Frank Wilson

is a retired Inquirer book editor who blogs at Books, Inq. - The Epilogue

Amid the gusts of hot air wafting about during the recent electoral season mention was made from time to time of something called the global economy. The tone often suggested that this was something new under the sun. But evidence to the contrary may be found nearby.

Few of us, looking at the portrait of Anne Shippen Willing that hangs in the Winterthur Museum, would see the connection. But a new book, Portrait of a Woman in Silk, by University of Delaware history professor Zara Anishanslin, makes plain that a global economy was flourishing in Colonial times.

The dress the woman in Robert Feke's painting wears was made of cloth from the shop of Simon Julins, a master weaver in a London parish called Spitalfields, which was the center of the British silk industry (hence, a rival to the French silk industry - at the time, France and Great Britain were antagonists, not allies). The design on the cloth was by Anna Maria Garthwaite, a spinster who moved with her sister to Spitalfields after their clergyman father's death. The lady wearing the dress was the wife of a Colonial Philadelphia mayor - the English-born merchant Charles Willing (the Willings' town house abutted what is now called Willings Alley).

As Anishanslin explains:

"In addition to being leading importers of Spitalfields silk before the Revolution, colonial Americans also were singular in commissioning portraits more than any other type of painting. The popularity of this type of silk and this type of painting among colonists makes a strong case for why, when we look at this single portrait of a colonial woman wearing Spitalfields silk, we learn about much more than this woman alone. Popular objects are both product and producer of shared aesthetics and imagined community. Portraits and silk, in this case, helped to create a common visual language of empire."

The operative word here is empire. By the 18th century, Britain was already a maritime power, with interests extending even beyond the Atlantic. And silk had been an internationally traded commodity for centuries - the legendary Silk Road dates to the second century B.C.

The problem of connecting the portrait to all of this is that the lives of the people involved are not that well documented. Garthwaite left behind no diaries or letters that might provide insight into her designs (her work is still displayed in museums). As for Robert Feke, though well-known enough in his day - one of his sitters was Benjamin Franklin - virtually nothing is known of him after 1751. He is presumed to have died sometime after that, possibly in Barbados or Bermuda.

Teasing out the details calls for a lot of detective work, which Anishanslin turns out to be quite good at. She establishes, for instance, how Garthwaite's teenage hobby of making paper cutouts foreshadows her fabric designs, such as the floral pattern of the dress Anne Willing wears.

One cutout in particular is a landscape centering on a "manor house surrounded by walled, formal gardens laid out in ornamental, geometric patterns." The scene features "a wooded park crowded with trees in many different species."

The cutout provides other insights as well:

"Garthwaite's youthful landscape . . . encapsulates a visual history of many things that shaped 18th-century English landscapes: the rise of the country house, the lure of the georgic, the artistic appeal of the rural laborer, interest in ornamental and scientific gardening, and the enclosure movement."

The "georgic" referred to here is pastoral poetry, made popular by John Dryden's translation of Horace's Georgics, poems extolling the virtues of rural living. "Enclosure" was "the process by which the government granted landowners rights to improve previously uncultivated lands and enclose formerly common lands." It changed the English landscape.

Anishanslin's book is not for mere history buffs. It's for aficionados of the past: an up-close and personal chronicle of the material ingredients of life among the movers and shakers of the British Atlantic World in the 18th century, when the cut of a suit could reveal all sorts of things about a person's station in life.

One thing Anishanslin demonstrates is that women back then played a bigger role in commerce than we are nowadays likely to assume. Garthwaite flourished as an independent designer. There were women among the weavers and women were sometimes admitted to the weavers guild. Master weaver Simon Julins had been apprenticed to a woman.

The lace ruffles and high-buckled shoes notwithstanding, this was a society that could display a shocking harshness. Slavery was not confined to the Southern colonies. It flourished in all of them, and Charles Willing not only owned slaves, he traded in them. Indeed, the attitude toward slavery was so matter-of-fact it appalls:

"Eighteenth-century Atlantic World merchants, particularly in colonial port cities, used slaves as one of the tools of pageantry and display that showed their wealth and emphasized their authority. Anne Shippen Willing's grandfather Edward owned an enslaved boy whose name and fate makes this mentality almost absurdly clear. In Shippen's will, he left his stepson 'the negro boy Tankard.' He also left him 'one silver tankard that was his father's.'"

In other ways, though, the world Anishanslin describes so meticulously seems rather like own own. Toward the end we learn how, in the mid-1700s, silk weavers "marched to petition the king for duties against continental silks, while Americans signed non-importation agreements."

Sound familiar?