Made in about 1803 for Phebe Warner of New York, this bedcover's design relates more closely to eighteenth-century sources than to those of the nineteenth century. The maker was influenced by the central flowering-tree motif common to popular imported Indian bed hangings, called "palampores," as well as by the pastoral landscape needlework pictures often worked by young women. The coverlet's linen ground is appliquéd with large-patterned cotton chintzes and printed linens, as well as smaller-patterned cotton calicos and plaids, most of which were made in England.
This bed cover is perhaps the finest existing example of an American appliquéd coverlet. The work was made for Phebe Warner (1786-1844) of New York in about 1803, and its design inevitably relates more closely to eighteenth-century sources than to those from the nineteenth century. Its maker was clearly influenced by the central flowering-tree motif common to the popular imported Indian bed hangings called “palampores,” as well as by the pastoral landscape needlework pictures often worked by young women during the eighteenth century.
The coverlet is decorated with pieces of cloth cut from both large-patterned chintzes and printed linens as well as with smaller-patterned cotton calicos and plaids. Most of these fabrics were manufactured in England. The pieces that are figures cut from chintz, such as the birds that peer down on the scene beneath them, are applied, or stitched down, with a nearly invisible whipstitch. Many of the pieces that were cut from the small-patterned fabrics are embroidered around their edges with silk thread in the buttonhole stitch. Some of the flowers in the border are formed from seven small hexagons of fabric, a very early use of a piecing style that remained popular for the next one hundred fifty years.
For many years, the Phebe Warner coverlet has been attributed to Phebe's mother, Ann Walgrove Warner (1758-1826). New evidence, however, points to another member of the family for its reattribution. Several additional pieces of appliquéd work from the Warner family are in the collections of other museums. Strikingly similar to the Museum’s coverlet in style and craftsmanship, they were undoubtedly all made by the same person. The group includes two scenic panels in the collection of the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Delaware, each meant to be set into the center of a coverlet like the Museum’s: a Nativity scene from about 1805 (59.1496), and a rendering of the Holy Family's Flight into Egypt from about 1810-30 (59.1497). Both these panels came to Winterthur attributed to Sarah Furman Warner Williams of New York City. A second, almost identical, nativity scene with a pieced border was recently discovered in an estate sale on Long Island, New York; it is currently in a private collection.
Also obviously sewn by the same hand are the remains of a coverlet, which was damaged in a fire in 1970 at The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan. It too is traditionally regarded as the work of Sarah Furman Warner Williams. This attribution is supported by documents that descended through the Nichols family of Greenfield Hill, Connecticut, and are now owned by the Fairfield Historical Society. One handwritten note relates that the Henry Ford coverlet was made for Susannah Nexsen Warner (1799-1880) who married the Reverend Samuel Nichols of Greenfield Hill, and that it was marked in cross-stitch with the initials "S.N.W." According to another note, the coverlet, called "Aunt Williams Quilt," was exhibited in Fairfield, and there is "another at Met. Museum of Art."
Sarah Furman Warner Williams was born in 1764. Her mother was Magdelen Walgrove Warner, and her stepfather was George Warner, a sailmaker. The Winterthur Museum owns a pastel portrait of Sarah (57.1142A), drawn when she was in her teens. She married Azriah Williams in December 1788; we have not yet found any records of children born to the couple. The two surviving completed coverlets she made were sewn for younger relatives, perhaps as wedding gifts. Susannah Nexsen Warner Nichols was Sarah's niece, the child of her half-brother, George James Warner (1774-1810). Susannah married in 1816, which seems a likely date for the manufacture of the Henry Ford Museum's coverlet.
Phebe Berrien Warner Cotheal, the original owner of the Metropolitan's coverlet, was Sarah's first cousin. Phebe, who was probably about twenty years younger than Sarah, was born in 1786, two years before Sarah was married. She was the eldest of six children born to Ann Walgrove Warner (1758-1826) and Charles Warner (1755-1811). On October 17, 1803, at the age of seventeen, Phebe married Henry Cotheal (1779-1849), a New York City merchant; the couple had ten children. After her death in 1844, the coverlet apparently descended to her first-born son, Alexander Isaac Cotheal (1804-1892), and then to his daughter, Catharine E. Cotheal (1864-?), who donated it to the Museum. Catharine E. Cotheal described it as the work of her great-grandmother Ann Walgrove Warner, but all the evidence indicates that it was made by her grandmother's cousin Sarah.
Genealogical research is particularly satisfying when it succeeds in clarifying the origins of an extraordinary work of art. The Phebe Warner coverlet and all the appliquéd work made by Sarah Furman Warner Williams are of a quality rarely seen in early nineteenth-century American textiles. The woman who made them possessed a keenly original imagination and was a craftsperson of the highest order. The design on this masterful coverlet delights us with its disregard for realistic scale: The couple continue to court, and the children to play, under the benevolent gaze of brightly plumed birds three times human size, while deer cavort among dogs, sheep, and pigs in the shadow of an urn the size of a house.
[Peck 2015; adapted from Amelia Peck, "American Quilts & Coverlets in the Metropolitan Museum of Art," 2007]