Pears for your heirs – planting for the future

In one of those strange moments several threads of my life came together over the Easter weekend. As a keen gardener a four day break with glorious weather was not wasted and I eventually managed to plant two pear saplings and a fig tree.

I also visited my nearest park, Christchurch Park, and popped into the beautiful Christchurch Mansions to take photographs of their 17th-century exhibits. It has been on my to-do list for a while following hearing the rerun of the brilliant recording of ‘God’s Revolution’ by Don Taylor (original broadcast back in 1988). The drama takes us through the English Civil War and as I listened I remembered how my school history lessons had completely drained me of any interest in the 17th century. I had also been left with the impression that the 17th century had been very grey, plain and practical under the influence of the Puritans. It has been a pleasure to discover that this was not the case.

Embroidery panel – Satin stitch appliqué and canvas work scattered on a satin ground. Circa 1650

Of course, skills and craftsmanship did not suddenly evaporate overnight with the Puritans and even though much religious art was destroyed or defaced by the likes of William Dowsing, plenty of interesting examples of visual culture survived the 17th century including new work created during that period. Just think of the monumental splendour of Wren’s St Paul’s. And, then we have at the other end of the scale of English creative expression, small, private handiwork such as this beautiful embroidered panel (above) dating from around 1650.

A startled or slightly comical lion was a popular motif to include. (Bottom right corner of Christchurch Mansion panel).

The full embroidery panel shows a young woman in a garden filled with images of nature. These flowers, animals, birds and insect motifs represented natural gifts from a bountiful God and were celebrated as such. The abundance of nature was a common theme for domestic pieces at this time as displaying overt religious imagery became less popular. It is interesting that the lion and leopard each have their own corner. Their placement is probably significant as it is not an uncommon arrangement, as seen below, in another similar embroidery from the mid-17th century.

Laid silk embroidery circa 1660. Image from Witney Antiques.

Also included in the embroidered menagerie of the Christchurch panel is a unicorn. According to Ruby Hodgson of the V&A, when a lion, leopard and unicorn appear together it is thought to be a reference to royalty.

Looking at the Christchurch panel the most striking representation of the abundance of nature is the pear tree laden with ripe pears in the centre of the composition. It occurred to me that as this example shows a young woman alone in her garden, that the pear tree with fruit maybe a symbol of fertility and allude to her as a potential wife and mother, especially as she stands with her hand outstretched drawing the observer’s attention to the tree.

However, it might simply have been the convention to include a fruiting pear tree as the visualisation of the 17th century English proverb, ‘Walnuts and pears you plant for your heirs’. Old English varieties of pears take years to mature before they bear fruit perhaps not fruiting during a single lifetime and therefore are grown to benefit future heirs. I know that planting avenues of trees for the future such as the famous Spanish Chestnut avenue at Croft Castle, has been a long tradition for the grand and wealthy, but ‘pears for your heirs’ is a discovery for me.

Another pear tree. Mid-17th century embroidered panel. Photo from Wilkinson Auctioneers.

And, that brings me to the third thread of my Easter Weekend, my heir, my daughter. She spent most of her four day holiday break in London moving between Waterloo Bridge, Oxford Circus and Marble Arch as part of the Extinction Rebellion civil disobedience protests. Like so many others including all kinds of folk from all generations, she wants the climate crisis at the top of the global to-do list. Since Easter the recent summary from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has highlighted even more bad news regarding human beings’ detrimental effect on biodiversity. We have become accustomed to disregarding our natural environment and it appears that since the 17th century ‘pears for your heirs’ has faded from common use and yet . . .

It is time we started planting for the future.

. . . attempting to finish on a more optimistic note, it is not just me who has been planting a tree or two, the Woodland Trust hope to plant 64 million trees over the next decade.

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The Oxburgh Hangings

Stork-The-Shrewsbury-HangingOf course, the outstanding exhibit at Oxburgh Hall is the needlework hangings embroidered by Mary Queen of Scots, Bess Hardwick (Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury) and their ladies-in-waiting between 1569 and 1584.  These hangings were NOT actually sewn at Oxburgh Hall, but arrived some time in the 18th century along with Mary Browne of Cowdray Park, a wife for the 4th Baronet, Sir Richard Bedingfeld.

Kings-Room-Oxburgh-Hall-1973-shows-hangings
The King’s Room, Oxburgh Hall circa 1973 showing the Marian Hanging above the fireplace and the Shrewsbury and Cavendish Hangings on the four poster bed. The hangings are now in a special room with no daylight and hang in sealed, moisture controlled display cabinets.

