A Beetle-Wing Tea-Cosy
This tea-cosy is a recent donation which highlights two areas of our collecting in dress and textiles: embroidery, and domestic textiles.
Examples of beetle-wing embroidery represent one of the more esoteric types of fancy needlework in the collection. The Museums Service holds European and especially English embroidery from the 17th century onwards. We hold a small sample of non-European embroidered textiles where they were clearly decorated in or influenced by European designs, and for comparative purposes. Hence we have examples of beetle-wing embroidery on parts of two Victorian dresses, an Edwardian stole, a 1920s dress and some embroidered tableware. Such items were often made in India, but were worn and used by Europeans seeking something unusual and exotic. The beetle-wings have an iridescence that is fascinating, as they catch the light, natural or artificial, with the effect of a highly polished reflective stone or glass. Indeed they can be mistaken for gemstones or glass pastes of emerald or sapphire from a distance. Early examples would originally have been seen by candle light or gas light, presenting quite an intriguing spectacle.
We hold a good collection of 19th and 20th century domestic textiles ranging from carpets to curtains, and bell-pulls to beer mats. We have several examples of Victorian tea-cosies. Tea-cosies have, as their name implies, a practical function in keeping tea warm, but their mass consumption in the Victorian period, and increasingly extravagant decoration, is testament to the sometimes rather prudish covering up-of all manner of objects from mantle-shelves to piano legs in that era. Tea-cosies were also perfect foils for demonstrating a housewife’s skills with the needle, and patterns for tea-cosies embroidered in Berlin wool-work, and beading, and silks and velvets painted, and decorated with pokerwork, abounded, from the later 1860s.
The beetle-wings used in embroidery are the modified fore-wings (elytra) of beetles (Coleoptera) and mostly come from members of the family Buprestidae, often know as Jewel Beetles. Each beetle has two hard elytra that protect the delicate, membranous hind-wings which are folded away beneath the elytra when they are not being used for flying.
One of the most frequently used beetle-wing comes from the species Sternocera aequisignata Saunders. This jewel beetle is found in Northern India, Burma and Thailand, and is apparently fairly common where it occurs.
Each elytron of this species is leaf-shaped, convex and measures 2cm-3cm long. The wing cases are hard and shell-like. They are tough, but break up under direct pressure. The outer surface is shiny and iridescent, giving the effect of sunlight on oil-slick, variously green tending to purple or green tending to bronze. This surface is finely pitted and highly reflective. The underside is brown and woody. There are references to several other jewel beetle species being used both within India and also in South America, especially Brazil.
The use of natural organic materials for European costume and accessories including jewellery is well established, from furs and feathers to shells for cameos and buttons. The jewel-like quality of the beetle-wing was clearly thought particularly appropriate for European ball dress in the middle quarters of the 19th century. Later, such dresses were conceived, or reworked, for fancy dress. They were particularly effective under stage-lighting, hence Ellen Terry wore a beetle-wing encrusted dress for her role as Lady Macbeth (as seen in the John Singer Sargent portrait of 1889 (Tate Gallery, London) and the surviving dress at Smallhythe, Kent), which presented an appropriately macabre vision.
The beetle-wings for this tea-cosy have clearly been cut to shape where necessary, to give a more symmetrical leaf form. They were then pierced with a needle and sewn to the silk satin with cotton thread, to secure them at each end. Beetle-wings have been used for centuries by Indian civilisations, cut into tiny spangle shapes to adorn a range of objects from garments and turban cloths, to canopies and book covers, their reflective properties admired as a means to ward off evil spirits. Underside couching of the surface laid gilt threads is a typically Indian technique, seen on a vast array of Indian embroidered uniforms in many museum collections, and throughout the 20th century on tourist souvenirs such as tablemats. Indian artisans centres in Calcutta, Madras and Delhi all produced such work for the export trade.
It seems likely from the details of provenance we can ascertain, that this tea-cosy was worked in India, by male embroiderers, to a European tea-cosy pattern for expatriate use in India initially. However it was clearly possible to acquire the beetle-wings in England by the mid Victorian era, too. A beetle-wing embroidered lace dress worked by a dressmaker in Dublin had been exhibited in The Great Exhibition in 1851 and by 1865 a discussion on the ‘queries and answers’ pages of The Queen magazine pondered how a very large quantity of ‘Indian beetle-wings’, could best be employed to good effect on English dresses. The enquirer noted that “in India the wings are generally bordered round with gold or silver, but I do not think this is at all necessary”.
The use of “white crape or aerophane” as opposed to muslin or velvet was recommended for the ground. The beetle-wing tea-cosy certainly combines European form with Indian decoration, and that is part of its peculiar charm.
It may seem bizarre at first to adorn the tea table with what is essentially insect debris, but on reflection the image of a late Victorian family keeping their Indian tea hot under such a tea-cosy, with Victoria, the Queen Empress reigning over all, seems entirely appropriate.
The tea-cosy is well designed. The pattern is the same on both sides- a series of flower heads and leaves outlined in gilt-wrapped yellow thread, and surrounded by symmetrical, swirling arabesques. The contrasting colour of green beetle-wings against a rich ground of ruby wine coloured silk satin – a hallmark colour of the 1880s in Britain - makes a sparkling feast for the eye. The application of the couched thread also adds to the opulent look of the beetle-wing-encrusted cloth. A length of ruby coloured cording defines the outer tea-cosy shape, and cleverly loops at the top to form the handle. The beetle-wings and gilt wrapped thread are lightweight so that the tea-cosy weighs only a little more than a plain silk satin one. We do not have access to the interior of the tea-cosy to analyse the wadding, but certainly eider duck down from Russia was very popular for quilted petticoats of this period. The size and form of the tea-cosy is entirely consistent with other examples of beaded, embroidered and painted European tea-cosies of the period c.1867-90.
This beetle-wing tea-cosy is in remarkable condition. As so often when an object is not merely functional but also highly decorative, it was perhaps put away for best, and then thought too precious to actually use, merely adorning a sideboard for high tea on occasion. There is evidence of display, in the slight fading of the silk, and friction causing broken and missing beetle-wings. There is little evidence of use, however, as the interior lined with the same silk satin is immaculate. It has earned its place as a real museum piece.
Detail of embroidery