The Douce bible is one of the Bodleian Library’s great treasures. It can be seen on their collection website at https://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/objects/db9330ae-0b61-413a-8751-cdc31235d898/. The description that accompanies the image is as follows: A Bible, presented by the printer, Christopher Barker, to Queen Elizabeth on New Year’s Day, 1584. it was described at the time as “covered with crymson vellat alouer embradered wythe venys golde and seade perle” and the donor received 11 1/8 ounces of gilt plate for his gift. With Tudor Rose.
The image on the website is very poor quality and it is impossible to appreciate the creativity and skill of the embroiderer. I ordered special photography for my research and while it is far superior to that on the website, it still cannot provide the details required to understand the very diverse materials and techniques used. According to the website, the “upper cover” of the bible measures 430mm by 280mm, however, on the images that I purchased there is a scale in the photograph that indicates the front cover measures less then 28cm from the top edge to bottom edge and is less than 20cm wide. Is it possible the website measures the entire surface across the front, spine and sides? For the purposes of this experiment, I used the measurements provided on the most recent images – approximately 11 inches by 8 inches. These dimensions are similar to the embroidered bible in the Museum of London of approximately the same date.
The design is the same on the front and back. A large Tudor rose is featured in the centre with smaller roses facing forward and from the side with buds, leaves and rosehips arranged on a curving stem above and below. Each element is worked differently in a variety of metal threads layers with red and green silk providing a little colour and incorporating seed purls in the stems. The spine is divided into 4 sections with two roses in the centre spaces and a sprig in the upper and lower compartments. The embroidery is trimmed with gold file and plate lace.
I haven’t seen the bible in person as yet but I have examined the images very carefully. There is so much to explore on this object and I have not encountered some of the layering sequences on any other object. I looked for something familiar to start with and the leaves were the obvious choice as they were quite recognizable. They use threads in a similar manner to the some of the leaves on the Broderers’ Crown and the BM Burse. As I was having a closer look, though, I noticed that the outlines of some were treated a little differently. On the front cover, the sprig of three leaves in the top right and the bottom left use a coiled wired to outline and not the zig-zag file used on the rest of the leaves that so clearly emulates the zagged edges of rose leaves.
After drawing the outline to scale, I was surprised at just how small the leaves actually are – smaller than my fingernail. I’m a bit pressed for time this week so I won’t describe all the steps involved. I hope the images will convey the delicacy of the embroidery, the challenge of working on velvet and how beautifully the aged and tarnished metal threads show the embroidery in a way that it may not have been evident at the time it was worked.
I’m not quite sure what will be posted next week – I’ll be on my way to the UK on Monday to see some more spectacular examples of Tudor embroidery.