One of the main reasons for visiting London was getting the chance to see the Royal School of Needlework’s current exhibition, ‘Peacocks and Pomegranates’, which was also a good excuse to visit Hampton Court Palace as well.
The RSN has been based in Hampton Court Palace since 1987, having originally opened its first studio in 1872. It’s a fitting location for the organisation that does a significant amount of work for the Royal Family and is responsible for the restoration and conservation of many treasured pieces of textile history.
Before you enter the palace though, you might want to take the time to visit Creative Quilting, a lovely little quilting shop just before the bridge to the Palace.
It has a great selection of fabrics, patchworking and quilting books and all the assorted paraphernalia you might need. They are also happy to cut fabric from 10 cm widths, so you can get exactly how much you need. I was relatively restrained with purchasing a few Batiks for a scrappy quilt but I couldn’t help but leave with some of this absolutely fabulous Robert Kaufman fabric. Not sure what I’m going to use it for just yet, but it deserves a special project.
If anyone knows a UK retailer with a good range of Robert Kaufman fabrics, please let me know! Having seen Peggy Toole’s Lumia collections, I do want to get my hands on some.
Hampton Court Palace was one of the palaces belonging to the infamous English king, Henry VIII. Although it was originally intended for Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York, when he fell afoul of Henry’s fickle affections, gifted it back to the king, perhaps hoping he could avoid his downfall.
Unfortunately, because of the tour, I didn’t get much of an opportunity to see the interior of the palace but the grounds are absolutely beautiful. Where Kew Gardens has trees that have been allowed to grow freely, everything in Hampton Court is much more deliberate, with extensive topiary and borders. A lot of the flower beds were particularly spectacular, with a lot of flowers traditionally found in English country gardens.
The Royal School of Needlework isn’t mentioned on any of the utterly useless maps of the palace but isn’t too difficult to find. The tours all start from the shop, which is also the entrance to the RSN’s studios, where various courses are taught. It’s definitely worth bringing some spare change for the shop as they have some beautiful embroidery tools if you fancy stitching with a bit of bling.
The theme of this exhibition was ‘Peacocks and Pomegranates’, chosen not just for its ‘pleasing alliteration’ but because of just how ubiquitous these motifs are in embroidery through the ages and across the continents. For example, in the Christian faith, sometimes Mary is referred to as ‘Our Lady of Pomegranates’; in the Jewish faith, pomegranates are often depicted as having 613 seeds, each seed representing one of the laws on the Torah. Pomegranates appear on cards given to couples getting married and are common in many of the fabulous carpets found in mosques.
We did the 2 hour curators tour, which was led by Dr. Susan Kay-Williams, the Chief Executive of the RSN. It started with a short presentation of the history and goals of the RSN, the theme of the exhibition before there was a guided walking tour to see the rest of the collection. A word of warning, the fold-out seats are the least comfortable things I’ve ever had the displeasure of sitting on, so if you do suffer with back issues it might be wise to stand or see if they can find something else for you.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take photographs of the exhibition but you can see some of the items on the RSN website. If you can pay a visit though, I highly recommend it. You can buy tickets here.
Some highlights were a number of Chinese embroideries, the finest being a goldwork on black scene with numerous peacocks and birds. There was an unusual obi, made at the end of World War 2, which was silk thread worked on cotton, owing to the scarcity of silk at the time.
The Royal School of Needlework has a close history with the Arts and Crafts movement. This is partly because the first president, Princess Helena, received help from William Morris and many other important figures in the movement, including the less well-known Reverend Selwyn Image.
Selwyn Image produced a huge number of designs for the RSN, though many were later attributed to other artists. He was also instrumental in designing pieces with ‘mass production’ in mind, where, rather than having huge amounts of filled areas, they were worked in one stitch and the detail was done with outlining. This was somewhat ironic as one part of the RSN’s mission was to save embroidery from becoming restricting to one stitch, tent stitch on canvas at the time, but some of his designs are really striking.
Part of the collection is a three panel, wooden screen, each depicting one of the Roman goddesses, including Hera and her peacocks and Proserpina and the pomegranate that trapped her in Hel. The figures are just outlined using all chain stitch, worked in brown. It’s very stylised and different to a lot of embroidery but really is lovely.
There are two pieces permanently on display in the collection (mostly because they’re so big they’re permanently bolted into the wall), one is a piece of heraldry, done in silk shading and goldwork (see if you can find the sneaky goldwork snail in the bottom right corner). It was commissioned for a French château and you really would need something that size to try and house it on a wall. The other is some flat Japanese goldwork with silk shading, known as ‘Kyoto’, depicting thousands of chrysanthemums. Even one of the flowers would be impressive but the scale really is breathtaking.
Dr. Kay-Williams is an incredibly engaging speaker and the two hours just flew by. Much as I love visiting museums, unless they provide very good written information, you learn a huge amount more from a tour like this and all the anecdotes help bring the pieces to life. She also briefly mentioned the interesting distinction between embroidery as ‘art’ and a ‘craft’ – a discussion which probably merits a post of its own. The RSN’s stance is very much that embroidery is art and having seen some of their pieces, it’s hard to disagree.
The current exhibition will be running until July and if you get the chance, I wholeheartedly recommend the tours, whether you’re just interested in the history or the embroidery.