This post is in 2 parts…
With DH at the wheel and D.Dog in the back, we set off on a blustery Sunday afternoon for Witneys.
The exhibition was excellent, so much so, that I really hope to mark it as an annual fixture in my diary.
What I saw
(For the first 30 minutes I was the only one there, which to me was blissful!)
Although Witney is a large antique shop, they run exhibitions of museum quality. I mentioned before that it was my intention to take copious notes and make sketches. Well, I was admitted by the owner, who then came around with me for a while and we chatted about who I was and what my interests were, as I took in the first room of exhibits.
He showed me their wonderful catalogue and from that I could see there was no point in my writing anything down as the catalogue had great high definition photographs (9), some of which are A4 size. Lots of historical background and lots of smaller pictures. (A must-have at only £12.00)
Even though he could probably tell by then that I was not going to purchase any antiques, he explained that they are very committed to furthering the education of stitchers and respect stitchers the world over. In fact their catalogue mentions the huge success and interest ‘Twixt Art & Nature’ exhibition has stirred in the vintage textile world.
Indeed, if you were an investor in antique needlework, you would probably have seen a lot of pieces there that you might want to consider. I’m no expert but, I saw for instance, some very nicely worked small colourful samplers, framed, for around £8,000…
I don’t quite know how one would set about storing an item like that, in order to preserve its wonderful colours and fibres from the ravages of time. Perhaps Witneys, like upper end wine merchants, offer storage solutions that uphold the specification of museum experts? You would have to make those enquiries yourself.
It’s also worth pointing out what a delight it was viewing these wonderful artefacts in lighter surroundings than say, at the V&A, which can be quite dark at times (understandably). Witneys, being the professionals they are however, naturally ensure ultra-violet proof windows and furthermore, as I understand it, in addition to being dealers, they also undertake restoration of textiles.
The V&A is wonderful, but you do tend to get a lot of cast shadows from the tall display cases, invariably when you are trying to peer at things that are often set quite far back. At Witneys you can get really close to the exhibit and this is so important when you are trying to work out how on earth they did something…..
So just from glimpsing the exhibits at a distance, I could tell the vibrant colours were one of the main things this exhibition was about, I mean how could they have:
“survived four centuries looking so bright”.
The Oxford Times said of the exhibition:
“Elizabethan needlework in fine condition is extremely rare”.
Mary Baker Her Basket 1670
The first thing I saw was a magnificent wire beaded ‘Layette’ basket worked in a wide spectrum of colours including the then, very expensive orange and red beads. I later found out that that was not the only rare thing about this particular basket. In case you didn’t know, these baskets could be ready-purchased, just like the wooden workbox caskets. Some believe they were decorated to commemorate a marriage or engagement. The scene depicted on this one is of The Garden of Eden. I saw a similar one at the V&A recently that has mainly blue, green and brown beads. I must preferred Witneys because its such a joyful piece.
As I was speaking to the owner, my mind was racing as to the rarity and expense of those red beads.
I later read that the basket is:
“of exceptional rarity as it is the only known named and dated example to survive”.
Reading from the wonderful catalogue, (which I decided to buy after I saw the most amazing pair of goldwork gloves), it quotes a young Hannah Woolley, then aged 14, to illustrate how accomplished girls were in those days: ‘taught beading in the same way as other forms of needlework and embroidery’:
“I can work well all manner of works which is to be wrought with a needle, also transparent works. Shell-work, Mos-Work, also cutting of prints….all kinds of beugle (bead)-works, upon wyres and otherwise…”
Gentleman’s Cap circa 1600
Then in the distance I could see a magnificent Gentleman’s Cap (of which there is also a wonderful A4 sized photograph of a portion of its detail):
“and the beau would feign sickness to show his nightcap fine.”
Close by was a fabulous ladies Coif, not mentioned in the catalogue. Both these head coverings were embroidered to a very high standard by the domestic embroideress. But what amazed me more than anything, and this is why I travelled to see this show, was the very small scale to which the embroidered elements were worked.
Personally, I’m a little worried about the danger of relying too much on the study of huge close-up photographs of motifs. Scale is certainly a big consideration if one desires to be as ‘authentic’ as possible. I have to keep reminding myself how very tiny their versions were and these were the days before spectacles!
