While researching her new book, Vivien Caughley discovered a remarkable embroidered sampler held in a private collection in the United States. We investigate what a sampler is and how this one came to be part of the Auckland Museum collection.
A sampler is a piece of embroidered cloth displaying a stitched pattern, often the alphabet and numerals, pictures or stitched techniques. Samplers were popular in England and Europe after about 1600, and were often made to record and commemorate family and civic events, as well as scholastic achievements.
While many samplers were made as part of domestic life, some, such as map samplers, were commissioned commercially to commemorate local, national and international events.
A depiction of the New World in 1784
Stitched by English woman Martha Gibbons in 1784, this map sampler depicts the cartography of the New World, the tracks of Captain James Cook’s Endeavour through the Pacific, and contains what is currently the earliest-known surviving stitched record of the Māori language as recorded by Cook.
Author of the book New Zealand’s Historic Samplers: Our Stitched Stories, Vivien Caughley discovered its existence in 2010 while she was researching samplers that commemorated Cook’s discoveries. This beautifully crafted example reveals one Englishwoman’s artistically-interpreted world and it includes Cook’s attempt at the Māori language.
The cartography represents the New World in 1772, rather than 1784, and the only tracks of Cook through the Pacific are those of Endeavour. Hints of the fabled Terra Australis Incognita in the southern ocean and the Northwest Passage were included despite having been discredited by the time of making.
What sets Martha Gibbons’ sampler apart is her inclusion of the indigenous language of New Zealand; previously unknown in Britain before 1771. This sampler, dated 13 years later, provides the earliest-known attempt at Te Reo, the Māori language, as recorded by an English-speaking woman.
As well as indicating ‘New Zealand’ in its lower left position, and noting the Cook-named Capes North, South, East and West, as well as ‘Cook’s Straits’, Gibbons added the Māori names for the two islands ‘Fahe(_)/No M(_)awe’ in the north, and in the south, ‘Ta Veia Poenamoo.’
Although the spellings adapted by Martha Gibbons to the best of her knowledge were correct, there is no way of knowing how the words were originally presented to her. She knew their meaning, given their placement, but it is highly unlikely she heard them from a native speaker.
This was a direct link to a dialogue heard, possibly interpreted, and written by Cook, rather than a scientific observation. This was a record of people encountered by Cook on Endeavour, and the subsequent transference and assimilation of something of their substance.
Conserving the delicate silk
Vivien recognised the significance of Martha Gibbons’ sampler immediately. Appreciating this, its private owners generously decided to donate the sampler to a public collection and images were subsequently shown to Auckland Museum curators. The delicate silk had fractured during transit between England and the United States, and was now both extremely fragile and badly damaged, but the corner with New Zealand stitched on it was intact.
Graciously, The Museum Circle here in Auckland stepped in to fund the restoration of this unique expression of New Zealand’s European identity. Our Collections team decided that urgent conservation treatment, to stabilise the sampler and minimise further risk, would need to happen before the sampler travelled.
Beth Szuhay of Chrysalis Art Conservation travelled from California to Oregon to assess the sampler, and subsequently worked in collaboration with the Auckland Collections team to decide the best conservation plan for stabilisation for transit and subsequent storage.
Beth dissolved the adhesive to lift the silk sampler from its backing board and addressed the discolouration that had occurred. The improvement in the appearance of the silk was remarkable.
She restored the flexibly of the fibres by humidifying the silk, and affixed the sampler to a specially prepared mesh underlay. This reinstated durability enabled her to reassemble the fragments gathered in the base of the original frame like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
Finally, she built a unique support mount, which shippers Global Specialised Services expertly nested within a padded crate and shipped to New Zealand.
Almost two years after the historic Gibbons Sampler was offered to Auckland Museum, it arrived safely with much fanfare and an excited Collections team and Museum Circle. Here it will be kept safely in our dedicated storage area for new audiences.
Vivien Caughley is an Honorary Research Associate at Auckland War Memorial Museum, New Zealand. She is the recipient of a Creative New Zealand research grant to locate, research, write and speak about samplers and related historic needlework in and of New Zealand. Her 2013 research into the Cook Map Sampler is the first known to be published about this important work of women’s art.
Post by: Tessa Smallwood
Tessa is a Collection Manager Human History at Auckland Museum. She has a strong background in interdisciplinary study and has worked across the Museum's Pacific, Archaeology, History and Applied Arts Collections. She has responsibility for the care and preservation of the Archaeology and Pacific Collection objects and the maintenance of their records. Tessa is particularly passionate about object photography and enhancing the digital ‘discoverability’ of our collections.
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