These embroidered panels are a visual and cultural expression of Mary’s time spent during her imprisonment by Queen Elizabeth 1. As such these embroideries are of a wider historical interest and significance than any part of the fabric of Oxburgh Hall or any other content of the hall, but, sadly, sewing is not such a crowd puller as a moat!

The-Marian-Hanging-with-Marys-cypher
The Marian Hanging – so-called as many of these panels have either Mary Queen of Scots’ initials or cipher.

Virescit-Vulnere-Vitrus-Marian-Hanging
The centre square of the Marian Hanging shows a hand cutting down the unfruitful branches of the vine, with the motto ‘Virescit Vulnere Virtus’ (Virtue flourisheth by wounding).

Marian Hanging monogram octagon
This octagon above the centre square on the Marian Hanging shows the monogram ‘Marie Stuart’ crowned, with thistles, Mary’s cipher and motto ‘Sa Vertu Matire’ (In my end is my beginning).

In March 1569, three months into Mary’s stay/incarceration with the Earl of Shrewsbury and his wife, Shrewsbury wrote of Mary

‘This Queen continueth daily to resort to my wife’s chamber where with the Lady Lewiston (Livingston) and the Mrs (Mary) Seton she useth to sit working with the needle in which she much delighteth and in devisisng works.’

From this we learn that both Mary and Bess worked together in the design as well as the execution of the embroideries. Many of the designs have motifs and Latin mottos taken from emblem books that were popular across Europe during the middle of the 16th century. It appears inspiration was taken from woodcuts printed in a selection of natural history books including ‘Icones Animalium’ by Conrad Gessner (1560), ‘Devises héroïques’ by Claud Paradin (1557) and ‘La Nature et Diversité des Poissons’ by Pierre Belon (1555).

Designs were drawn onto linen canvas and then embroidered. Coloured silks, silver thread and silver-gilt thread were used, employing both cross-stitch and tent-stitch, to create the finished pieces.

The present arrangement of embroideries at Oxburgh, mounted on green velvet, is believed to have been made sometime in the 18th century to create the three hangings. They are called the Marian Hanging (after Mary, Queen of Scots), the Shrewsbury Hanging (after Bess Hardwick) and the Cavendish Hanging (after Mary Cavendish, Bess’s youngest daughter). Individually, each embroidered panel may originally have been used for cushions and were sometimes given as gifts.

Some of the designs have hidden meanings for the imprisoned Queen, such as the despair of the yellow rose eaten by ‘canker’ (bottom right-hand corner of the Marian hanging but, sadly, it was too dark for me to get a photo in focus without a tripod!). Quite a few different birds are featured. They make interesting shapes to embroider, but, also, of course, a bird can always take to the sky, fly away, escape.

Not all the designs featured birds and animals from the wild. A few panels show domesticated animals and farm activities.

Whilst one or two panels depict mythical beasts in all their intricate glamour such as this cockatrice.

A-Cockatrice-Marian-Hanging
A cockatrice from the Marian Hanging. Such a mythical beast was said to be able to kill with a look!

This is only a small selection of all the beautifully embroidered panels. The hangings are in a small room with restricted lighting, but they do look so much better in real life than in photos. Well worth a visit.

The-Cavendish-Hanging
The Cavendish Hanging

Note – for any Art Historians who stumble across this post. There are currently two books available on the Oxburgh Hangings, ‘Emblems for a Queen: The Needlework of Mary Queen of Scots’ by Michael Bath (2008) and ‘The Needlework of Mary Queen of Scots’ by Margaret Swain (1973). For detailed technical information the V&A Museum is a great resource.

Scissors-owned-by-Mary-Queen-Scots
A pair of scissors once owned by Mary, Queen of Scots displayed in the King’s Room at Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk.

Words, words, words – Inspired by Lorina’s letters (part 2)

Lorina-Bulwer-inspiredFollowing my visit to the exhibition ‘Frayed: Textiles on the Edge’ at the Time & Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth I was inspired (as I wrote in my previous post) to use words as part of a silk scarf design.

Lorina Bulwer’s work was embroidery wool on cotton. But I work with silk, and paint work that will be worn. I chose to use chiffon as the lightweight, translucent quality allows the words to be partially glimpsed as the scarf moves and slides across the different coloured backgrounds of the clothing underneath.

