Elena Kanagy-Loux (PhD student) and William DeGregorio (MA ’12, PhD ’21) discuss textiles at the Antonio Ratti Textile Center and Reference Library at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Brayden Heath.

BGC alumnus William DeGregorio and first-year PhD student Elena Kanagy-Loux recently connected at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Antonio Ratti Textile Center. In September, DeGregorio was appointed associate curator of the Costume Institute at the Met. Kanagy-Loux, a lacemaker and historian of women’s skilled labor who specializes in bobbin lace, worked as a collections specialist at the Ratti Center for many years before enrolling in BGC’s PhD program this fall.

The two discussed DeGregorio’s new two-volume set about collector and connoisseur Percival D. Griffiths, which featured several pieces from the Met’s collection in the volume about Griffiths’s collection of early English needlework, as well BGC’s role in their respective career paths.

Elena Kanagy-Loux: Hi Billy. It seems we’re like passing ships in the night because as of August 16, I will be a PhD student at Bard Graduate Center.

William DeGregorio: Yes, we’re sort of switching positions—I’ll be starting as the associate curator of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fashion at the Costume Institute here at the Met. Are you excited to start your PhD?

EKL: I am! My desire to pursue a PhD at BGC stemmed from working on the lace exhibition there last year, Threads of Power. I was involved in many different facets of the exhibition, from consulting on the catalogue, to programming, to making a piece for the show itself and creating educational videos for social media. So, I realized that as much as I loved the experience of working with historic textiles and a wide community of scholars at the Ratti Center, I was not able to focus on my own research, and I was spending more and more of my decreasing free time writing papers and presenting. After my experience working with BGC, I felt ready to make my own research a full-time pursuit. I admit, not being in the presence of objects every day will feel like a big change, as the best part about working in this department, or in a curatorial department, is having access to the art.

Exterior of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Brayden Heath.

WDG: Agreed. I worked in museums first. I didn’t study art history as an undergraduate, I studied English, and I always thought I would be a journalist or something like that. I was interested in fashion, but I thought I would write about it. And then my first job out of college was at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I had seen exhibitions, but I didn’t really understand what it meant to create them. I worked there for two years as a department assistant, and the whole time I just pulled things out of cabinets and looked at them and read information in the databases. I got really interested in collecting and provenance, and then all roads then led me to BGC. There were a few colleagues at the MFA, Michelle Tolini-Finamore (PhD ’10) and Rebecca Tilles (MA ’07), who were alumni and recommended it highly to me.

EKL: Interesting. I did my undergrad at Fashion Institute of Technology where I studied textiles and surface design, so I have a maker’s background first and then layered history on top.

I want to talk about the work that you’ve done with Cora Ginsburg and how it led to the Percival Griffiths publication. So you mentioned that you started working on this book in 2013. What led you to this project?

WDG: I started working for the Cora Ginsburg Gallery in 2012, right after I got my master’s. I was working there with Titi Halle, who is the director, and she got a call one day from her close friend, Chris Jussel, a very respected dealer and scholar who was the first host of the Antiques Roadshow in this country. He had been approached by a collector in Chicago named John Bryan, who collected English furniture, needlework, and Arts and Crafts works. Bryan wanted a book written about Percival Griffiths, who is known in collecting and dealing circles as the pinnacle of connoisseur collectors. Bryan said, “I know nothing about him, and there’s nothing written about him,” and he contacted Chris. Chris wanted someone to collaborate with on this project, so he contacted Titi and she recommended me. Initially, he wanted to do a biography of Griffiths and highlight a few of the best pieces, but it became clear that if we were going to do this, it needed to be all or nothing. We decided that we’d try to track down everything he ever owned. And so, it became two volumes and was just published earlier this year.

Photo courtesy of Yale University Press.

EKL: Well, it’s a staggering set of volumes. And it’s interesting that this started out after BGC had the Twixt Art and Nature exhibition because that was my entry point into this period of English embroidery, which I have such a soft spot for. But I was surprised in reading your volume, that nineteenth-century collectors didn’t have that same positive perspective of this era of embroidery and there’s a lot of criticism of the “quaint” or “childlike” drawing, and the sort of intimacy of it. At that same time, antique lace was very fashionable, and lots of women were collecting it, and then later in the twentieth century, lace became totally outré. I think sometimes the influence of the fashion of collecting gets downplayed in exhibitions, but your work clearly illustrates how the taste and value of art shift over time.

