The sampler sold for £340 at Toovey’s.

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Bought at Toovey’s in Washington, West Sussex, on January 25 for a hammer price of £340 (or £440 including fees), against an estimate of £200-400, the sampler is dated 1763 and portrays a very typical scene.

However, this sampler included something out of the ordinary.

Knight is a collector of books but said he “could see the significance of the sampler as an historical object”.

Here he tells ATG about his discovery and asks readers to share their views.

“What was remarkable about this sampler was that it illustrates a black figure in a harlequinade type of costume. Sewn by Mary Saunders dated 1763, it portrays a very typical scene, Adam and Eve flanking a Tree of Life, with animals and verse. But it is further decorated by a girl and a black man. It seems to be the earliest-known illustration of a black person on an English sampler.

“Its rarity is such that unless one looked through the catalogue, where it was well described and researched, you would not find it. Who would search on for ‘black figures on samplers’? It wouldn’t occur to people to look, so it slipped through the net of collectors of black iconography. It’s a field of collecting that has been growing in importance as an awareness of black history is promoted.


A detail of the sampler sold for £340 at Toovey’s.

“As noted by Toovey’s cataloguer, samplers depicting people of colour are extremely rare. While a number of much later samplers exist, made in the 1830s, which depict the famous image of the kneeling slave raising his hands in supplication, the extensive collection of samplers at Colonial Williamsburg contains only one example featuring a black harlequin figure dated 1803 (object number 1995-208 A).

“This scarcity of samplers featuring people of colour makes the Georgian sampler, with its black figure, a truly unique and significant piece. What was Mary’s inspiration - a Hogarth print, a group of actors visiting, the memory of seeing a figure? Was he a free slave or a black British amn? Was it a figure blacked up, Mary replicating that face paint by using black wool? We will probably never know, a nameless individual, but important enough to Mary to be portrayed?

“When Mary stitched the sampler, what was going through her mind? How old was she? Did she do it to surprise her friends, or was he someone she knew well and the connection was known about by her acquaintances?

“The fact the sampler is faded suggests that it was on display, a domestic sampler in a domestic setting. What we can say for certain is that Mary kept the sampler and future owners also valued it.

“And a suggestion: to keep our eyes open for other such samplers.”