Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Opus Angelicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Opus Angelicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery

Article excerpt

For much of the Middle Ages, especially from 1250-1350, 'English work' was enormously prized around Europe from Spain to Iceland. Popes took pains to acquire it; bishops coveted it; the quality was such that the remnants have ended up in the treasuries of Europe. London, especially the area around St Paul's, was famous for its production. And what was English work? Embroidery, that's what. Beautiful, costly, high-quality embroidered pieces, much of it using gold or silver thread, sometimes embellished with pearls and precious stones. Matthew Paris tells a story about Pope Innocent IV spotting some English bishops wearing lovely vestments and badgering them to find some of it for him, preferably for the lowest possible cost. The point of the story was the pope's acquisitiveness; what it also makes clear is that English work was conspicuous for its workmanship and beauty.

The last exhibition of Opus Anglicanum was 50 years ago; now the V&A is giving this generation an opportunity to see for itself pieces that have been assembled from around Europe from the 12th to the 16th century -- though the catalogue observes that Anglo-Saxon embroidery was hot too. It's a wonderful collection, mostly liturgical vestments -- copes and chasubles that the priest or bishop would wear at mass -- but including some secular pieces. What it should do is put embroidery in its proper place as an art form alongside stained glass, floor mosaic, painting and manuscript illustration, with which it shares exactly the same artistic form and imagery. There's one lovely embroidered panel here of poor St Hippolytus being martyred which has grotesque figures at the top -- animals with leering human heads -- that are identical to those you find in the margins of manuscripts of the same period.

Yet, obviously enough, embroidery, and needlework generally, has never had quite the same recognition as those others, perhaps because art historians were chary of it, partly because the material is uniquely vulnerable to the effects of light and time, and partly, perhaps, because needlework is seen as women's stuff.

Certainly women did take part in the production of English work (the term was generic; for obvious reasons it wasn't used in England), though probably not as designers so much as needlewomen. It's likely that some workshops were mixed. The pay rates reflected skill, with the draughtsmen getting eight pence a day in 1330, and needlewomen just over twopence. The exhibition, and website, usefully includes a video of couching, the technique whereby gold thread was attached to cloth by understitching, barely visible on the surface, and split-stitching, which allowed the embroiderer to follow the contours of the shape they were filling in, like brushstrokes. …

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