Thursday, 16 May 2013

For Worship and Glory

A few days ago one of my Japanese embroidery friends, Maggie, invited me to go to the Royal School of Needlework with her. Her husband had bought her two tickets as a birthday present, and Maggie thought that of all her embroidery friends I probably lived the closest to Hampton Court Palace. I, of course, was delighted to accept the invitation. I knew that the RSN were staging an exhibition of ecclesiastical embroidery (For Worship and Glory) this year, but until I read about it on Needle n’ Thread on Monday, I had not realised that the exhibition had begun. Once I knew that, I was even more delighted to be accompanying Maggie.

Maggie and I met at the main entrance to the Palace; I had driven there and Maggie came by train. It took us a little while to find the RSN within the Palace and we arrived just as the tour was about to start. We were shown into one of the studio workshops where we were given an introductory talk by the studio manager. We were told a little about the history of the RSN and some of the many ecclesiastical items that they had created, conserved or restored.

Main Entrance, Hampton Court Palace

The 20 or so visitors were then divided into two groups to view the exhibition. On display were examples of ecclesiastical embroidery worked by the RSN and items from their collection. There were also a few other items that are permanently on display (mostly because they are too large to be stored elsewhere). To begin with our group remained in Studio 3 to view the items on display there. These included embroidered depictions of saints, angels and Christ in a wide range of techniques but mostly metal thread and silk shading. There were also examples of kneelers, stoles, chasubles and a cope from the Collection.

For me, the highlight in this studio was the gold work on one of the chasubles (or the cope, I’m not sure which is which). The design included some jewel bright foils that looked like sweet papers and to my eye where a bit gaudy but the range of techniques and materials used in the design was impressive.

There were also samples of work by former apprentices on display in this studio. Of particular interest was a piece that had been very recently donated to the RSN and beside it a piece already in their collection of the same design. Although there is no record, it is thought to have been a teaching piece. The design is quartered by a diagonal cross with an angel in each quarter. Each of the four segments is worked by a different student using the same silk shading and gold work techniques. Neither piece is finished and on both, each student has worked the same amount of their segment, albeit the two pieces are stitched slightly differently.

In the second studio we were able to watch current diploma students working on current commissions including a new design and two pieces that were being restored. Of the exhibition pieces displayed in this studio the show stoppers were, without a doubt, the 12 Litany of Loreto pieces. They are exquisite! Little is known about them other than that they were stitched early in the twentieth century and that they were donated to the RSN when the convent that owned them was closing down. I had not heard of these embroideries before I read about them on Mary’s blog but her description whetted my appetite to see them. But nothing could have prepared me for how beautiful these embroideries are. They were smaller than I had expected at approximately 18 x 12 inches but this makes them all the more exceptional. As Mary described, they more like sketches than embroideries, but like sketches done by an old master in sepia and black and white tones. Each one is beautiful in its own right but displayed together they are stunning.

However, for Maggie and me, I think the most exciting and captivating item was hanging in a corridor between the two studios. The “Kyoto Panel” is one of the items on permanent display at the RSN. This may be because it is too large to store elsewhere, or it may be because it is too beautiful to hide from view! The panel is roughly 7-8 feet tall by maybe 5 feet wide and every millimetre is embroidered. The entire panel is covered by chrysanthemums – every type of chrysanthemum that you can imagine from the most humble daisy-like, single bloom to the big petalled, blousy blossoms. There are tight balled pompoms and loose limbed spider mums. There were all the techniques I’d expected to see and some that surprises me. The petals of the fullest, most luscious blooms were not only padded, but on top of the diagonal foundation there was a additional layer of padding and staggered diagonals to form a rib. Some of the flower centres were worked in turkey, or velvet, stitch – I have never seen this in any other Japanese embroidery - this was particularly effective where combined with Japanese round knots. Some of the pompom flowers were stitched with loops of twisted silk in a method I have not seen before. Every millimetre between the blossoms was filled swirls of couched gold. All together this embroidery is magnificent!

There were two disappointments of the day, one was not being able to take photographs, and the other was that Maggie’s schedule was so tight that we had no time to enjoy a cup of tea and chatter but we certainly enjoyed our tour of the RSN. Thank you, Maggie, for sharing your birthday present with me.