The idea of painting by numbers on to a pre-drawn design is far from new and is often assumed to have begun with embroidery rather than paints when printed paper panels were published in Berlin and first appeared in England in 1805. These showed a squared pattern with each representing a stitch. To begin with the cross or tent stitch was used, and the wool which came from Gotha before being dyed in Berlin came with the patterns. A complete DIY kit. The firm of Wilks of Regent Street recognised the potential of this merchandise and by 1831 were retailing the complete range of materials and accessories required. By 1840 there were some fourteen thousand different Berlin patterns available incorporating wool, silk, glass beads and cut steel buttons. However the true story is much older. During the last quarter of the 18th century in England pictures created with wool embroidery onto a prepared silk background became increasingly popular. The subject matter knew no bounds: allegorical tableaux, popular prints of the day, mourning, scenes from the classics and the Bible, pastoral - shepherds and shepherdesses were much in demand as were depictions of pretty young women in a country setting. Among the most interesting are the narrative pictures, usually based on a fable or folklore often showing a family group with animals and a building or two. Unlike Berlin needlework the silk panel was hand drawn with watercolour paint to show the main outlines while the faces and hands of the figures were painted in the finest and most beautiful detail for the embroidery to be worked into the silk around them. Long or knotted stitches were most commonly used to create different effects to trees and fields, thatched roofs and flowers. The pictures were professionally done and could be bought in shops specialising in millinery, so pre-empting the Berlin needlework that swept the board for much of the 19th century.
Wool on silk embroidery, with a monogram WRB and date 1794 for sale at John Bly.