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Imbrothery and needle worke

15 August 2014

Nicholas Cranfield sees items from the Feller and Ashmolean collections in Oxford

© ashmolean museum, university of oxford

Skilled work: Abraham Box, from the Ashmolean Museum's collection

Skilled work: Abraham Box, from the Ashmolean Museum's collection

BOOKSELLERS, like the staff of auction houses and curators of museums and galleries, have long puzzled over the distinction between high and low art, a problem that has increasingly arisen since the 18th century and an age of mass production. What counts as which, and how is any one form to be regarded? "Hamlet versus Bugs Bunny; string quartets versus rap music; J. Alfred Prufrock versus Sam Spade", as John A. Fisher of the University of Colorado at Boulder worries.

Illustrative and decorative work has often been regarded as of less worth than the traditions of painting and of sculpture, at least in the West. Potters maybe admired for their craftsmanship, but artists such as Pablo Picasso or John Piper are still celebrated when they turn to ceramics.

Such distinctions, artificial as they necessarily are, have only more recently become capable of change. Although it took universities more than a century to accept degree courses in photography, one of the more fascinating graduate seminars I have attended in the past few years offered a paper on the importation of windows and window-frames from Bristol into Ireland in the 17th and 18th century. Tara Hambling has compellingly shown the importance of plaster and stucco work in marking the social changes of the early modern period.

The current exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, in the University of Oxford, occasions many of these thoughts. It marries themes that are both sacred and secular in a miniature whirlwind of colour and cross-stitch. Samplers, caps and coifs, cushions, book covers, a rare survival of a chalice veil, and humble purses bring to life the world after Elizabeth I.

In great part, the show is drawn from a private collection of 17th- century embroideries owned by Micheál and Elizabeth Feller. Alongside, the museum shows some of its own collection, including a spectacularly embroidered box, decorated with scenes of the life of Abraham (photo, right).

Encased in silk and linen fabrics, the wooden chest is adorned with silk and metal threads. Hair, feathers, marbled papers, natural pearls, and silver wire are woven with lace to compose delicate biblical scenes set between richly decorated borders on which rabbits leap between flowers and a squirrel nonchalantly eyes up a crouching lion.

This is the fantasy world of a child's imagining. It was donated in 1947. An earlier note records: "The cabinet was made by my mother's grandmother who was educated at Hackney School. After the plague in London all the young ladies works were burnt (crossed out) destroyed that then were about at that time. She left school soon after, therefore this was made viz before year 1665."

As a historical record, this will not identify the needlewoman who has wrought such fine detail, but it gives us valuable evidence that there may have been a girls' school near London at much the same time as John Whiston's bequest established what is regarded as the oldest girls' school in the land, Red Maid's School in Avon (1634). It also suggests that furnishings and soft fabrics may have been an obvious casualty of the plague, cast away from fear of contamination.

The first exhibit we see is a similar box, once owned by Princess Margaret, that has scenes from Ovid's Metamorphoses worked on it. The cabinet may once have contained pen and ink as well as a pin cushion, and would have been a much coveted fardel in its day.

Apollo, wearing day dress of the 1630s or 1640s, chases a demure-looking Daphne the other side of the keyhole. She begins to sprout leafy branches from her head and hands. On the back, Orpheus enchants three lazy sheep, while the end panels trace the theme of water; Narcissus gazes vainly at his reflection in a well head beneath one handle, and Dinah loftily saves the nymph Arethusa from the grasp of Alpheus.

Samplers, then as now, provided great exercise for nimble hands, and the results, in both whitework and polychrome, line one wall. Ladies of quality would certainly have taken enjoyment from such disposition; we know from her diary that Lady Margaret Hoby (1571-1633) sewed while others read to her from the Bible, and the much embittered Lady Anne Clifford (1590-1676) whiled away much time in an unhappy marriage at Knole embroidering while listening to classical stories.

Pattern books emerged for the simpler designs and became widely circulated in the century. The Needles Excellency was so popular that it had run through ten editions by 1636. Tellingly, the Bodleian Library catalogue lists no copy of it, nor of John Taylor's 244-line poem The Praise of the Needle (1631), even though the so-called "Water poet" (1578-1653) was well known beyond Gloucester.

Bibles and other illustrated books supplied engravings that more adventurous embroiderers might adapt as suitable sources for designs. Engravings from Gerard de Jode's Thesaurus Sacrarum Historiarum Veteris Testamenti (1585, Antwerp) and copper plates after Rubens, by Boetius Adamsz à Bolswaert (1585-1633), were strenuously followed by those who wished to depict Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, or the judgement of Solomon.

The choice of biblical scenes was as much about familiarity as it was about selecting moralising scenes to encourage suitable behaviour in a wife, or to emphasise a child's duty before God. The temptation of Adam and Eve, Ruth and Boaz, Susanna and the elders, the sacrifice of Isaac, and even Jephthah and his daughter all feature as more realistic admonitions than could be found in the cavorting gods of the classics.

When the milliners and shopkeepers of the Royal Exchange petitioned Archbishop William Laud in 1638 they claimed they furnished, "Rare and curious covers of imbrothery and needle worke . . . wherein Bibles Testaments and Psalm Books of the best sort and neatest print have been richly bound up for ye nobility and gentry . . ."; and the Ashmolean has recently acquired an exquisite example of a 1632 pocket Bible.

The linen of the hand-embroidered chalice veil (1679) is stained rust-brown with the sacred elements and has been folded, butterfly-like, at some point in its history. Around it, Mary Cordingley, a pious woman, inscribed an obscure caution in the service of the Church which reads like a cod verse of George Herbert.

A man in time on high
May climb if fortune do him feed
But down he shall catch shall
If that he take not good heed.

Not all needlework is women's work. Back in London, I was fortunate enough to get to choral evensong on the eve of the commemoration of the outbreak of the First World War at St Paul's Cathedral. There, an altar frontal stitched by ex-servicemen after 1918 was being unveiled later (News, 8 August).

Too tall and long for the modern nave altar that now huddles beneath the Dome, it had, I was told, been laid out over a couple of ping-pong tables! The ladies of the 17th century would not have had much truck with that, and it was good to learn that it would be more fittingly displayed throughout the next five years.

"The Eye of the Needle" is at the Ashmolean Museum, Beaumont Street, Oxford, until 12 October. Phone 01865 278000.

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