History, textiles and the Victoria and Albert Museum; these are a few of my favourite things. Opus Anglicarnum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery is made for me – sewing at the V&A. It is the exhibition that I have looked forward to most this year and the one that I have enjoyed most.
What is Opus Anglicanum? I hear you cry. English medieval embroidery is the short answer. From the 12th to 15th century anybody who was anybody in Europe either owned or wanted to own some Opus Anglicanum. Pope Innocent IV sparked off the international craze when he was so taken by the rather fine vestements of some English clergy that he asked where they came from and promptly put in an order for some fancy garments of his own. Very little of this intricate work still exists and most of what does are clerical robes. The stitching is so dense and intricate that a first glance it looks like a woven fabric, in fact not a micron of the base linen fabric is visible under the fine detail of the stitiching.
Now the colours of the garments are muted reds and fawns, when they were new they must have shouted with colour and glimmered with gold. The workers clustered around St Paul’s Cathedral and it was their skill of working with gold thread with which so impressed the great and good of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Even now the glimmer of the fabric in the subdued lighting of the V&A galleries is impressive. Most of the garments that survive are ecclesiastical due to the custom of burying Bishops in the their finery, it seems stunning that such costly fabrics were not passed down from one bishop to the next.
Some royal fabrics have also survived. These magnificently eyebrowed lions would have been part of a horse trapper (no I don’t know either, but think of a horse ready to go jousting) probably made for Edward III. The oldest known English garment is on display, it is the surcoat of the Black Prince that he asked to hang above his tomb in Canterbury Cathedral in perpetuity. Now it looked like a puffa jacket made of out sacking, look carefully and you can see the outline of lions. When it was new it would have been a riot of reds, blues and gold, truly fit for a King.
I concede that English medieval embroidery might not immediately make you want to make a special journey to the V&A. But I refer you to my friend who went to see it just because it was there and came away encouraging others to go along too. You can always stop for a coffee in the wonderful Pre-Raphaelite café afterwards to contemplate the magnificence of the lions eyebrows.
Victoria and Albert Museum, Exhibition Road, London SW7 2RL
1 October 2016 – 5 February 2017
Admission £12, concessions and family available, members go free.