Sea Monsters

Staying with the Bacton Altar Frontal for a third week, along with the botanical motifs were hundreds of smaller secondary motifs.  These were worked in very different techniques than the primary seed stitch, with a denser stitch coverage.  Butterflies, caterpillars and other assorted insects are scattered randomly throughout the background between the flowers in a scale that one would expect.  Many birds at a much smaller scale are also casually distributed. 

There are two distinct series of figures that are arranged in a linear progression across the cloth.  One appears to be a hunting scene that includes several forest animals and one blue clad figure carrying a hunting horn.  More information about this series can be found at

British Museum 1906,0509.1.2

The second series takes place on the water with men in boats carrying spears and some very fearsome water monsters.  The sequence of images flow across the bottom of the fabric like a story board.  The story seems to tell of a fishing trip gone horribly wrong.  It could have been inspired by the bible story of Jonah and the whale,  but this was the era of Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake, and of dangerous ocean voyages to far away lands. Sir John White, governor of Sir Walter Raleigh’s colony of Roanoke in the New World, was a cartographer and accomplished watercolour artist.  Above is his map of the coast of Virginia featuring several dreaded sea monsters(dolphins, sharks and whales?) similar to those on the cloth. 

Rijks Museum RP-P_1896-A-19054

The illustration above depicts several more fantastical water beasts in a print of an engraving by Nicolaes de Bruyn in the collection of the Rijks Museum.  The curved lines and cross hatching that the engraver adds to an image create depth and form could have provided the embroiderer with guidance for the placement and direction of stitching for the water and the bodies.

Two examples of fish as illustrated on engraved maps (by Theodore de Bry?) based on (now lost) original drawings by Jacques Le Moyne. On the left is from and on the right is

The pictures of the reverse of the BAC provided by HRP included this monster so it was chosen to attempt a reconstruction: the colours were more accurate and the back indicates which stitches were placed first.  The majority of stitches used to create the head of the monster are similar to the seed stitch of the botanical motifs, however, on the sea monsters the stitches vary in length and direction.  The concentration of colour on the back indicates that the embroiderer made little attempt to conserve the usage of thread on the back.  The length, placement and colour of stitch was, first and foremost, driven by what was required to achieve the composition on the front. 

I began by matching the colours on the printed image to Pipers Floss Silks.  Then I printed the design onto a silk faille which was a little closer to the original fabric than the poly cotton I had used for the flowers.  I used four plies of a single colour of the Pipers silks in the needle (no blending on the monsters).  The stitches were placed visually by alternating between the printed images of the back and the front, depending on which showed the area more clearly.  The file was added last with couched edges to the dorsal fin, the inside of the mouth and the eye.  Small seed stitches were scattered through the body with highlights provided by crossed stitches.

The shape of the fish is a little difficult to see, it seems to be caught in the middle of a dive.  The head and the pectoral fin are above the water in the foreground to the left.  The dorsal fin and tail also appear above the water, a little behind and to the right.  A wave of water hides the middle of the body and continues in front of the body and under the tail. The split stitch used to create the water was worked piercing the thread from the underside for the blue thread and in reverse (piercing from the top) for the white.  The file was worked last as a couched line on the surface or, as in the body of the beast, random small stitches and some crossed stitches through the ground.  Stitching the copy was made a little more difficult because the threads remaining on the back didn’t necessarily have corresponding stitches on the front. 

It was very time consuming, but I attempted to follow the original placement of the stitches as closely as I could.  Sometimes it was impossible because the silk was completely missing on the front and what remained on the back was basically a jumble of stitches which is what you would expect when what matters is on the front.  Working in a small hoop was awkward and added time as well, not being able to use both hands to stitch and help guide the threads. 

It is impossible to say whether the narrative scenes were stitched by a professional or amateur embroiderer, but once again, this exercise has underscored the creativity and skill of the 16th (or 17th) century embroiderer. 

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