Lady Anne’s Needlework Festival,
4-17 July 2021
Opus Anglicanum: ‘When needlework was at its very finest’
Writing in the journal of the Royal Society of Arts in 1895, the celebrated designer May Morris argued that needlework decoration had reached ‘its best and most intellectual development’ during the medieval period. Like many textile historians and practitioners of the Arts and Crafts movement, Morris particularly admired Opus Anglicanum or English work for ecclesiastical and secular use, famed throughout Europe from the late twelfth to the fourteenth centuries. This lecture examines the technical mastery and artistic expression found in the work of medieval English craftsmen and women including such masterpieces as the Butler-Bowden chasuble and the Jesse and Syon copes in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Women as Embroiderers in the Elizabethan and Stuart periods
For modern audiences, the intricacy and variety of the stitching found in early English needlework continue to astound and delight the eye and have prompted a number of textile historians to conclude that the Elizabethan and Stuart periods ‘can claim most of what is good in English domestic embroidery’. Equally surprising is the fact that several objects preserved in museum and private collections were stitched by children and adolescents. This lecture aims to explore the prevailing attitude towards female education in the 150 years following the Reformation and its impact on the development of English domestic needlework; to give a voice to some of the 'invisible hands' who created these 'curious works'; and to examine the environment in which girls from middle and upper class backgrounds learned to ply their needle, the training they received and the images they chose to stitch.
What is Art Embroidery?
The term ‘art embroidery’, which first appeared in print in the early 1870s, denoted more than the mechanical execution of the stitches, irrespective of the manual dexterity of the needleworker. For a work to be “artistic”, it also required invention in the selection and arrangement of colours, the choice of suitable materials and, above all, good design based on an appreciation of the intellectual quality of medieval ornament. This lecture considers the movements that led to the revival of decorative needlework for the domestic interior during the second half of the nineteenth century and the means by which its exponents sought to elevate the embroiderer’s craft from a trifling pastime to a serious art form.
Image: May Morris, Decorative Needlework (London, 1893), frontispiece showing a detail from the tree of Jesse cope (1310-1325), Victoria and Albert Museum.
Image: Canvas work fruit slip, English,
Image: Winged figure, design attributed to Walter Crane, c. 1880, fragment.