Thursday, 23 July 2009

Agnes's Jacket

Image from the Prinzhorn Collection

A few weeks ago I listened to a Radio 4 Programme, All in the Mind, featuring the American Professor of psychology, Gail A. Hornstein talking about her new book Agnes's Jacket: A Phsychologist's Search for the Meanings of Madness. My ears pricked up immediately when I heard Claudia Hammond, the presenter, comment that Tracey Emin had raved over the extraordinary artwork of the book's title.

Agnes Richter was a patient in an asylum near Dresden in Germany during the 1890's, admitted against her will and held for 26 years from the age of 40 to the end of her life. In her former life, before her institutionalisation, she had been a seamstress. The jacket she created is now held in the Prinzhorn Collection in Heidelberg.

This is an extract from Gail A Hornstein's book: "...The felt is frayed, but the course linen underneath looks indestructible. The flared cuffs, fitted bodice, and perfectly formed buttonholes reveal a skilled seamstress at work. But it isn't the jacket's design that mesmerizes every person who enters the room. It's the intricate text that has been embroidered in five colours over practically every inch of the garment. A needle-and-thread narrative unlike any other." (page ix; Introduction) The jacket was issued as part of her hospital uniform, but Agnes picked it apart and reconstructed it. During that process she embroidered her own text into every surface. It is more or less indecipherable, although there are many references to 'ich' i.e. herself.

I was trained as a lettering artist and also have a particular interest in the 'ghost' life and resonance of objects such as clothing and furniture - the powerful legacy of these formerly inhabited things; the presence held in such personal items. So this discovery feels a bit like a missing piece of jigsaw.

Kathryn Campbell Dodd detail from 'The Bone Dice quilt 2009'

Having researched the jacket a little further, I found a blog - Lulu Bird - with lovely images from the author's own visit to the Prinzhorn Collection:

Images from Lulu Bird

Yesterday, I learned about a fellow lettering artist Rosalind Wyatt who has created a body of work called The Stitch Life of Others and the resonances with Agnes's jacket are unmissable.

I have thought again about Tracey Emin - I wonder when she first saw the jacket ? Her work is so strongly resonant.

Image from BBC


  1. Really enjoyed this post. Amazing stories. Thank you! ~Beth

  2. Beautiful blog, thank you! Any chance to get your updates by e-mail?

  3. Amazing, I did not know anything about Agnes but once I read the story it seemed I knew about this. I think everyone who works with fabric understands. Thank you so much, I will investigate further.

  4. This is amazing. Thank you for introducing us to Agnes and her work, and those she inspired. I have posted your link on "Found Stitched and Dyed" group on Facebook, a worldwide stitch group.

  5. someone on the SEW blog posted about your post - it was very timely for me as i am working on a piece which incorporates written word for the first time

    thank you for this, i too will be investigating further - i hope the podcast is still available

  6. just found your blog through Found,stitched and dyed group on F/Book. Love your blog and have subscribed so l don't loose contact. loved your piece about Agnes. I have known about her for quite a while, was nice to see more people getting to know about her. lynda.
    My Art blog
    F/B LMH art and life

  7. i too was led here by Ahipara Girl. thank you for this beautiful and detailed post

  8. thanks a lot for sharing! (also via fb)


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