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Home | Articles | Betty Ring: 2005 ADA Merit Award Recipient

by Kevin J. Tulimieri

Betty Ring autographing copies of American Needlework Treasures (1987), the catalogue to her collection. Courtesy of Betty Ring.
If you ever have a question about American samplers or pictorial needlework, Betty Rings Girlhood Embroidery should be the first stop. The most recent of her several books and articles on schoolgirl needlework, it is fluid, complete, and sophisticated; a reflection of Betty herself. In appreciation of her continued dedication and lasting contribution to the field of Americana, Betty Ring has been named the fourth recipient of the Antiques Dealers Association Award of Merit. It is the most amazing thing that has happened to me. says Betty. Such a possibility never entered my mind, perhaps because I am regionally out of the loop of the antiques world, being down here in the South instead of on the East Coast. I am just as excited as can be. Everybody has been wonderful.

Bettys modesty conceals a great depth of knowledge and experience that goes back more than thirty years. Her first article on needlework was published in The Magazine, Antiques in October 1971, with fourteen others by her appearing there by 1993. In 1975, Betty published Needlework: An Historical Survey, a compilation of all the needlework articles (including her own) that had appeared in Antiques since 1922. Her 1983 book, Let Virtue be a Guide to Thee: Needlework in the Education of Rhode Island Women, 17301830, was the first publication of its type. It coincided with a major exhibition that showed at the Rhode Island Historical Society in Providence, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This was really a thrilling experience for me, says Betty, to have historic needlework enjoyed by so many people.

Betty Ring with Nabby Dexters sampler of 1785, Mary Balch School, Providence, R.I. Betty purchased this sampler from Sothebys, May 19, 1972, as she was just becoming interested in needlework from this area. Her exhibition on Rhode Island needlework, Let Virtue Be A Guide To Thee, opened at the Rhode Island Historical Society in 1983. Courtesy of Betty Ring.
Bettys personal collection was catalogued in American Needlework Treasury (1987), which also served as the exhibition catalogue of her needlework collection, shown three years later at the Museum of American Folk Art (now the American Folk Art Museum). Her most recent book is the acclaimed two-volume Girlhood Embroidery published in 1993. Reflecting on the long road of discovery and education, Betty reminisces on her first encounters with schoolgirl arts. When I started out I was intrigued with mourning embroideries. These needleworks were basically neglected; people did not understand them, she recalls. I would find them in the back rooms of shops. Most were in poor condition, some of them with holes punched in the faces. In the early part of the twentieth century and into the 1920s, there was a strange revulsion to anything pertaining to death. Yet, when mourning pictures were wrought, the impetus was creating fashionable works, not melancholy. Neoclassicism was finally flowering in America, and mourning pictures provided an opportunity for individual combinations of decorative motifs that were being lavishly employed on wallpapers, fabrics, ceramics, enamels, and countless other articles.

With the intention of placing these powerful memorial images into context and sparking scholarly discussion, Betty published her findings in the 1971 Antiques article Memorial Embroideries by American Schoolgirls. Bettys focused appreciation of the art was apparent in the following description of one of the mourning pictures that accompanied the 1971 article: The composition reflects a lingering kinship with Indian palampore design. The monuments are often upon a hillock, in this case rendered in varying shades of chenille. Most impressive is the effect of marbleizing, achieved by an intricate combination of tones of the silk used for the monuments, and the shimmer of the graceful willow trees, on which every leaf has been stitched to emphasize the sheen of the silk. In her enthusiasm and pursuit of learning all she could about needlework, Betty realized that mourning pieces, as well as samplers, pictorial scenes, and related works were made by young girls at the most fashionable schools of their day.
The installation of Bettys collection at the Museum of American Folk Art, New York (now the American Folk Art Museum) for the 1990 show Documents of Education. Courtesy of Betty Ring.
My mission became to find out more about these schools, the teachers, and the young girls themselves she says. In so doing, Betty developed a great respect for the instructors. The teachers are the true artists; they deserved all the credit for how the piece was worked. I believe the teachers are the most unrecognized and neglected folk artists in America. Most of them were teaching because they had to, mostly for financial reasons. In so doing, they created this whole stylistic world within girlhood embroidery, she explains. Bettys perseverance, attention to detail, and scholarship have resulted in American schoolgirl samplers and pictorial needleworks gaining a greater respect and appreciation within a broad audience. Her enthusiasm to share what she has learned is evident in all her work, most recently in Girlhood Embroidery in which American needleworks dating through to the early nineteenth century, from all sections of the country, are presented and discussed. It took me eight years to write the book. I put everything in my life on hold. I have seven children; I was busy, busy, busy. My major aim with all I have written was to publicize and write enough so that people would stop destroying these works and appreciate them. So people could understand that they were high fashion. Fashion runs the world; fashion is a big part of how society develops, and these needleworks were an important component of the fashion of their times says Betty.
Betty Ring, December 1987, taken in the records room at Antiques and the Arts Weekly by Laura Beech. Betty just delivered a lecture at Yale. Courtesy of Antiques and the Arts Weekly.
Betty says she is humbled to be recognized by the ADA and in appreciation gives a great deal of credit to antiques dealers. What would we do without the dealers? The dealers deserve an enormous amount of credit for all the things they do; the efforts they make to find authentic things and present them properly. There wouldnt be an antiques world if there werent good dealers. I have been concentrating on antiques, not just needlework, for more than thirty years. I have had the good fortune to meet many wonderful dealers and I have learned a lot from them. Says Betty, I am really grateful for the fact that there are scholarly dealers who really make an effort to get it all right. The appreciation works both ways. Without the efforts of Betty Ring, the creative works of dedicated schoolgirls and their teachers might still be misunderstood and relegated to back rooms and attics. Bettys contribution to the field will indeed be long lasting and will continue to stand as a benchmark for future scholars. The ADA Award of Merit is voted on by the membership of the ADA and is presented to an individual who has made a significant contribution to the field of American antiques. The Award of Merit dinner will be held at the Philadelphia Antiques Show at 8 p.m. on Saturday, April 9. It will feature cocktails and dinner followed by a variety of guest speakers and friends.

The ADA Award of Merit is sponsored in part by Antiques and The Arts Weekly, Antiques and Fine Art, Flather and Perkins Insurance, and The Magazine, Antiques. Seating is limited to 300 and tickets are $85 per person; $65 for ADA members. A portion of the proceeds and donations will be accepted towards a gift in Betty Rings name to the New England Historic Genealogical Society. For additional information and reservations, call the ADA at 203.259.3844 or send your request to: Antiques Dealers Association of America, Inc., Box 335, Greens Farms, CT 06838.

The ADA is a nonprofit trade association. Its major objective is to further professionalize the business of buying and selling antiques. Its membership is composed of antiques dealers who are dedicated to integrity, honesty, and ethical conduct in the antiques trade. All members are required to guarantee their merchandise in writing on a sales receipt that states approximate age, origin, condition, and any restoration of all pieces sold.

Kevin J. Tulimieri is an antiques dealer and research assistant with Nathan Liverant and Son Antiques in Colchester, Connecticut.

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