WDG: Well, I think there’s always a pendulum swing. This chapter on the changing fashions and interest in this type of embroidery or needlework was the most rewarding chapter to write because, as you said, it was not always highly valued. There was this prevailing nineteenth-century perspective that all great English art comes from the medieval tradition. And the seventeenth-century needlework by young women as I think all these pieces we are looking at today are, except maybe the gloves was viewed as quaint or homey in the nineteenth century. But, as I tried to trace in the book, there was a real change in interest around 1900. Marcus Huish was one of the most vocal proponents of the school of thought that these embroidered works were really documents of material culture, and that they had so much to tell us about the fashions of the time— the furniture, the hairstyles, the gardens. He was especially interested in fashion, and he was very interested in lace. There are pictorial embroideries from this period that incorporate actual needle lace, and Huish tried to convince people that pictorial embroideries were interesting by saying, “Well, you all know that lace is valuable, and you can learn about lace through these pieces and see how it was worn.”

[DeGregorio and Kanagy-Loux continued the conversation while examining four seventeenth-century works from the Met’s collection that were featured in DeGregorio’s volume about Griffiths’s collection of early English needlework. The works included a panel embroidered with the Story of Samuel, a 1649 Bible with an embroidered cover, a pair of embroidered leather gloves, and a needlework portrait of William and Mary.]

WDG: On this embroidered panel, you can see depictions of lace cuffs and collars of the men and women, although they are quite abstracted.

EKL: They’re still recognizable. Looking at these little scalloped edges on the collar of the woman to the right of Samuel, I can picture Flemish bobbin lace or Genoese scallops or something like that.

WDG: Yes, and it looks like the woman on the left is wearing a thin, falling collar.

EKL: Any time I look at a textile, I immediately think about how many hours of labor are behind it. Of course, it’s impossible to say exactly how long it took to make something, but that’s the number one question that we get in the study room. It varies, but often the best pieces take years to create. Some people think that most lace was produced by aristocratic ladies as a leisure activity, but if you understand the number of hours it would have taken to make, for example, a really elaborate Valenciennes lappet from the eighteenth century, and the skill level and years of apprenticeship and mastery needed to be able to produce something like that, it just can’t be a domestic product. And it is the same with this embroidery— you have both professional workshops and solo young women producing it.

I’d love to look at this needlework book next.

The Bible, The Book of Psalms printed by the Company of Stationers , London, 1649. Photo by Brayden Heath.

WDG: It’s one of the most incredible pieces. And this is something that the Met got from Irwin Untermyer, one of Griffiths’s most important followers. We think that Griffiths must have sold this to Untermeyer in 1931. Griffiths had a tortoise shell glass case built for it, and the book stood up in it. We know that Untermeyer kept the case and displayed the book in the same way in his apartment because we have photos of it. Most of the book bindings that you see tend to be professional work, but this one is likely made by a very skilled amateur because you don’t typically see this kind of canvas work on professional bookbinding, which is usually made with costlier materials like silver and gold thread. There was this obsession, particularly during the 1920s and 30s, with the idea that women had time to sit and do these things, and that all these idle hours were passed creating these beautiful works of art. Some of these pieces, like the embroidered panel and this Bible, spoke to a kind of religious devotion, and there are pieces featuring portraits of monarchy that point to monarchical devotion as well. There’s also a strong nationalist bent to it because English embroidery from this period was really a unique product, and that’s why it was kind of despised for so long. But then the pendulum swung, and it was, “Look how great they are!” So, a combination of all those things created a strong sense of nostalgia that these pieces evoked in people.

EKL: Something in your writing that really resonates with me is that we’re still battling these constructions of a nostalgic history that may or may not be based in reality, or don’t give an idea of the full picture. In this chapter, you included a quote from Connoisseur magazine, I believe, about how this type of embroidery represents the human and not art. That really stood out to me because textiles can be denigrated as less than fine art, but they’re actually so deep and layered that they represent something more intimate.

WDG: What I found so interesting in reading what people were writing about English embroidered caskets and cabinets at this time is that they speak of this kind of intimate connection that you have with the maker, specifically because you’re interacting with these pieces—you’re opening them, you’re pulling out drawers, you might find things inside. There was a sense of discovery. And the same goes for some costume pieces—when people talk about gloves or caps or shoes, they say things like, “Oh, well, you could just imagine Mary Queen of Scot’s little hand in this glove.” I understand the problems with that, but I’m also intrigued by how textiles function sort of uniquely in this way to draw people in. That’s why I study them.

Elena Kanagy-Loux and William DeGregorio discuss textiles at the Antonio Ratti Textile Center and Reference Library at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Brayden Heath.

EKL: I’m so glad you say that because that’s also what’s so fascinating for me about these objects. Looking at these gloves, there are tangible signs of human impact on them from four centuries ago. We can call it damage, but I think it’s more interesting than that. When studying art history and decorative art, there’s a resistance to exhibiting objects with signs of wear because you want to highlight the most perfect examples of everything, and you want them to be unmarked by humans in a way, so I’m curious about your thoughts on that.

