Sylvia Darning by Harold Gilman, 1917
I keep my eyes peeled for interesting images of darning. This painting by British impressionist Harold Gilman (1876-1919) is currently my favourite. ‘Sylvia Darning’ is dated 1917. I love it’s palpable coolth (is that a word? It should be). I don’t know much at all about Gilman, other than what Wikipedia tells me, but would love to find out more. Doesn’t that vase really sing out from the middle of the table? If you’d like to see the original canvas and soak up the colours, I’m afraid you’ll have to schlep to the Yale Center for British Art. It’s a bit more of an effort for me than Rode in Somerset where Gilman was born; that’s just 21 miles away.
I’m also a partial to old darning implements (you would never have guessed!). Here is one I acquired recently: the “Marvel Darner”. Excuse the violent orange background but I got a little carried away.
The Marvel darner measures just a couple of inches across and is effectively a miniature velvet board with densely packed metal wires set into a small wooden frame. The idea is that it grips the holey sock, giving the mender a stable base on which to work. No stretching, gaping sock hole. How marvelous! At least, that’s the idea. I don’t know how well it works yet as I haven’t tested it. The instructions, on a small paper label glued to the top, read:
The “MARVEL DARNER” CORNELL’S PATENT
Push left hand into garment.
Place gripping surface direct on worn part.
Keeping exact size & shape, turn inside out and darn in usual way.
Never push darner into stocking or sleeve.
Pat. No. 159770.
Marvel Darner label
I so wanted to imagine that Sylvia was using one of these when she sat for that painting, but the painting precedes the darner by three years, so it can’t be; Edwin List Cornell filed his patent entitled Improvements in and relating to darners on 29th March 1920. Here’s how he summed up his darning innovation:
‘A darning-block is provided with a surface made up of the ends 4′ of wires or the like. The wires may be mounted upon a backing and secured in a recess cut in the head of the block. In place of recessing the block, the wires may be surrounded with a ring secured to the block.’
The patent was finally published a year later on 10th March 1921. I’ve also seen aluminium versions of the Marvel, which I assume are later than the wooden one, but that’s my conjecture, judging by the typography. One of the boxes for the aluminium version quotes the manufacturer as:
E Cornell & Sons, 54 Lower Thames Street, London, EC5.
So what is this ominous notice from the The London Gazette of 19th May 1925?
MARVEL DARNER COMPANY Limited.
NOTICE is hereby given, pursuant to section
188 of the Companies (Consolidation) Act,
1908, that a Meeting of the creditors of the above
named Company will be held at Chancery-lane
Station Chambers, High Holborn. London, W.C. 1,
on Thursday, the 21st day of May, 1925, at
(094) J. L. GOODWIN, Liquidator.
Presumably this isn’t Cornell‘s company? Surely he was trading as ‘E Cornell & Sons’? His product explicitly includes ‘Cornell’ in the name. Could the Marvel Darner Company Ltd have been making this ‘Marvel’ darning product, a sewing machine attachment which crops up in an Australian newspaper advertisement in October of the same year? Or did Edwin have a darning company which ran into insolvency and then resumed production under another company later? Mysterious. What do you think?
I haven’t been able to discover much more about inventor Cornell, beyond the clue in that company name that he had a family. He continued to tinker with domestic equipment after he developed his darner, filing the patent Improved device for separating cream from milk (January 1932), and Improvements appertaining to domestic pans and the like (April 1935). Other than those patents, I can find no further information about him. Harold Gilman had died of Spanish flu way back in 1919, and heaven knows who Sylvia was or what ever became of her. Some days you really wish you had a time machine. Improved, of course.