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Betsy Harris the Patchwork Artist

Discover the life and work of Hephzibah Harris, an expert craftswoman.

Jann Tracy

Hephzibah (Betsy) Harris lived all her life in Stratford-upon-Avon. She was well known in the town as a maker of things. As she put it in her diary entry of 30/11/1878, "I am always very busy indeed with one thing or other Patchwork, Knitting, Hearth rugs, dress making, Millinery, plain sewing and mending of many and sometimes difficult things." She worked as a glove maker, and in her diary of 1868 notes, "I finished making the last of three thousand pairs of leather gloves, having worked for Mr Williams more than fourteen years." Hephzibah executed a patchwork picture of her employer’s typical half-timbered shop front, and the following description records the detail that could be seen:

“Complete with the date 1596, reconstructed mainly of brown and stone-coloured square patches, the ‘carving’ on the brown woodwork is shown by chain stitch embroidery. The windows are made with glazing bars of brown strips of cotton applied to a black background and the detail is so fine that in one window some sample gloves can be seen. The larger window, on the right, contains miniature articles such as strings of beads, a bonnet priced 7/6 and pieces of lace at 2/9 and 3/6.”

Hephzibah was born in 1836, never married and lived with her parents most of her life. The 1841 census shows them living in Rother Street and that she was named after her mother; her father’s name was Thomas who was a shoe maker. Her diaries are held by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and give a lively insight into her work, and her interest in the larger world. For example:

“12/8/68 I finished a piece of patchwork which I began in the spring of last year, containing about 3178 pieces, being a view of the interior of the chancel.
1/9/78 This week has been marked by a calamity of unusual magnitude in the wreck of the Princess Alice Steamer, near Plumstead, on the Thames, with several hundred passengers, being cut almost in two by a vessel called the 'Bywell Castle.'
23/10/1878 Several changes are being contemplated in the town, one of them being a very considerable extension of the Borough boundary.
5/12/78 I finished making [a] small patchwork picture of a rustic cottage up the Warwick Road, with the obelisk at Welcombe in the back ground.
10/12/1894 I have now more than one hundred and fifty pincushions quite completed."

To get an idea of the work that went into each picture, it should be understood that they were not embroidery in the accepted sense. Averil Colby, writing in the Embroiderer’s Guild magazine, gives this description:

“The pictures are of patchwork in the true sense, in that the whole fabric in each is built by joining small pieces together in the traditional manner, any embroidery or applied work being put on to the patchwork foundation. The more closely one looks into the detailed execution, the more astonishing the achievement appears.”

Patchwork by Hephzibah Harris
Fabric picture depicting the Welcombe Monument near Stratford-on-Avon.

Hephzibah was somewhat eccentric in her dress, at the end of her life still wearing the Victorian fashion of her youth:  a mushroom hat, shawl and crinoline, long after everyone else had discarded the style, but, according to her contemporaries, it suited her to a ‘t’:

“She never seemed to hurry - and yet in her placid patient form and demeanour and light tripping walk, one sensed that restrained smooth rapidity and quiet forcefulness so often seen in people who live retiring but wonderfully busy lives.”

At one time she lived in a small cottage in Church Street where, according to one of her cousins, she kept a gift shop selling articles she had made, of patch work, bead work, dressed dolls and various other things.

“She was a delightful old lady who made a lasting impression on her many visitors. She was active and energetic, even in her seventies and talked about her patchwork with the greatest enthusiasm. She enjoyed doing it and this enjoyment comes out in her work: without it no one could have put the care and obvious affection into the many faithful details.”

Hephzibah would show her pictures to anyone who cared to go and see them. They adorned the walls of her room and her admiring visitors were charged “one penny to see the exhibition.” But it is clear that a good deal of the enjoyment of the exhibition lay in the personality and the bright black eyes of the old lady herself, who did not seem to think there was anything remarkable about her work. A newspaper advert of December 1894 shows her retail acumen:

“Miss Harris’s Exhibition
24 Church Street Stratford-upon-Avon
It is the only one of its kind in the world.
include many views of the town, and
many fancy pieces. Open from 11 till dusk.
Admission 4d. Working People 2d.”

Later she moved to Newland House in Guild Street and died in 1918, aged 82.

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