You can see when the chiffon is pulled flat over either a black background or a white background just how different the colours can appear and how the words stand out more or less.

I used bold, capital letters in the manner of Lorina Bulwer’s embroidered work and painted naive, simplistic figures similar to those punctuating the original long samplers. The words are places in East Anglia and lines of text from the poetry of William Blake. Of course, gathered up and worn the text becomes even more fragmented and less obvious.

Words, words, words – Lorina Bulwer’s inspirational embroidered letters (part 1)

Lorina-Bulwer-red-manEarlier this year I went to the exhibition ‘Frayed: Textiles on the Edge’ at the Time & Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth. The aim of the exhibition was to highlight examples of embroidered work that had been created by people at times of mental distress. Perhaps the most eye-catching works were two long embroidered ‘letters’ sewn by Lorina Bulwer.

These two pieces are 12ft and 14ft long by about 14 inches wide.  Each ‘letter’ has been worked in coloured wools on pieced cotton grounds using various colours to ensure the text is clear and readable on every different ground.

Lorina (born in Beccles, Suffolk in 1838) made her letters whilst residing in the lunatic wing of Great Yarmouth Workhouse between 1900 and 1910. Many of the words are underlined as she angrily relates her story including writing about her family, neighbours and her troubled life.

Been-to-Sandringham

When I saw Lorina’s work I remembered Tracy Emin’s provocative textile creations. Maybe the soft pliable quality of embroidered cloth and the frequent prettiness of embroidery magnifies the power of angry text. It was an inspiring exhibition and has led me to work a design for a scarf using text. My words are places in Suffolk and Norfolk surrounded by a few lines of verse from various poems by William Blake. I chose Blake as his words were also the words of an angry outsider.

 

Creativity and Embroidery: A therapeutic combination

John Craske Dunkirk
Part of ‘The Evacuation of Dunkirk’
John Craske
Embroidery (painting in wools). Unfinished.
1940-43.
So often in our modern world working with our hands is undervalued. With the recent financial crisis and extensive recession – ‘How much?’ is so often the primary concern. However, the creative process can not be viewed in monetary terms alone. The value of creating/making/producing a piece of work with your own hands can be extremely rewarding in other ways. The process of making can be intellectually stimulating. It can provide a forum for collaborative and communal working. It can bring personal satisfaction and a sense of achievement. And, for many people the activity of creative handwork is therapeutic.

Craske Dunkirk 2
A recent exhibition “Frayed: Textiles on the Edge” at the Time and Tide Museum, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, shows the value of creating hand-stitched work during times of stress and anguish. There is more information about some of the pieces and how the exhibition was curated on their blog.

Craske Dunkirk 3

“The Evacuation of Dunkirk” woolwork by John Craske is a long and narrow piece of calico (I estimated about 4 metres by half a metre) embroidered with images showing the British forces being evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940. Stitched between 1940 and 1943, John Craske called his work “painting in wools”. It is a piece created, developed and stitched during times of personal illness and mental strife.

Craske Dunkirk 4

Born in Sheringham on the north Norfolk coast in 1881, John had worked on the boats until he was called up for the army in 1917. Not long after this he caught flu which resulted in complications and an abscess on the brain. From this time onwards he suffered from comas and periods of debilitating depression and was often housebound. During these episodes he painted, but as his health deteriorated he spend longer periods confined to bed and at the suggestion of his wife, Laura, he began stitching his pictures instead.

Dunkirk Rescue Craske

These photographs do not do justice to the whole, long work which sadly remains unfinished as John Craske died in hospital in 1943. However, he has left us with a beautiful, delicate, almost shimmering interpretation of a traumatic moment in history.

Nowadays, in Western culture embroidery is viewed as a woman’s hobby with a long tradition of ladies occupying themselves with their needles. However they are part of a continuum stretching far back to when both sexes stitched. Opus Anglicanum (English work) is a type of fine needlework known across medieval Europe. Much of it was silk vestments embroidered with gold, silver-gilt and silver thread, and, it was created by men and women. The names of some of these embroiderers, both male and female, are recorded in contemporary documents.

The Syon Cope on display at the V&A, London.  Made in England 1300 - 1320.  Linen, embroidered with silver-gilt and silver thread.
The Syon Cope on display at the V&A, London.
Made in England 1300 – 1320. Linen, embroidered with silk, silver-gilt and silver thread.