Exhibition Review

Opus Anglicanum. London

by ELIZABETH COATSWORTH

 

THE EXHIBITION Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (to 5th February), is only the third on the subject in over a century: the first was held in 1905,[1] the second in 1963.[2] The latter was highly regarded by textile historians, but the former made a greater impact on its contemporaries, still influenced by the ethos and aesthetics of the Art and Crafts Movement, including Grace Christie, whose book on the subject remains the standard work.[3] The present exhibition does a great service in assembling the V. & A.’s remarkable collection together with other pieces of exceptional quality, justifying its emphasis on the mid-thirteenth to the mid-to late fourteenth centuries, when documentary sources show opus anglicanum – ‘English work’ – was highly esteemed, especially in ecclesiastical circles throughout Europe. The curators clearly aim at the exhibition having the impact of the 1905 show. In the catalogue the curators refer frequently to Mrs Christie’s book, and her tour de force is a hard act to follow, but the present exhibition inspires the hope that a reappraisal of the entire corpus can now be made, placing it in the longer history of English medieval embroidery, although probably it will be a concerted effort rather the work of one scholar.

A little developmental context is provided by pieces from the twelfth century, starting with a seal bag of c.1100 (cat. no.1), but there is nothing on earlier embroidery.[4] Both the exhibition and catalogue do better by the period after 1350, taking the story up to the Reformation, with the early sixteenth-century Fishmonger’s pall (no.82). The handsomely illustrated catalogue is a useful introduction to the subject, with chapters on technique (Lisa Monnas), artistic context (M.A. Michael), ecclesiastical vestments (Nigel Morgan), patrons and patronage (Julian Gardner), the wider European context (Evelyn Wetter), the later period to the Reformation (Kate Heard), and documentary evidence of embroiderers and trade (Glyn Davies and Kate Heard).[5]

The exhibition is arranged along broadly chronological lines, developed through themes. An attractive feature of this approach is that the contribution of all groups engaged in this material is acknowledged – embroiderers, historians, art historians and textile and embroidery historians. The place of the embroidery in the history of art, for example, is emphasised by a high proportion of exhibits – almost a quarter of the whole – being illustrated books (no.50; Fig.49), floor tiles, decorative ironwork, panel paintings and stained glass. These illustrate stylistic connections between the opus anglicanum and contemporary works in other media, and bring to light artists working as embroidery designers in the underdrawings lying beneath the finished work, now made visible. Well-focused lighting of most pieces enables detailed study of technique and iconography, the latter identified in booklets in each section.

At the start, the Bologna cope of 1310–20 (no.38; Fig.51) is displayed almost in isolation. The complexity and balance of its design, and the effect of the linen ground fabric being completely covered in silver-gilt thread and coloured silks, can be appreciated even before one discovers that it is one of the earliest copes to reconcile the arrangement of the scenes with the necessary semi-circular shape of the garment.

The section ‘Bishops and Burials’ offers two explanations as to how this material survived: the commemoration of a saint – Thomas Becket, for whom a stylised, instantly recognisable, depiction of his martyrdom on a mitre (no.6), a casket (no.8) and a manuscript illumination (no.7) is a medieval version of image management; or recovery from a burial, here that of a later Archbishop of Canterbury, Hubert Walter, whose richly embroidered buskins and shoes (no.11) would hardly have been visible when worn. The section ‘Making of Medieval Embroidery’ helps to identify stitches, underdrawings, the use of non-textile additions, such as padding and further ornament, supported by an entrancing film showing the back and front of a piece as it is embroidered. The following sections, titled ‘Royal Court at Westminster’ and ‘International Renown’, concentrate on the period of central interest. While detail and depth are provided by smaller pieces, magnificent copes dominate: the Vatican, Madrid (nos.23 and 31), Syon (no.33; Fig.52) and Jesse copes (no.37) illustrating stylistic features and design organisation that antedate those of the Bologna, Toledo and Butler-Bowdon vestments (nos.38, 46 and 52). The Syon cope shows the potential for individual taste within a period style: the embroidered background being worked in silk instead of metal thread imparts clarity to its design, while the quatrefoils (with saints and scenes) in red and the spaces between (with seraphim) in green are appealing and fresh. Stunning close-ups of fine detail are shown on nearby screens.

The ‘Age of Chivalry’ includes some of the few surviving secular pieces, including the surcoat of the Black Prince and fragments of the embroidered caparisons for a royal horse (no.51), emphasising different methods of working that met the needs of the court rather than the longer-term needs of the Church – a reminder of the official seal bags seen in this and previous sections. Heraldry is used to identify a prince, but, as other sections show, it was rapidly used to indicate patronage, or simply for decorative effect on ecclesiastical vestments.

‘New Directions’ illustrates later developments in design, especially that of embroidery being confined to orphreys (decorative bands), so as not to detract from the magnificent new Italian velvet ground fabrics, as on a rare surviving Mass set from Whalley Abbey (no.71) and another fifteenth-century chasuble (no.74; Fig.50). ‘Survival and Discovery’ circles back to earlier concerns, with an amice from Sens, where Becket was exiled, preserved as a relic in its casket (no.9). The Steeple Aston cope (no.45) is displayed in its present form as an altar frontal and dossal, but above, an animated film shows it deconstructed and reconstructed in its original form in a continuous loop, a final imaginative flourish.

 

1 A.F. Kendrick: exh. cat. Exhibition of English Embroidery Executed Prior to the Middle of the XVI Century, London (Burlington Fine Arts Club) 1905; reviewed by May Morris in this Magazine, 7 (1905), pp.302–09.

2 D. King, ed.: exh. cat. Opus Anglicanum: English Medieval Embroidery, London (Victoria and Albert Museum) 1963.

3 A.G.I. Christie: English Medieval Embroidery, Oxford 1938.

4 Recent work on earlier examples includes A. Lester-Makin: ‘The front tells the story, the back tells its history: a technical discussion of the embroidering of the Bayeux Tapestry’, in A.C. Henderson with G. Owen-Crocker, eds.: Making Sense of the Bayeux Tapestry, Manchester 2016, pp.23–40.

5 Catalogue: English Medieval Embroidery: Opus Anglicanum. Edited by Clare Browne, Glyn Davies and M.A. Michael. 310 pp. incl. 264 col. and b. & w. ills. and 12 figs. (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, in association with the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2016), £40 (HB). ISBN 978–0–30022–200–5.