They used an eye-glass for sure. In fact at the V&A I was struck by how relatively easy it is to tell which pieces were made with an eye glass and which were worked later on with the balancing quality of spectacles, there’s a kind of ‘bigger picture’ mentality that creeps in.
The wow factor in historic times was certainly not merely limited to the quality of stitching, but possibly, just as important was the fascination of minute scale. I saw tiny acorns on Stump work mirrors that were no bigger than half the size of the nail on your little finger!
For example, the cornflowers on both these head coverings were perfectly stitched to a width not much larger than a large thumbnail!
The Plaited Braid scrolling stem on these items was also much, much finer than we ever think possible. I’m always struck when I see these things how fine in fact their metal thread was and how supremely pliable. They gilded onto silver, we gild onto copper, can the difference in flexibility be that great between the two base metals??
Back Panel of a Ladies Jacket or Bodice. Late 16th/Early 17th century.
Then I saw the “fabulous jacket panel” that ‘Needleprint’ blog reported was sold at Christies some years ago. This piece again, is very bright and extremely similar to the Margaret Layton (Laton) jacket in the V&A. It includes all the familiar motifs: strawberries, roses, rosehips, foxgloves, folded pansies, heartsease, cornflowers, cowslips and aquilegia and scrolling stems.
At an event like this, you really begin to notice how the same motifs pop up and again and again. Not so much the same fashion, as the exact same shape and view of a motif. It really makes you think about the pattern books they had back then and how well thumbed they must have been.
I’ve managed to do a little further research on that subject and I read on the V&A website that there were actually only 4 pattern books in circulation at that time.
(As a result of that piece of research, I have made a very exciting discovery that I will share with you next time but for now - What if I told you I have been speaking to someone whose husband was thumbing through some brick-a-brack in 1940 at a flea market in Shropshire and found ONE of those very pattern books in a box on the floor….more later)
Elizabethan Book or Folio Cover. Circa 1600
Then I saw the framed Folio Cover which completely blew me away! If you haven’t already done so, I would urge you to order a copy of the catalogue just for the close-up of this Folio Cover.
Apart from a huge variety of stitches and techniques, indeed when read about early references to needlework, its often described as ‘cunning’, I think that word really would describe this piece. It’s a feast for the eyes! Gorgeous colours, very fresh and so many darling little squirrels, rabbits and birds as well as the usual charming flowers.
But unusually, instead of Plaited Braid being employed for coiling stems, this time it represents a repeated single stem bowing graciously under the pendulous weight of its flora. What a wonderful combination of silk and metal thread.
I tell you, this would make a wonderful piece to reproduce, not too big, but enough work for a year or two of close study….I think I’m going to copy a couple of those cute motifs (she says…). Another thing to note about this one is the direction of the stitching being used to describe form. I’m very interested in that idea because its directly related to brush strokes in painting…
Another thing that I thought was unusual about this piece, was the way they had used Detached Buttonhole, which is after all a couching stitch, to work some lighter threads over darker rows with the effect of increasing the tonality of the paler silks. The result is ‘shimmering’, nice touch!
Well, you know me by now, I couldn’t resist, here are a few sketches of the Foxglove motif on the Folio Cover:
Imagine this only 2 feet away from you, sparkling as it picks up the light… (the tip of this gel pen is a little bit chunky, but I hope you get the idea)
This piece must have been professionally made, its so wonderfully self-assured. Worth noting that an embroidered book cover of this kind would also have been protected by an embroidered bag. I don’t think this piece was ever mounted over a book, perhaps they thought it really ought to be displayed??
The Pair of Gauntlets Circa 1600 – 1640
Those elegant gloves made my eyes water. There’s a fantastic close-up of them in the catalogue (reason I had to buy it) and again, its high definition and so you could, in theory, work from that image. I’ve seen later, French needlework that is similar to this, using bobbin lace for the fringe. This fringe however, is described as being made entirely out of needle lace. Can you imagine using gold plate as if it were just thick thread? Well they have here.
A lot of this kind of work would have been picked out in later times, in order to re-use the gold. Here’s a link to an article by Margaret Jourdain called ‘Gold and Silver Lace Part 1’ for The Connoisseur
"The earliest pieces have the appearance of braid, with a simple lozenge pattern, but geometric patterns in plaited and twisted gold and silver thread were made about the end of the sixteenth century…"
to be continued……