It is easy to be sniffy about an exhibition based on embroidery, it doesn’t exactly scream ‘C0me visit me!’. It isn’t sexy like David Bowie, cutting edge like Alexander McQueen or even gloriously reminiscent like Records and Rebels. Yet the V&A plays host to them all and in the remaining weeks of Opus Anglicanum – Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery, the glowing reviews demand I take a look.
Admittedly even for a weekday I was the youngest person visiting by a fair margin. It was lovely to see one Mum with a toddler in a pushchair but as he spent most of the visit shouting ‘snacks!’ I am not sure he was overly impressed. But I was impressed by these beautiful, delicate, yet on occasion sumptuous examples of medieval embroidery. I was initially drawn into the gentle colour definition in the Bologna cope (ceremonial cloak) and began to imagine how daunting it must have been to work on a piece of such size. My fellow visitors commented that it strains the eyes just to look at it, let alone produce such work.
It became apparent that the work is not just adornment but story telling too. Words weaved in sliver and gold imagery, thread turned into a wearable book, a moral tale and reinforcement of religious and royal supremacy.
I was intrigued by the objects used to flesh out the exhibition, it was interesting to see what the curators have chosen to supplement the religious vestments. My eye was caught by some lovely tiny shears and a tiny thimble, needlework tools from 1330-80 excavated in the City of London. I smile to myself when I see they are on loan from the Museum of London. I seem to have an inner sense, able to pick out their objects and always seem to find my way to them.
There is also a modern addition, easily overlooked, a 2016 lantern hanging up high that lists the individual names of embroidery workers from the 13th and 14th century. I really liked this, it reminds you of the individuals who poured all their skill, time and ultimately their lives into the objects all around me. The hours of creation almost imbue the copes and orphreys with talismanic power.
I think that is something the modern visitor can struggle to connect with, the importance of religious clothing, when church goers are becoming a dying breed. I remember my father-in-law, a vicar, wearing his cassock, surplice and stole. When he sadly passed away we had to decide what to do with his vestments, they had such importance for him I felt a responsibility to care for them.
Many of the items in the exhibition were as venerated as the Saints or bishops that wore them and even fragments could become religious relics themselves. Much of the embroidery on display is worn, the delicate threads missing, revealing preparatory work underneath. It really gives you an inkling into the huge task involved in conserving and maintaining these fragile museum objects. I can’t begin to imagine the work involved in moving and displaying them it really feels like a privilege to be surrounded by embroidery of this age and quality.
Even as a shadow of their former richness, the thought of how they looked when first finished is mind-blowing. How important it must have felt to wear these objects whether king or clergy. I have no doubt their power would have been transformational.
But for me by far the best thing about the exhibition was the ladies who were sharing skills and knowledge of their own embroidery as they walked round. Five or six were crammed round a video which explained the stitching skills needed. One began to expand on the ‘couching stitch’ to a friend and more began to listen avidly.
I don’t think I have been to an exhibition quite like this, at every turn discussion on how a particular stitch or effect was achieved. There may by hundreds of years between the medieval sewers and todays (I mean no disrespect) hobbyists but still the essence of the English skill remains.
Opus Anglicanum is latin for English work, and I love that this exhibition is not just showing historical work but helping keep ancient traditions alive too. I wonder in 50 years how many would visit such and exhibition and even have an inkling of the techniques and skill involved? Another vital reason why such exhibitions are so important to inspire and inform.
Also finally a lesson for me, never to just go to an exhibition that I eagerly anticipate or one that I have some understanding of, but to go to the unexpected ones, the ones that nearly pass you by because there is always great joy in being surprised by a beautiful, understated museum exhibition like Opus Anglicanum.
Opus Anglicanum is on at the V&A Museum, London till Sunday 5th February 2017 for more details and ticket prices please see the website – https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/opus-anglicanum-masterpieces-of-english-medieval-embroidery