My first encounter with the Bacton Altar Cloth came in 2013 while searching JSTOR for any article including the word “embroidery”. Not as many as you’d think and far less when you add “Tudor”, “Elizabethan” or “sixteenth-century”.
In December of 1918, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs published Queen Elizabeth’s Kirtle, an article by Lionel Cust. The subject was a piece of embroidery in the possession of St. Faith’s Church in Bacton. At the time, he wrote “it is quite reasonable to suggest that the embroidery given by Mistress Parry to Bacton Church is a piece of an actual kirtle worn by Queen Elizabeth.” In it, he described the cloth as having “sprays of flowers, some very realistic and not at all conventional, and scattered about are animals, monsters, insects, snakes and other figures” and he likened it to the skirt worn by Elizabeth I in the Hardwick Hall portrait but expressed the opinion that “it can hardly be as early in date.” I was intrigued, printed out the article and wrote on the front page “is this extant?” and “if so, where is it now?” and left it at that.
The next bit of the story has been very well documented and I was delighted to read about Eleri Lynn’s efforts to have it conserved and further investigated. The fact that it may have been a fashionable article of clothing worn by Queen Elizabeth I brought it to the attention of the world, but I have a rather narrower focus – the embroidery itself.
In October 2018, I was very graciously granted access to the cloth to take images for study. I was not prepared for what I saw. To one who has spent quite some time at an embroidery frame, I instantly recognized the amount of effort that had gone into creating it, and it was staggering.
Although the cloth was smaller than I had anticipated, the embroidery filling almost every square inch was unlike any I’d seen before. It was still in the T-shape of the altar cloth with the linen backing in place and prior to any conservation efforts. Everywhere I looked, there was something new, not only to see, but to investigate. As an embroiderer, I was immediately drawn to the intricacy of stitch that was used in the large botanical motifs. The sheer volume was overwhelming and on closer inspection the skill required to create the realistic depiction of the individual motifs was awe-inspiring. The embroiderer, or embroiderers, had used a blended needle technique to enhance the colouring and effect shading. To add depth, the density of the stitching changed, packing even more tiny two-tone stitches into the designated area. This main stitch appeared at first glance to be a simple seed stitch but there is actually nothing simple about any of the embroidery on the cloth as evidenced by the detailed image at the top of the post of one of the larger blooms – a lily, I think.
When I left Hampton Court that day, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what I had seen. I had taken over 300 pictures of every inch of the cloth. I had noted the additional series of smaller more solidly embroidered motifs and taken detailed images of them. I had recognized textured stitches for some of the elements, like the use of woven wheels to depict the individual grapes. I even had a small glimpse of the underside where it was evident that the silk and gold threads on the front no longer held their original vitality. But even then, I underestimated the full extent of the embroidery and to this day, I continue to see details that I have overlooked.
The study of the images of the BAC (Bacton Altar Cloth) filled my days for weeks afterward. I wanted to dive right in and recreate the technique but the logical place to begin was to number the botanical motifs and try to identify the different botanical species represented. I initially came up with 39 different fruit and flower motifs. (I have since discovered there were more and, with the help of the superior knowledge of the BACstitch study group, and input from members on several MEDATS study days during the lockdown, corrected my not very scientifically based deductions. For more on the initial presentation see https://bacstitch.org/first-medats-presentation/)
I looked at several potential sources in my initial attempt to identify the various species but the one that very closely matched many of the embroidered motifs was Jacques Le Moyne’s La Clef des Champs. It is a small pattern book published in 1586, dedicated to Lady Mary Sidney Countess of Pembroke. An excerpt of the introduction is translated as follows:
“I have chosen among the animals a certain number of the most remarkable birds and beasts which are accompanied by as many of the most beautiful flowers and fruits which I Judged most fitting, all taken from life, and which might serve those who love and wish to learn good and seemly things: among whom are the young, both nobles and artisans, these to prepare themselves for the arts of painting and engraving, those to be goldsmiths or sculptors, and others for embroidery, tapestry and also for all kinds of needlework.” Miles Harvey, Painter in a Savage Land: The Strange Saga of the First European artist in America, 2008, Random House. The differentiation here between embroidery and needlework supports the assertion that they are two different skills albeit both done with a needle and thread. Images from the book can be found on the British Museum website 1952,0522.1. My images are of the copy in the British Library, Shelfmark C.70.aa.14.
Several of the woodcuts bear remarkable similarity to the embroidery. For example, the Larkes foote as illustrated above left. Many other species can be found in a series of watercolours drawn by Le Moyne a decade earlier in 1575 above right. There are more original Le Moyne watercolours dated 1585 in the British Museum 1962,0714 initially in an album also dedicated to Lady Mary Sidney (sister of poet Philip Sidney and wife of Henry Herbert, Earl of Pembroke and a scholar in her own right). These may be the originals from which the woodcuts were derived.
The 1575 sketchbook can be explored through the Victoria and Albert Museum’s digital exhibition at https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/the-botanical-album-of-jacques-le-moyne-de-morgues/#?c=&m=&s=&cv=14&xywh=84%2C1345%2C5673%2C3908
Next week – Recreating the Pansy