Last summer, a dozen members of my family and I gathered in a Cooper-Hewitt study room to see this undated gouache of chrysanthemums and other botanical studies by Baltimore-born textile designer Sophia L. Crownfield (1862-1929).
The pieces, about five dozen in all, were gifted to the museum in 1937 by Starling W. Childs and Ward Cheney, whose family ran the largest silk-manufacturing company in America in the early 1900s. My cousins and I hadn’t seen these works before, yet they somehow felt familiar: Crownfield was my great-grandfather’s sister, and we’d grown up surrounded by her still lifes and landscapes.
There weren’t many family stories about “Aunt Sophie,” so it wasn’t until I began researching her for a book project two years ago that we learned much about her life. The oldest child of an attorney and a mother who was herself a gifted artist, Crownfield surfaces professionally as a “china decorator” in the 1888 Baltimore directory. A year later, she turns up in New York City, studying briefly at the Art Students League before launching a freelance career designing for Cheney Brothers, Birge Wallpaper Co. and others.
It must have been an exciting time to be a designer. The silk industry was expanding rapidly, thanks partly to mechanization of the looms that helped to make what once had been a luxury fabric affordable to many more people. At the same time, American designs – and designers – were gaining a level of respect previously accorded only to their European counterparts.
Crownfield’s designs were inspired by nature. The pieces in the collection of Cooper-Hewitt pieces are all botanicals, and most of her two dozen design patents incorporate flowers, leaves, birds or butterflies. She probably did the chrysanthemum gouache above while working out a silk or wallpaper design.
Like all her Cooper-Hewitt pieces, it’s signed “S.L. Crownfield,” the name the never-married Crownfield used professionally. But the flowing script doesn’t match the block letters she used to sign pieces handed down through our family, and museum files indicate the drawing actually was signed by her sister, author Gertrude Crownfield, who arranged several exhibitions of the pieces after Sophie’s death.