Regional museums: a delightful hotch-potch, a veritable Granny’s-Front-Room with accompanying cafe, shop and starry-eyed curator.
We pottered off to one such museum yesterday: Reading Museum, a random outpouring of stories old and quaint. It is a Regional Curator’s task to put the beloved claptrap of centuries into context.
On the first floor,one exhibit dominates all the others; and this is its story.
Allow me to transport you back to the nineteenth century, the heyday of florid romanticism, when Tennyson was altering the historical evidence with every line of poetry he wrote and Dickens was keepin’ it real.
William Morris was at the centre of a craft revolution: 1861 saw the opening of his epoch-making firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co, which among many fortes boasted the design of tapestries. The influence of the mediaeval was strong here: much as Tennyson adored the ancient stories, Morris borrowed and created a 19th century interpretation of mediaeval times.
The Victoria and Albert Museum – then the South Kensington Museum – had opened its doors too. An eclectic mix, its drawing-board name was The Museum of Manufactures, housing, as it would, exhibits from the Great Exhibition of 1851.
It was practical and beautiful from the start, with Morris co-designing one of the restaurant rooms. And it devoted itself to the history of art and design.
One day in 1885, curator Sir Philip Cunliffe-Owen was showing a wealthy couple around the museum. An interesting partnership, Elizabeth and Thomas Wardle: he was owner of a company which dyed materials; he had traveled India and cannily gauged the new craze for needlework, producing silk sewing kits for the newly emergent middle class.
He was absorbed in the craft revolution: Morris approached Wardle to partner him in research into original herbal dyes. And Wardle’s wife Elizabeth was an accomplished needlewoman and a clever social organiser.
The two were invited back to Cunliffe-Owen’s office for tea and a chat: an it is then that the Director brought a treasure out of his cupboards.
Photographs. Lots of photographs.
And drawings, too: colour-keys, diagrams, technical information for Extreme Embroiderers.
It was the Bayeux Tapestry, in its entirety. The visual cartoon-strip of Harold’s duplicity and eventual defeat at the hands of William the Conqueror. Like Wardle’s little sewing kits, it made replication of this priceless artwork possible.
The first one was housed in the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux at the Centre Guillaume-le-Conquérant in Bayeux, Normandy. Bishop Odo of Bayeux, William’s brother, is thought to have commissioned it, according to Jan Messent in The Bayeux Tapestry Embroiderers’ Story. She posits the original tapestry may well have been embroidered by nuns in Essex.
Elizabeth Wardle took one look at the drawings and made up her mind immediately. England must have a Bayeux tapestry of its own. Marshalling her husband to create the ancient dyes necessary from woad for blue, walnut roots for browns and weld for yellows.
Then she assembled 39 women from her hometown of Leek, Staffordshire: one to trace onto linen; two to sew the work together; and the rest to use their needles to fill in the tracery.
It was a project born in heaven: but a Victorian heaven, complete with great eyed pre-Raphaelite angels: and everyone was suitably attired. It was a world away from the tapestry’s earthy origin.
And so, in the interests of Victorian modesty, the women made a few changes. Generally in the area of male anatomical detail, if you get my modest drift. The mediaeval Wessex nuns had accorded the men of the tapestry sizeable appendages. Huge.
It could have transformed a young Victorian maiden’s outlook, for sure. And so all genitalia were censored. The ladies – many young and unmarried – used the tracing of a Miss Lizzie Allen. And Miss Allen hit on a surefire way of shielding the ladies’ eyes: she gave the mediaeval gentlemen shorts.
Obediently, the ladies of Leek embroidered mediaeval gentlemen with bespoke Victorian pantaloons.
All save one. Miss Margaret J Ritchie was having none of it. She must have been an open-minded soul because she got one of the most puzzling panels of the whole tapestry, entitled Where Æfgyva and a certain cleric. We are left hanging, destined never to fathom the incident involving a sexual scandal- a young woman lured to a convent by a priest- or why it should be included in the account at all.
Under the panel is a small well-endowed male figure. The tracer had left shorts for Miss Ritchie to embroider on.
But the lady was a true historian. While she would not embroider the historically accurate genitalia, she was not for the shorts either.
And to this day, they remain tracing: a detail which reveals the stout-mindedness of a woman who may well have seen the importance of the project through the eyes of future generations.
Check out this wonderful, detailed history of the Reading replica which I used as source material: http://www.octavia.net/text/bayeux.htm