In Need of Some Colour – Part II, The Maldon Embroidery

Last week, we took a brief tour of Maldon in Essex, but I failed to mention the specific reason for my visit which was to see ‘The Maldon Embroidery’ on permanent display at the Maeldune Heritage Centre.

The Maldon Embroidery. (Photograph from the Maeldune Heritage Centre website.)

The Maldon Embroidery was initially called ‘The Millennium Embroidery’ as it was commissioned to celebrate 1,000 years of Maldon’s history.

Left, depiction of the Chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall, one of the oldest churches in England. It is just down the River Blackwater from Maldon at Bradwell-on-Sea. According to Bede it was built by Bishop Cedd in AD654. Right, sculpture of Bishop Cedd in a niche of All Saints Church, Maldon. The text PANT is the word used for the River Blackwater in the Old English poem ‘The Battle of Maldon’.

It was unveiled over 30 years ago in 1991 to mark the millennial anniversary of the Battle Of Maldon in 991. The whole work is 42 feet long and 26 inches wide and is formed of seven panels. It was designed by the famous photographer, artist and textile designer, Humphrey Spender (1910-2005) who lived locally in the village of Ulting four miles from Maldon.

Left, Earl Byrhtnoth sculpture by Nathaniel Hitch (1845–1938) in a niche of All Saints Church, Maldon. Byrhtnoth died at the Battle of Maldon and, right, is shown in the embroidery fighting the Viking invaders. His name in old English is beorhtnoðbeorht (bright) and noð(courage).

This textile work falls within the tradition of a ‘Bayeux tapestry’, and like the Bayeux original it isn’t actually a tapestry (woven), but is embroidered (hand stitched).

Left, Maldon is granted a Royal Charter by Henry II in 1171 and, right, a photo of the unusual triangular church tower of All Saints Church, Maldon also featured in the embroidery.

Furthermore, Humphrey Spender felt the term tapestry was associated with something “faded and dun-coloured”. And, as we can see this intricately detailed, colourfully vivid work is anything but faded.

Thomas Plume (1630–1704) famous for his library which he had built in the 1690s on the site of the collapsed nave of St Peter’s church. At the time he also had the church’s surviving West Tower restored.

The content of the embroidery is partly chronological and partly thematic. The significant Battle of 991 is near the left end and we then walk along its length and across time with depictions of noteworthy local events and well-known landmarks.

The finished embroidery of the warfare panel, corpses and all. Image from the official Instagram account ‘humphreyspender’.

Unsurprisingly, as the embroidery was made to mark 1,000 years since the Battle of Maldon, warfare is one of themes. The war panel flows from left to right in a transition from ancient to modern warfare.

Part of the original design on paper for this panel. Image from the official Instagram account ‘humphreyspender’.

When we reach the end we have travelled through time to 1991. The final panel shows vignettes of Maldon’s twentieth-century highlights such as the 1980s construction of new roads and roundabouts around the town.

This is the final panel. Top right in the mouth of a lion you can just read Lee Cash (the driving force for this project) and at the bottom right the beginning of designer Humphrey Spender’s name (apologies I didn’t capture the full panel).

Working together with Humphrey Spender, Mrs Lee Cash and Andrew Fawcett, a further 85 embroiderers took three years to create this work of art.

Edward Bright (1721–1750) was the ‘fat man of Maldon’ at 47.5 stone and was famous as the fattest man in England during his relatively short life.

May I just at this point apologise for the multiple reflections in the photographs and the lack of pictures of full panels. It is a physically long piece of work and naturally it is protected behind glass, but sadly opposite large windows. I am not sure if the glass is of a special quality, but the display room is brightly lit with damaging daylight.

Left, the tugboat Brent moored on Hythe Quay and again featured in colourfully glory on a panel of the Maldon Embroidery.

Discussing his love of bright colours, Humphrey Spender, who lived in a Richard Rogers steel and glass residence for over three decades, once commented on the fading of domestic textiles in his home saying they’d faded substantially in just 15 years. Well, the Maldon Embroidery is already 30 years old and so far it is still very colourful, let’s hope it stays that way.

The Coat of Arms (crest) of Maldon.

Author: agnesashe

Artisan, blogger and passionate East Anglian working from home.

16 thoughts on “In Need of Some Colour – Part II, The Maldon Embroidery”

  1. What an interesting port. I loved the bright colours of the embroidery and all the photographs you managed to take of it. I wish very much I could go there myself.

    1. Yes, I have to say that the visual impact of the embroidery is something that is better to see in real life. Maldon is not an easy place to visit without a car. There are buses, but, I don’t know about you, I find (anywhere out of London) travelling on local buses in unfamiliar places rather stressful. I think Dr Beeching has a lot to answer for and with hindsight chopping off huge swathes of the railway network was a retrograde step in the light of the climate crisis.

  2. I’d like to think that this kind of project involved and engaged many many people with a wide variety of skills – a real task to energise an entire community and beyond. It looks marvellous!

    1. Yes I think in some of the photographs I’ve seen it reminded me of those traditional sewing circles. And, like most of those, the Maldon embroidery makers were all women bar two. It needs a celebrity chap to take up embroidery and do what Tom Daley’s done for ‘knitting guys’, but somehow I don’t think it will replace football, rugby or golf as a male group pastime.

    1. Yes, I thought the colours, the movement, the energy of all of it would appeal to you. Isn’t the Internet marvellous when we can share beauties like this across the ocean.

      1. Yes. I had no idea such a thing existed. I really like this kind of localized referential art, done to mark a certain time and illustrate a view of history from that time (I mean the anniversary). And you are right, those colors! I wondered also about UV glass or other light protection – most places are very particular these days about fiber work especially.

      2. Yes, I was astonished with all the daylight. Actually, I was surprised that it wasn’t in a no daylight room with controlled, specialist electric lighting. Perhaps that’s all too expensive for an ordinary little town in the provinces here in the UK. I don’t think in general that the British value fibre art as much you folk across the Pond, well not if it’s not already at least over 100 years old.

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