New York’s Metropolitan Museum and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum are each providing a feast for an embroiderer’s (tired) eyes. London’s V&A is celebrating the Opus Anglicanum – perhaps one of the earliest examples of national branding of a commercial product in which the collective skill of England’s medieval embroidery industry was focused on the production of ecclesiastical vestments and chivalric devices. It is truly a wonder, not only of art and artisanship but also that so many of these fragile pieces have survived through the centuries. See it in London or online before it closes on 5 February 2017.
The New York Met offers us a complete contrast with the Secret Life of Textiles, a tiny gem of a display in a single room (gallery 599 until 20 February 2017) that shows us some of the earliest examples of the lavish embroidery, voided velvets and brocades that are currently gracing every fashion publication for the autumn-winter season.
We see an exquisite Chinese ceremonial robe (above, Quing dynasty, nineteenth century) in a bright blue silk, trimmed with cat fur as a cheaper alternative to sable, ermine mink or fox. Despite economising on the fur, the silk is lavishly embroidered (see below).
Also from the Quing dynasty but an earlier eighteenth century piece is this badge of rank (below), executed in satin embroidered with silk, peacock feathers and gold thread. It shows a bear as the insignia of military rank. The elevation of the rank is underlined by the use of peacock feathers that also give the piece an iridescent glow, offsetting the gold embroidery perfectly.
There is also European work on display, including a cut voided velvet in a lush midnight blue satin fabric. This is just the kind of fabric that inspired the young Fortuny. In fact, a contemporary, Henri de Regnier, described the scene:
‘Mother and daughter open a massive chest in the corner of the room….The first appears: a fine piece of dark blue velvet made in the fifteenth century, goffered with stylish arabesques. The shade is strange, deep and pure, like the colour of night.’ (Peacock and Vine, A.S.Byatt (2016) p52-3)
If you can, see both these wonderful exhibitions and marvel at these early examples of exquisite artisanship and technical skill.