Many of the 16th century embroideries that I examined during my spring excursion were ones that had been included in earlier publications on the history of embroidery. One of these was an exquisitely stitched panel of polychrome silk and metal thread. It was pictured in black and white in George Wingfield Digby’s Elizabethan Embroidery.
Published in 1963, Elizabethan Embroidery is still a very viable source of information on the wider subject of Tudor embroidery. It hasn’t as much detailed description or as many colour photos as you would expect in a 21 century publication but it gives a good accounting of the wide range of embroidery that was produced over the almost 50 years of Elizabeth’s reign. Many of the embroideries were in private collections and have since found their way into museums and other public institutions. Some have appeared in exhibitions and been subject to further research, such as the seal burse formerly belonging to one Lady Anne Palmer (featured on the dust jacket) and now in the V&A and recently featured in the Bags: Inside Out exhibition. Others may still be in private collections and unfortunately have not been accessible for study. I’m still working to find them…
The Petworth Panel is now in the National Trust Collection and is on display at Petworth House in West Sussex (NT486522). When I first saw it in person several years ago, it took my breath away and I knew I would have to return for a better look. In early April, I scheduled a day to travel to Petworth from my temporary home in Chessington. It’s only about 35 miles as the crow flies but it was a little more complicated if taking public transport – beginning at 9:15am with the long uphill hike to the train station. At 1pm I arrived at Petworth House ready for a cup of tea and one of those famous National Trust cakes. Unfortunately, there was no time because I wanted to make sure I could take my photos and head back in time to make it home before dark!
Since I had been to Petworth a couple of years earlier and knew the location of the framed panel would made it difficult to photograph – high up and kind of in a short hallway – I made an appointment and hoped it would be possible to have it placed on a table for easier access. Unfortunately, that wasn’t possible but I was provided with a small platform step that would elevate me to the correct height, although standing on a step in a hallway with visitors passing closely or hovering to watch behind made me quite nervous. There was also a good deal of glare from the lights in the room but I persevered and managed to get some good images.
Digby describes this panel as a “superb cushion” having “a beautifully conceived scroll pattern exactly rendered in every detail, centred on a small medallion…” with “…an excellently designed border.” He believed it to be “a first rate example of a professional workshop in a cosmopolitan style, and datable to the third quarter of the 16th century.”
His assessment differs from that which we find on the National Trust Collections website: “An embroidered panel believed to be the work of Lady Jane Grey (executed 1554). The panel is embroidered on white silk on a linen support with coloured metal threads and wool work tendrils in a graceful and closely patterned scrolling design of birds, fruit, flowers, tudor roses and heraldic emblems within a wide border.”
The design is indeed very delicate and the stitching has been exquisitely executed with extremely skilled hands. The panel measures 60 centimeters high and 76.5 across. The scrollwork or vine is a looped chain made separately in hand using venice gold or file and then sewn down to the ground fabric, which looks like linen to me but could be a simple tabby weave silk? A strip of plate has been sewn between the chain and the ground similar to some of the scrollwork on the Broderers’ Crown (above centre). It is heavily decorated with grapes (also worked in a technique used on the BC), strawberries, pansies, borage, woodbine (honeysuckle), daisies, wall flowers and another small bloom that I can’t identify. They are all worked in coloured silk and several different forms of metal thread in silver, gold and very possibly ones that have been painted. The viewing circumstances made it very difficult to see anything clearly enough to draw conclusions.
The Tudor roses are beautifully executed with carefully spaced strips of metal (?) plate couched in a brick pattern over laid red silk adding colour. All the tips of the petals are filled with purl in silver or gold and stretched silver lizerine fills the inside of the smaller petals. The file twist outlining the flower is couched with red silk bringing colour to the outer edge of the petals.
Sprinkled throughout the design, appearing to hang from the vine, are sixteen very tiny heraldic shields depicting an assortment of motifs which are less than an inch square and embroidered in exquisite detail. These appear to be the source of the connection to Lady Jane Grey. Lady Jane had married Guildford Dudley, his father being John Dudley, Viscount Lisle, Duke of Northumberland, made Earl of Warwick in 1547 and executed in 1553. The significance of most of the shields is unknown to me, however, having visited the tombs of Guildford’s surviving brothers, Robert and Ambrose, in St. Mary’s Church in Warwick the following week, several of the motifs are very familiar, as shown on the shield from Ambrose’s tomb (below right). The gartered bear and ragged staff in the centre of the embroidered panel is the badge or crest of the Earls of Warwick (below left).
I haven’t yet mentioned the extensive use of coiled wire, stretched and sewn over laid silk to fill numerous leaves, and even the bear in the centre motif (above left). Or the cockatrice sitting on the flower motif in each corner (below left). In the close up you can see what may be painted metal thread… then again, could it have tarnished that way, or perhaps it is a very clever and creative use of silk that reflects on the shiny surface of the metal (below right).
I spent 90 minutes photographing the panel and caught the bus back to the train station at Pulborough at 3, missing the hourly train by 4 minutes and arriving back home by 7pm.
It is very romantic to think of Lady Jane Grey sitting in the Tower of London toiling over her embroidery frame to pass the time during her incarceration. However, I do agree with Wingfield Digby with regard to the professionalism of the stitching. I think a later date, perhaps 1570 to 1580, seems to fit a little better with other extant embroideries using similar threads and techniques, but nothing is certain.
I searched my library for other published mentions of the Petworth Panel but found none. If you happen to know of any, I’d be grateful if you would please email me with the particulars. Also, if you have any insights you’d like to share, comments, different thoughts or ideas, please post them and perhaps we can begin a valuable discussion…