An impulsive purchase - the Goodhart sampler collection

Section of a sampler dated 1662 Easle Swinson at Montacute House

When he bought a single sampler, Douglas Goodhart had no idea that he was beginning 30 years of work which would create a collection of international significance.

Curating a collection which has been the passion of an individual is a joy.  Samplers were not something that I knew very much about when I began to work at Montacute House, but if you’re naturally curious it’s always easy to be enticed.  It never takes long before you find yourself sharing the sense of excitement and interest of the original owner.

Simple, quiet, often the work of children, samplers are easily put into shade by grander furnishings that were always intended for show.  

Seventeenth century sampler
Seventeenth century sample at Montacute House
Seventeenth century sampler

Although now framed and often hung like pictures, originally, samplers were practical pieces.  They were meant for practice and for recording the stitches and patterns which were embroidered over curtains, furnishings and the clothing of both men and women.

The condition and colour of the textiles are a reminder that they weren’t valued as decorations.  They have survived because they were rolled up in work boxes and drawers.

Some of the pieces in the collection are over four hundred years old.  The earliest are often easy to recognise with scattered motifs and designs randomly worked across a long piece of linen.  The wildly different scale of plants and animals adds charm but may remind us of our own attempts at sketches or sewing.  Giant insects hover over birds, enormous plants tower over a deer.   But there is no getting away from the skill it took to produce such delicate work.  Intricate and stylised designs reflect the similar and fashionable patterns used in gardens, wall paintings and architecture at the time. 

Sampler by Elizabeth Branch dated 1670
Sampler by Elizabeth Branch at Montacute House
Sampler by Elizabeth Branch dated 1670

The later samplers are more familiar.  Formal bands of decoration, numbers and religious texts were part of an education increasingly based on reading and writing as well as practical skills.  Having to painstakingly sew your name into a complicated embroidery perhaps made sure that you learnt to spell it.

Not all of the pieces are signed but many are.  They connect us immediately to the girls and young women who created them.  Their names seem contemporary – Mary, Elizabeth, Deborah – but their ages often astonish us. The first sampler that Dr Goodhart purchased was by Sarah Mitchell, aged just 11.  

Sampler by Sarah Mitchell dated 1822
Sampler by Sarah Mitchell dated 1822 at Montacute House
Sampler by Sarah Mitchell dated 1822

A selection has been made from the 300 or so samplers left to the National Trust.  I encourage you to stop and spend some time in the ‘Brown Room’ on the first floor.  They are the very best examples to be found of these very personal items.