see a bodkin for threading eyelets or drawstrings, along with what I think might be a tambour needle.

PenBow

I was intimidated by this intricate Valentine, but since it featured a quill pen so prominently I felt I had to make the attempt to copy it! The other tool is a porte-crayon, a brass holder for chalk or graphite. Together they symbolize the arts of writing and drawing. While they may hint at a gentleman’s talents or professions, the verses are rather coy: “The Pen and the Pencil your Valentine true,/ With Garlands of Roses has circled for you / But deems not, presumptuous, their Magic combin’d / Can picture the Charms of his Valentine’s Mind.” My reading is that this valentine was meant for a lady, and she should expect to marry a talented artist and poet who would idolize her for her character and intelligence. What do you think?

Project Notes

I broke my own rules for this project, I’m sorry to say. I was so eager to try out these designs that I didn’t work from primary source instructions or experiment with the tools of the period- I turned straight to an exacto knife and a plastic cutting mat. I have a lot more research to do on the craft of paper-cutting as it was practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries, and I’m sure I’ll be returning to it before long.

I chose a tough art paper for cutting, since I wanted it to stand up to lots of handling. Although Cobbold seems to have used mostly smooth wove paper in the JHU album, I worked with a laid-texture paper that I happened to have on hand. I free-hand sketched the designs with a soft pencil on tracing paper while looking at the Flickr images. Then I flipped the tracing paper over onto my art paper and rubbed over the pencil lines with a bone folder. I used the resulting lines as a guide for cutting from the back-side of the paper, while the front of the paper remains clean and white. As I worked on those delicate vines and flowers, I found that they weren’t as difficult to execute as I thought they would be. Each flower is formed out of simple petal shapes that are filled in with finely-cut lines. The vines are formed of repeating three-leaf motifs. All the extant valentines attributed to Cobbold are glued to red or pink paper, although in her description of the Valentine Lottery she only mentions wrapping them in “blue demy paper.” I have left mine unmounted for now, but I placed them on bright paper to get the best contrast for photos. I had so much fun with these two designs, I might just have to try out that Chameleon. I’ll share it if I do!

Thanks to all my readers for your patience as once again a short hiatus turned into a long gap in posting, especially if you sent me an email or comment while I was away. I’ll get back to you soon!

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8 thoughts on “Cutting Paper Valentines with Elizabeth Cobbold

  1. Wow, I am very impressed at your skills. That’s pure paper magic!
    Thank you very much for sharing your research about Elizabeth Cobbold, her annual Valentine’s festivities and your own two pieces of paperwork. It is so so beautiful! And so much more “from the heart” than many modern Valentine’s gifts.
    Great article! I’m looking forward to reading more from your quill about this topic.

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  2. I love that the needlework tools are a netting and mesh with work in progress. Below I think it’s a tambour hook handle a needle. So happy to discover your blog, nice to see a fellow traveler a similar quest.

    Like

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