I've just had the pleasure of visiting the Eye of the Needle exhibition at the Ashmolean, and what a pleasure it was. On display were a variety of pieces of 17th Century needlework from the Feller collection. The range of work was delightful, from strip samplers to pictures, boxes, a mirror frame, book covers and items of clothing. There were also some church textiles, with the comment that
"Embroidery and religious practice were closely linked by some authors. Embroidery requires a focused body and mind"
I rather liked that - an early reference to mindfulness perhaps.
One of the great joys of exhibitions is the opportunity to really see the fineness of the stitching and the way that light falls across the threads, giving the work a life and depth not visible in illustrations. It was very clear from the informative notes that work of this period held a strong moral message about the place of women within society. Themes, ranging from biblical stories and the classics to allegorical pieces, were often designed to reinforce the social expectations of the day: obedience, faithfulness, chastity and hard work.
There was a marvelous variety of techniques on display; stumpwork, needle point, whitework, pulled thread, beadwork and gold work. The way these techniques were combined in some pieces showed the great ingenuity and skill of the women who worked them. The colours in some were still vivid and clear, while others had faded to more delicate hues. The range of materials used was also rich. Along with the traditional grounds and threads of silk or linen, I saw glass beads, sequins, coral, pearls, silver threads and wire and fragments of bird feathers. These were crafted into a wonderful range of images. Flowers of all sorts were abundant, along with a menagerie of curious mythical beasts, butterflies, insects, snails, peacocks and parrots, lions and unicorns, deer and donkeys, dancing dogs, a camel and even a couple of frogs. These kept company with the likes of Abraham and Isaac, Adam and Eve, Ruth and Boaz and allegorical figures representing virtues and vices, many intended to reinforce the expected behaviours of the women who stitched. Above and below these characters there were cheery suns and moons peeping out from behind pastel coloured clouds, soaring birds and diving fishes, along with the occasional angel. I particularly liked an image of a kingfisher with a fish in his beak, and a lumpy toad crouching at the foot of a stumpwork tree.
The samplers were also delightful, some with neatly arranged rows of various techniques, some with a wonderful higgledy piggledy disorder about them. The fineness of this sort of work can only be appreciated by looking closely and the Ashmolean was kind enough to provide magnifying glasses for visitors to enable the stitching to be appreciated to the full. I saw white work, tent stitch, satin stitch, raised chain, detached buttonhole, bullion knots, needleweaving, silk shading, in fact the whole range of techniques available from the period.
One could have spent hours looking at just a couple of the embroideries, so interesting and detailed were they, but an hour and a half was all my legs could stand. I came away with a deeper understanding of the needlework of the period and a delightful menagerie of embroidered beasts in my head, further enhanced by seeing similar images carved above the windows and doors of the wonderful buildings that fill the streets of Oxford. It was a splendid way of spending a Sunday morning and I'd recommend anyone going to Oxford in the next few months to take the time to visit the Ashmolean and discover the delights of this collection. I can also recommend the first volume of the two books about this fabulous collection, it has lovely images of the embroideries and just the right amount of fascinating text. You can preview it here. I'm afraid I've just snaffled the second volume from Amazon at better price than usual, and was amused to notice that one bookseller has their copy for sale for £4,072.93. I suspect a misprint!
In other news, as they say, I've spent the past couple of weeks moving my dear little Aunt Cecil into care and beginning the difficult task of clearing her property. Having put it off for as long as possible her carer and I agreed that she's no longer safe to be left alone on evenings and weekends. It's been a terribly hard thing to do, and the sense of a life being dismantled and distilled down to just one room is strong. I brought her here to be near us two weeks ago, then went up again this week to do some sorting and sifting of "stuff" of which there is a great deal. I felt dreadful delivering her to the care home, however she has taken it all in good spirit and seems very settled in her new abode. She's just five minutes from us, so easy to pop in and see every day and we can take walks by the seaside, eat ice creams together and go on bra buying expeditions to M&S! I have another trip later this month to bring down some of her furniture so she feels more at home in her room.
I've also been in an exhibition! Goodness me! Our Embroiderer's Guild put on a show of recent work in the lovely workshop where Christine teaches me good things. I had two pieces on display (amongst almost seventy), both of which you've seen before
Uffington, galloping across the Downs
and some magical mushrooms from the workshop we were given by Kay Dennis. I felt rather proud of them once they were mounted and framed.
I was one of four of us who put up the exhibition. It took six hours in the sweltering heat to display everything properly, extra exhausting for me as I'd been transferring Cecil that week, which involved four gruelling hours, much of it on the motorways, coming home! I entirely failed to take any photos of the exhibition, but if I speak sweetly to our Chairman she might let me share a couple of her photos, so you can see what talented people I was sharing the limelight with.