A gar­den of de­lights

It’s hard to imag­ine a more colour­ful or com­pelling por­trait of English me­dieval artis­tic achieve­ment than this ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­hi­bi­tion, says John Goodall

Country Life Every Week - - Exhibition -

IN 1246, ac­cord­ing to Matthew Paris, the monk chron­i­cler of St Al­bans, the at­ten­tion of Pope Ur­ban IV was ar­rested one day by a group of English clergy dressed in em­broi­dered vest­ments. He dis­cov­ered that the gar­ments they wore came from their home­land and re­marked with preda­tory plea­sure: ‘Truly, Eng­land is our gar­den of de­lights, an in­ex­haustible well from whose plenty many things may be ex­torted.’

Matthew’s ac­count con­tin­ues: ‘Thus the same Pope, made greedy by this sight, sent sealed let­ters to all the Cis­ter­cian ab­bots in Eng­land that they should send him those gold em­broi­deries… as if they were ob­tain­able for noth­ing. The Lon­don mer­chants who dealt in th­ese things were not dis­pleased and sold them at what­ever price they wished.’

Walk­ing into this su­perbly in­stalled ex­hi­bi­tion, it’s im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent, across nearly eight cen­turies, what made this dis­cern­ing Pope stop, stare and de­sire th­ese vest­ments so in­tensely. The colour and op­u­lence of the dis­plays is mar­vel­lous. Even the cos­tumes of David Bowie—re­cently ex­hib­ited with such suc­cess at the V&a—would com­pete for at­ten­tion in such com­pany.

No less re­mark­able, how­ever, is the artis­tic qual­ity of the em­broi­dery. At its finest, this is as no­table for its bold con­cep­tion as for its ex­quis­ite de­tail. To the bu­reau­crats charged with com­pil­ing in­ven­to­ries of per­sonal ef­fects across Europe in the 13th and 14th cen­turies, such mag­nif­i­cent em­broi­dery ap­peared suf­fi­ciently dis­tinc­tive to be re­ferred to sim­ply as ‘English work’ or opus Angli­canum.

The name has stuck, but it was not a term gen­er­ally used in me­dieval Eng­land and—as is ap­par­ent from the ex­hi­bi­tion—it’s not re­ally a very sat­is­fac­tory term of art. Pre­sented here are three dis­tinct bod­ies of ma­te­rial. We be­gin with a small group of sur­viv­ing em­broi­deries from the 12th cen­tury. Th­ese are beau­ti­ful, but it’s very hard to see in them the ori­gins of the spec­tac­u­lar cre­ations of the 13th and early 14th cen­tury that form the back­bone of the show.

This su­perla­tive work, the sec­ond body of ma­te­rial, com­prises dense em­broi­dery worked into, and of­ten com­pletely over­lay­ing, the sup­port­ing fab­ric. It was pro­duced by a work­force

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