Author: Amelia Peck

In celebration of the second annual New York Textile Month, members of the Textile Society of America will author Object of the Day for the month of September. A non-profit professional organization of scholars, educators, and artists in the field of textiles, TSA provides an international forum for the exchange and dissemination of information about textiles worldwide.

This silk fabric, printed to depict an overhead view of people sheltering under umbrellas during an April shower, is one of Clayton Knight’s most fanciful patterns designed for the Stehli Silks Corporation’s Americana Prints line. The Americana Prints were meant to be an answer to the ascendancy of French textile designs and designers, and were conceived of right after the design director for Stehli, Kneeland “Ruzzie” Green, went to Paris to see the 1925 Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes. Green came home determined to create a printed textile line that he later described as “…designs for modern American women by modern American artists reflecting the modern American scene…”[1]

Clayton Knight, along with his wife, Katherine Sturges, were among the initial group of six artists selected to design for the line that premiered to the public in Spring 1926. For this first group, Knight designed Manhattan a cubist vision of klieg-lit New York skyscrapers that has become one of the best known and most beloved Art Deco fabrics of its day. The Americana Prints were introduced in several collections: Series I (November 1925 for Spring 1926) for which Knight designed four patterns (Manhattan, Kew, Grand Canyon and Jungle); Series II (October 1926 for Spring 1927) for which Knight designed three more (War Birds, Cherries, and June); Series IIa (January 1927), a collection of designs based on photographs by Edward Steichen; and a final Series III (Fall 1927 for Spring 1928) for which Knight produced Mid-Ocean and this design, April.

Knight was a fighter pilot in England during WWI, and became well-known as an illustrator of books about aviation. Two of his patterns for Stehli reference airplanes: War Birds, a pattern of small airplanes sprinkled on a dark background, and Mid-Ocean, which focuses on an airplane’s single front propeller high above ocean waves. April can be thought of as an aerial view, though with a more cheerful perspective than the war plane prints. The design is reminiscent of the figures on a bridge caught in slanting rain in the famous Japanese woodblock print Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi bridge and Atake (1857) by Hiroshige. Though this may seem like a stretch, Catherine Sturges illustrated a book called Little Pictures of Japan (1925) in which the picture presented with the haiku “Over the Bridge of Seta” (p. 132) is closely copied from this Hiroshige print. So if Sturges saw and used the print for her artwork, it seems quite likely that her husband could have been inspired by it too. The design was probably printed in eight colorways, as were others of the American Prints. Today, apart from this piece with umbrellas in shades of orange, gold and grey on a pale yellow ground, there is a piece in the Metropolitan Museum that features umbrella in three shades of brown on a cream ground, and a piece in the Allentown Museum with pink and light brown umbrellas on a dark brown ground. All three colorways have rainbows in bright primary colors—blue, yellow, and red.

[1] “Americana Fabrics” Creative Art Magazine, January 1929, pp. 103-107.

Amelia Peck is the Marica F. Vilcek Curator, The American Wing, and Supervising Curator, The Antonio Ratti Textile Center, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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