Exquisite Threads: English Embroidery 1600s-1900s at the National Gallery of Victoria

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Photo: adventures in biography

Photo: adventures in biography

Popped into the NGV at lunchtime to see a small – but perfectly formed – display of embroidered pieces.  Absolutely beautiful, of course, but also thought-provoking.

What better way to prevent aristocratic women from doing anything useful than to encourage them to spend thousands of hours embroidering?

Or was the embroidery a vital means of expressing their creativity?

Or simply a pleasant way to pass the time?

Or a way for poorer women to earn an income?

All of the above, I suppose.

The media release says:

Showcasing more than 40 intricately detailed pieces drawn from the NGV’s embroidery collection, the largest in Australia, the exhibition will trace embroidery’s central role in English life over this four hundred year period. The exhibition features works created for royalty, pieces from the likes of Liberty of London and design firm Morris & Co and exquisite examples of embroidered writing boxes, purses, gloves, dresses, capes and waistcoats. Outstanding pieces of domestic needlework such as samplers, once used by novices to refine their needlework, hint at the devotion to this once widespread craft.

I like to indulge in a little stitching from time to time so I at least had some sense of the extraordinarily high quality of the work on display.  And it was work, hours and hours and hours of it.  Some of the samplers were evidently stitched by children, including one finished by a 12 year old Susanna Gilmore in 1814.  Her stitching was remarkably good, evidence of long practice.  I’m not sure how I feel about a 12 year old being so very practiced at sitting and perfectly stitching.

Samplers on display.  Photo: adventures in biography

Samplers on display. Photo: adventures in biography

The pieces were beautifully displayed.  It was possible to get up close and personal with most, so as to see every seed-like stitch and the fantastic gradations of thread colour. The samplers were displayed in a mirrored cabinet, which enabled an intriguing view of the back of each work.

I think the apron was my favourite.  It was so very obviously NOT a practical piece with its gilt threads, exotic birds and sequins.  The 1920s art deco evening cape made of weighted silk was also a highlight.

Pelisse and dress (c. 1818).  Photo: adventures in biography

Pelisse and dress (c. 1818). Photo: adventures in biography

A lovely white gown dated c 1818 caught my attention, largely because it was the sort of thing Elizabeth Macarthur might have worn – presumably on special occasions.  I do know for sure that her friend Anna Josepha King, the Governor’s wife, owned one similar.  I saw it on display at the NGV a few years ago and you can see it here, at the remarkable Australian Dress Register.

Apparently Exquisite Threads: English Embroidery 1600s-1900s is the NGV’s first embroidery-focused exhibition and I hope it’s the first of many.  On the weekday lunchtime that I was there the exhibition was well-attended, almost entirely by women.

Highly recommended.

Exquisite Threads: English Embroidery 1600s-1900s.  NGV International, 2 April – 12 July 2015.  Open 10am-5pm, closed Tuesday (except for public holidays).  Entry is free.

 

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