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‘English Work’ at the V&A.

The current ‘Opus Anglicanum’ exhibition of Medieval ecclesiastical embroidery at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum took me way back to my student days when I was lucky enough to be of the generation when it was still possible to study Embroidery A’level. My lovely embroidery teacher allowed us to take off on flights of fancy with creative embroidery whilst instilling a respect for the timeless techniques of the past. It is hard nowadays to imagine a state school sixth form running an A’level course with only three students, but at the time we never even questioned it! Alongside our study of artistic and contemporary stitch techniques the history of embroidery was an integral part of the course and I was thoroughly absorbed for a while in the world of ecclesiastical embroidery and it’s techniques. The no photography protocol of the V&A meant me taking out my note book and sketching some of my favourite  fragments, and even this was time consuming, leaving me to speculate on the unnumerable hours that were spent actually stitching these pieces!

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bologna-cope

The language of this exhibition was not unfamiliar to me as a past student of ecclesiastical embroidery, although I did hear several people wondering “What is a ‘chasuble for?” or “Which is the ‘split stitch’ and which is ‘couching’? ” ( A chasuble is the highly decorated tabard that a priest wears over his normal robes whilst celebrating Mass) Split stitch and Couching are shown  here:embroidery-stitches

In the 13th Century, English embroiderers were at the pinnacle of embroidery workmanship. Church and high society aspired to commission their garments from the English embroiderers in London.   bologna-cope

Large embroideries like the  Butler Bowden and Syon Copes were made by highly trained professionals, both men and women. They were employed in workshops which were funded by merchants and noble patrons. The merchants took the profits, not the embroiderers who received only modest payments for their work. Most workshops were in London where the necessary capital was available and which was the principal port through which the imported materials arrived. The phrase ‘opus anglicanum’ was first coined to  describe the highly-prized and luxurious embroideries made in England of silk and gold and silver thread, full of elaborate biblical imagery.’English Work’ or Opus Anglicanum remained the most sought after work until well into the 15th century.

I was looking forward to the rare opportunity to see ‘up close and personal’ the incredible detail in the embroidered vestements worn in the Medieval Church. I found it sad to think that the hours of work that were put into the embroideries were lost on the congregation, as they would not have had time or opportunity to ‘read’ the pictorial stories depicted on the garments, nor would they have been able to see the minutiae of the stitches that created these incredible works of art. There are exquisite examples of intricate stitching and beautiful fragments of embroidery in this exhibition, but I did feel that it was a missed opportunity on the part of the V&A. In comparison with the recent exhibitions of the past year , this one fits the norm of a dry, old fashioned, ‘museum’ exhibition. I had the impression of wandering amongst embroidery and theological aficionados, who, albeit enthusiastic, certainly did nothing to enliven the atmosphere.

The staging of this exhibition is in a dry, traditional style, some of the beautiful work is presented so far back in the glass cabinets, that it is impossible to make out the details. There are fantastic stories depicted in many of the Church garments, none of which were adequately told in the labelling. The minute stitches really needed to be magnified, but there was no way of doing so. A short film demonstrated the technique of one style of stitching, but was small and nestled between two glass cases, so difficult to see if there were more than two or three people looking. All in all I left, even after my second visit, feeling frustrated at the lack of interactive or engaging display.

However, if you have any interest at all in the world of textiles or history, then this may be the only opportunity  for a long while to see such a comprehensive collection of some of the worlds greatest embroidered treasures, so essential viewing !

A story of dreams

The current blockbuster show at the V&A museum was a must see this week, it runs into the new year so you still have plenty of time to visit.

You say you want a revolution? Records and rebels 1966-1970.

Put aside at least a couple of hours for this mammoth collection of 6o’s and 70’s memorabilia, from Twiggy, The Beatles and Sam Cooke right through to the final 1970’speace movement, Vietnam war and a massive Woodstock festival experience.

Imagine taking the ‘Acid test’ and be absorbed by the musical timeline that cleverly takes you through the show on the headsets provided.

 

There was so much to take in, and so much to listen to, I could have done with a second visit, which, as a friend of the V&A I can do, but one day ticket holders are not so lucky and really have to immerse themselves in a head swirling cacophony of images, memories and music, which are, I suppose quite in keeping with the surreal hedonism portrayed in the exhibition!

