Tag Archives: Ashmolean Museum

Needlework and Realism: seventeenth-century water

Still reeling from the excitement of the second workshop of our network! We were aiming to examine the relationships between different types of textile object, and to think about how to analyse them as a group, rather than as individual items or types of item. So we spent the morning looking at a variety of Ashmolean textiles – the frog-shaped purse, many embroidered panels, a tapestry bed valance and a wonderful embroidered casket. We heard that many of these objects were not professionally made, despite their incredible intricacy, but were the work of skilled elite women in the seventeenth century, stitching at home and contributing to their domestic environment through their work.

We moved round these things slowly – ‘long looking’ – taking time to let our eyes wander around each object, gradually taking in the different elements, the different stitches, the textures and the colours. We learned something here about how long you could spend looking at these objects, and the pleasures there are in discovery over a period of time. Some elements of the design were raised – petals and leaves, collars and cuffs that might have trembled in the breeze, and padded flowers and fish. As we started to get our eye in we began to notice that certain elements cropped up again and again, presumably the type of things that the makers of these objects saw as challenges to their skills. The one that particularly fascinated me was water – everywhere you looked there were fountains and pools in fantastical elite gardens, there were lakes in the Garden of Eden and there was even the well in the story of Jacob’s bride. And in each case, a different way of trying to render the ephemeral shapes and patterns of the surface of the water.

In the afternoon we discussed what digital recreations of these objects might offer to our understanding of them. And Graeme Earl asked questions about the nature of the realism that was being aimed at here. Were these women trying to reproduce water that looked like water, or to stitch something whose striking colours and textures drew the eye into, rather than beyond itself? The precocious materiality of their work seemed to me to be the point – a celebration of pushing the boundaries of two dimensions, of making things real in their physical presence for the viewer, of intruding into the space of the room. These complex, detailed, self-conscious pieces draw the eye and the mind – working out how they function in the spaces for which they were designed is our next challenge…


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