Linwood, Mary (17551845), artist in needlework, was born in Birmingham, where she was baptized at St Martin's on 18 July 1755, the daughter of Matthew Linwood and his wife, Hannah, née Turner (d. 1804), who had married at St Philip's, Birmingham, on 19 March 1753. Following her father's bankruptcy in 1764, the family moved to Leicester where her mother opened a boarding-school for young ladies at Belgrave Gate. By the age of twenty Mary was working in needlework, for both she and her mother exhibited needlework pictures with the Society of Artists in London in 1776. Mary Linwood exhibited with the society again, a Landscape in Needlework, in 1778. An example of her work in that medium was sent to Catherine the Great of Russia in 1783. A series of puffs in the Morning Post (AprilJune 1787) records her introduction to Queen Charlotte and the opening of a temporary exhibition of her work in the Pantheon, Oxford Street. In 1789 she copied the Salvator mundi by Carlo Dolci in the collection of the ninth earl of Exeter, and was reputedly offered 3000 guineas for the work. In 1794 she designed and executed an embroidered banner for the Leicestershire volunteer cavalry, said to be the first instance of such a patriotic act.
By the end of 1796 Linwood was preparing a large exhibition of her needlework pictures; Farington noted that she is preparing an Exhibition of needlework as an extraordinary instance of industry. It is calculated that she has worked 1500 square feet of needlework (Farington, Diary, 9 Dec 1796). Having hired rooms in Hanover Square for three years, the exhibition opened in April 1798, to immediate public applause. With the death of her mother in 1804, Linwood took over the boarding-school in Leicester. The exhibition continued, however, now in Leicester Square, and between 1804 and 1809 the collection went on tour, being shown in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast, Limerick, and Cork. In March 1809 it reopened in Leicester Square, where it was to remain for more than forty years.
Although her art has been slighted by modern commentators, Mary Linwood was considered one of the most gifted and remarkable women of the age (The Times). Moreover, in an era of great commercial exhibitions, Linwood's deserved to be distinguished for its longevity. A watercolour of c.1820 in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, records the appearance of the interior of the gallery, which was richly attired in red and furnished in the latest fashions. Her needlework was executed on tammy cloth specially woven for her, with woollen crewels dyed to her specifications; by abandoning conventional needleworking techniques and using a wide range of stitch lengths she achieved eminently painterly effects. Examples of her work are to be found in the Royal Collection, Leicestershire museums, and at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
From 1818 until her death Mary Linwood was implicated (apparently unjustly) in a complex chancery suit regarding her rooms in Leicester Square. She offered her collection of needlework pictures to the British Museum and to the House of Lords, but these offers were refused. By 1830 her health had declined and she was forced to give up needlework. However, the exhibition remained open, and it was on a visit to her London gallery in 1844 that she fell terminally ill. On 27 September 1844 she returned to Belgrave Gate, where she died, unmarried, on 2 March 1845. She was buried with her parents in St Margaret's Church, Leicester. The exhibition in Leicester Square stayed open for a short period, before her collection was sold for less than £1000. By the terms of her will her copy of Dolci's Salvator mundi was left to Queen Victoria. The gallery continued to bear her name for some years and served as an exhibition hall.
In modern times Mary Linwood has often been confused with her niece, also Mary Linwood, who was a musical composer and author of Leicestershire Tales (1808) and other works of literature.
GM, 2nd ser., 23 (1845), 555 · The Times (11 March 1845) · Miss Linwood, The Lady's Monthly Museum, 5 (1800), 14 · Countess of Wilton, A history of needlework (1847) · J. Nichols, The history and antiquities of the county of Leicester, 3/1 (1800) · Farington, Diary · M. Swain, Embroidered Georgian pictures (1994) · N. R. Whitcomb, Mary Linwood (1951) · M. Jourdain, History of English secular embroidery (1910) · C. P. Ingram, Miss Mary Linwood, The Connoisseur, 48 (1917), 1458 · IGI
Leics. RO, MSS | Birm. CA, letters to Boulton family
J. Hoppner, oils, V&A · W. Ridley, stipple (after W. Beechey), BM, NPG; repro. in Monthly Mirror (1800) · W. Ridley, stipple (after Rivers), BM, NPG; repro. in Lady's Monthly Museum (1800) · P. W. Tomkins, engraving, Leicestershire Museums
Wealth at death
£45,000: will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/2019; The Times