The portrayal of optimism, and faith in the power of youth sails through the sixties, and comes crashing down as you enter the era of the Vietnam war, and the Black power struggle in the seventies. The quote that sticks in my mind is that of a young aamerican soldier being interviewed about the casualties of the war; the interviewer asks;

“And the children?”

he replies;

“And the children”

 

Struggle against authority becomes the focus of youth and the era of festivals and the peace movement takes us into Woodstock, where we experience the music and fashions of Hendrix, Baez and The Who. The optimism of youth emerges once more and the naive optimism abounds amongst the music and naturalism of the moment.woodstock

Of course as we progress to the final room of the exhibition we are faced with the story in film of cynical consumerism, war and politics all overlaid with the soundtracks to CocaCola adverts.

I left the exhibition with an overwhelming sense of the rollercoaster of emotions I had experienced through the show, optimism, hope, idealism and freedom, juxtaposed with disillusionment, futility and brutality. John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ is playing in our ears as we leave the show, epitomising all these emotions in one poignant moment.

The Age of Innocence

My recent visit to New York inspired me to revisit Edith Wharton’s 1921 Pulitzer Prize winning novel; The Age of Innocence. I first read this story of New York society too many years ago to admit to, and it’s commentary on the vagaries of upper class New York passed me by. It seemed to me, at the time, to be a superficial story of unrequited romance in a classic love triangle of frivolous emotion. My, how outlooks change as we get older!

The subtleties of a fragile new society in the recently established social whirl of 1870’s New York have a certain resonance now, and I find myself comparing todays larger American society with that of Newland Archer and May Welland. Fashion, as always, plays a part in forming opinion across society. Judgements are made based on modes of dress and etiquette, today, just as they were in the 19th century. Jenny Bevan was recently judged and found wanting by some of Hollywood’s elite, for her choice of outfit at the the Oscars ceremony. Rather than conforming to accepted ‘glamorous’ dress code for the ceremony, Ms Bevan chose to homage the Mad Max film for which she so brilliantly designed the costumes. As she said to Hollywood Reporter: ” I really would look ridiculous in a gown. What I was actually wearing at the Oscars was sort of an homage to Mad Max — a kind of biker outfit.”jenny bevanJenny Bevan as part of Marie Claire’s best moments of the 2016 oscars

In Edith Wharton’s New York, the Countess Olenska , on her return to America, is haunted by her infamous appearance at her coming-out ball in black satin, rather than the customary pale colours of innocence. Her return to New York is overshadowed by the scandal of her having left her husband in Europe, ostensibly in search of a divorce; something unheard of in polite New York society. This scandal accompanies her and is emphasised in Wharton’s writing by referencing the bohemian streak to her lifestyle, and commentary on her choice of dress; a shocking ’empire line’ navy dress, worn to the Opera. Her choice of home is also under judgement by the society ladies of New York.

As one gentleman says:” I should really like to take Louisa to see her, if the neighbourhood were not so unpleasant.” Newland is dangerously enchanted by the personal touch of the decor in what Countess Olenska calls her “funny house.” What he saw meanwhile, with the help of the lamp, was the faded shadowy charm of a room unlike any he had ever known…… the vague pervading perfume that was not what one put on handkerchiefs, but rather like the scent of some far-off bazaar, a smell made up of Turkish coffee and ambergris and dried roses.” This bohemian, artistic tendency is Archer’s downfall, and he is drawn into a complicated tug of emotions between accepted genteel etiquette personified by his sweet fiancé, May Welland to whom he sends a daily box of lilies-of-the-valley, and the untouchable temptations of Countess Olenska, to whom he sends yellow roses; ” He had never seen any as sun-golden before, and his first impulse was to send them to May instead of the lilies. But they did not look like her – there was something too rich, too strong in their fiery beauty”.

yellow roses

I leave it to you to discover the outcome to this story, but as you do so, do enjoy the word pictures painted by Edith Wharton of the restrained opulence of Upper class society and the richness of the’alternative’ lifestyle of Madame Olenska. personally I can just see her wearing this wonderful embroidered coat that I saw yesterday in the V&A museum!

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Hidden Treasures

As you wander through the glass galleries of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum it’s easy to be dazzled by the shelves of finely wrought goblets and wine glasses, so many of which I long to have in my meagre collection of antique wine glasses. But, take a moment to pull open the draws of the unprepossessing cabinets and you will find, as I did, a little haven of hidden treasure. No cataloguing, no labels, no dates; thundreds of tiny fragments of glass seem to be there purely for our visual delight. Astounding feats of minute craftsmanship have been captured and presented to those who take the time to look (and you really do have to get down on your knees for some of them). Most of these pieces of sixteenth to eighteenth century glass measure less than a couple of centimetres in size. Some are tiny fragments of millefiore, creating delicate stippled patterns, others beautiful sections of ancient vessels or intricate gold leafed patterns.

It is the sheer infinitesimal detail in these shards that fascinate me, and I wonder what incredibly steady 16th century hands could have created these treasures?

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