Magazine article History Today

How to Embroider History

Magazine article History Today

How to Embroider History

Article excerpt

* The Norman horsemen charge at Hastings once again, and Harold is pierced in the eye with the arrow, as the Bayeux Tapestry goes on display in the newly renovated and reopened Reading Museum. Well, not the original Bayeux Tapestry. That remains in Bayeux (and is not a tapestry at all, but an embroidery). What Reading is showing off is a unique Victorian copy. All 75 yards of it are unfurled in glowing colour and to splendid advantage around two upstairs rooms.

The original Bayeux Tapestry, a vigorous strip cartoon of 1066 and All That, was embroidered on lengths of linen. it is believed to have been designed by a single person, who also oversaw its production, before 1082 in the south of England (possibly in Winchester, Canterbury or maybe somewhere else in Kent).

The Victorian copy was made by the Leek Embroidery Society and masterminded by its leader, Mrs Thomas Wardle, wife of a Staffordshire textile magnate. The Wardles were friends of William Morris and shared his enthusiasm for traditional crafts. Besides bearing her husband fourteen children and surviving the deaths of five of them and a nervous breakdown, Elizabeth Wardle was a skilled needlewoman and a formidable organiser. She and her husband went to Bayeux in 1885, to inspect the famous tapestry.

Returning to England, they borrowed a set of hand-coloured photos of it, which had been made, for what is now the Victoria & Albert Museum, in 1871 by a photographer named Dossetter. Tracings were made from these on linen strips and Mrs Wardle recruited a team of thirty-five ladies (including herself and two of her daughters), who each embroidered a section, in wool specially dyed by Thomas Wardle in the correct colours. The whole work took a little over a year and includes 626 human figures, 190 horses, 35 dogs and 506 other animals and birds, as well as ships, buildings, trees and Latin inscriptions.

The copy is faithfully exact, except in certain details where Victorian moral correctness precluded strict accuracy. The war horses, which in the original are stallions, have become modest geldings in the copy, while one ostentatiously well-endowed naked man in the border has been fitted with a concealing pair of swimming trunks and another has been rather drastically pruned. …

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