Last Saturday I visited the Opus Anglicanum exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. After our day with John Miners the week before, I was hoping to use this exhibition as an opportunity to see ‘typical’ English textile Design, but many of the pieces on display originate from c. 1100 CE, by when the exchange of design ideas between cultures was already noticeable. This notwithstanding, the exhibition is an unmissable chance to see the beauty of English craftsmanship, and the embroidery produced in the area around St Pauls was prized above all others. Textiles from this early on are more readily available in the forms of ecclesiastical garb, cf. in examples of high fashion, due to the nature of the end-use; Ecclesiastical Copes and other ceremonial pieces were treated with the respect afforded to the ceremonies they were used for and infused with the reverence of religion.
Court fashions were frivolous in comparison and changeable, with the embroideries cut and reused until there was little left of the original work. Nevertheless, the exhibition showcases some wonderful pieces from the court of King Edward III (the Black Prince), with the stylised three lions (the English Royal Arms) gorgeously embroidered to form part of a Horse trapper, the whirls of fur replicated through directional split stitching.
So why may you ask, use this exhibition during the week of #hauntedhouse? There is no shortage of mythical creatures in the embroideries; a fisherman’s pall features carefully formed mermaids and mermen, silver thread creating life-like scales and intricate patterning. Six winged angels (the more wings, the closer the angels are to God) and satanic dragons decorate many ecclesiastical copes with depictions of St George and other biblical tales brought to life.
As for techniques, underside couching, split stich, laid and couched work onto linen and later Italian velvet, formed the basis of the seven year apprenticeship these talented craftspeople undertook.
My personal favourite was the Bologna Cope with the three wise men represented on horses so lifelike, I waited for them to move. The colours of this cope are still vivid considering it was created in 1310-20 and anyone who sees this cannot deny that these early works of embroidery are masterpieces.
I may not have found quite what I was looking for, but I left yearning for a needle and thread (and seven years!), as well as a new appreciation for another sort of craftsmanship to Gainsborough’s own.