WDG: I think you’re right in that what stopped people from appreciating this material in the nineteenth century was that it was too human. It wasn’t aspiring to any kind of degree of perfection in terms of any of the traditional canons of art or taste. These gloves are interesting because they came in with the first group of material that the Met acquired from Griffiths. He was a collector who bought and sold frequently. And there was a big selling-off campaign in 1928 and 1929 because he lost a lot of money in the stock market, so the Met bought a very discrete group of material in 1929, including these gloves that were said to have been owned by James I. Rebecca Quinton at the Burrell Collection has possibly found the workshop that these were created in, because there are a bunch of these gloves that have these kind of odd-looking birds that don’t really have a beak. And the thistle indicates that they were almost certainly made in Scotland, but we don’t really know if they were associated with James I. We don’t know much about how Griffiths got most of his things.

EKL: That was one of my questions: we no longer have early provenance or original provenance for so many of these objects, and I always wonder, when was that lost?

WDG: I’m obsessed with this question too, because I hate when costume or textiles are used illustratively, to represent big ideas like industrialization or neoclassicism, as if they have no individual histories. Each of these items has a specific history, which is often ignored, but sometimes you can track it down. We found that these gloves came from another antiquarian collector named Alfred de la Fontaine, and they were published in a book by W. B. Redfern in 1905 called Royal and Historic Gloves and Shoes, and that’s where it says “Owned by James I.”

EKL: Let’s take a peek at this last object—an embroidered portrait of William and Mary.

WDG: Griffiths was an accountant who kind of tried to create this pseudo-aristocratic lifestyle, a recreation of a historic family seat at his country house. At the same time, he’s not just using these things to decorate, these are objects of connoisseurship for him. But part of this whole aspirational way of life is that he had a lot of images of kings and queens to show that he was a strong monarchist. I think he had images of every monarch from Charles I to George II, and this is one of the few portraits of William and Mary. There’s been some debate, which I mentioned in the book, about whether this is William and Mary, or if it’s her sister Anne and her husband George of Denmark. Looking at the engravings and the prints that these were derived from, she’s kind of a pastiche of both Mary and Anne. I think George Saville Seligman said that it looks like a depiction of William and Mary that was done in the early eighteenth century, during the reign of Anne, as a memorial to them, which I think is probably the case. She’s a pastiche of both portrait images, but William’s image was taken directly from an engraving.

EKL: It’s so interesting for me to look at these objects and hear you talk about them, because I have handled most of them during my time here. I’m very familiar with their accession numbers and what cabinets they live in, but I don’t always know the history of how they got here. We also have the benefit of looking backwards at these things as a group and seeing the similarities, but perhaps somebody making them wouldn’t. I had a professor at NYU who said, history is spaghetti and you’re just looking at one noodle, but actually there are all these different noodles, and everything is blended up together. So, it’s impossible to really get the full perspective of what someone would have experienced or how they would’ve seen their own work. But we can do our best; we can take a stab at it.

WDG: I try. My whole goal in life is to contextualize things as much as possible. In the chapter where I talk about the changing appreciation for English needlework, I really tried to think about the movies that were coming out and the books that were being published during different times, because all those things come in by osmosis.

Elena Kanagy-Loux and William DeGregorio discuss at the Antonio Ratti Textile Center and Reference Library at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Brayden Heath.

EKL: Now that you’re joining the museum as a curator in the Costume Institute and you’ll be working up close with objects again, can you give me an overview of the collection that you’ll be working with?

WDG: It’s one of the best collections of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century costume, and I’m excited to see the things that have not been exhibited and to dig into archives and object files. At one point, my dissertation was supposed to include the Met, so I did a few years of research in the archives, looking at the history of the Costume Institute and looking at how the collections expanded.

EKL: Were you working on this volume on collecting embroidery at the same time as you were working on your dissertation on the collection at the Museum of the City of New York?

WDG: Yes. Initially, I wanted to focus on the collectors, but then it switched to being about how the institutions themselves formed their collections, and then I narrowed it down to focusing on the Museum of the City of New York.

EKL: I’ve heard from a lot of friends who have done their PhDs that you start with an idea that’s simply too big, and then you have to narrow it down.

WDG: Absolutely. Do you have an idea of what you’ll be doing?

EKL: I have a frighteningly large idea that I’m sure will not fit in a dissertation and will have to be a book in ten years. I’m interested in looking at the dissemination of lacemaking and how it got from Europe to places like China, Jamaica, and Madagascar. I already have a list of archives I want to visit.

WDG: That sounds amazing! But I would say one of my biggest mistakes in doing the PhD was doing too much archival research right off the bat because it really gets you in the weeds too quickly. I would get the secondary sources under your belt first, just so you get a sense of where to go with the primary sources because otherwise your head will explode. Do you have any advice for me?

EKL: I’ve spoken a lot about how being near objects was meaningful and educational for me, but I think what I’ll miss most is the community that I built here within the museum. My advice for anyone that’s coming into the museum at any point is to accept every work event invitation, and to socialize and meet people outside your department. There are artists and talented people in every corner of the museum, so talk to everyone. It’s really those connections that have made being here so amazing.