Saturday, 1 October 2016

Exhibition review - Opus Anglicanum at the V&A

Yesterday evening I went to the members' preview of the new Opus Anglicanum exhibition at the V&A, courtesy of my lovely colleague. It was, in a word, amazing. No photos allowed, sadly, so this will have to be words only.

The exhibition itself fills about five rooms of the museum's flexible exhibition space. It comprises 83 objects, mostly embroideries, but also a nice range of stained glass, needlework tools, tiles, and brass rubbings (among other things!). The objects are nicely spaced out, so there's plenty of room to look around. Also, many of the cases are glass on both sides so you can see all the way around the objects. The signage and labelling is also really good, plenty of information about the thread AND the ground fabric, including notes about the weave structure. There was one button I wanted to know more about, but that was the only problem.

The embroideries themselves are mostly ecclesiastical, but there are also pieces from court inventories as well as fragments too small to identify. They span about 350 years, with most of the collection dating from the 13th and 14th centuries. In addition to the more usual gold-and-silk on linen, there are also examples of some more unusual things, including a seal bag that is the only known extant piece of medieval English wool inlaid work (on loan from Westminster Abbey, no webpage available), and a chasuble which is the earliest known example of kanzi fabric in England. (Kanzi is an Iranian blend with a silk warp and cotton weft.) The objects on display are from a number of collections outside the V&A, including the British Library and the National Museum of Iceland, among others.

The lighting is low for preservation purposes, and as mentioned above there was no photography permitted. Plan to bring a sketchbook if you're not going to get the catalogue.

Speaking of the catalogue, it's 310 pages of hardcover, full-colour yumminess, well worth the £35 price tag. It weighs nearly 2kg, but it was definitely worth hauling home. In addition to the full catalogue, there are also eight essays detailing the context of Opus Anglicanum, its methods of work, the materials used, and the relationship between the English embroidery industry and the rest of Europe. There's a full glossary and an extensive bibliography. Additionally, each catalogue entry has its own set of citations where the object has previously been studied.

In summary, I'll paraphrase my excited Facebook post from last night:

If you are interested in historic embroidery. If you are interested in historic textiles generally. If you are interested in any sort of embroidery. If you are interested in heraldic display. If you are interested in 13th-century trade networks. If you are interested in ceremonial clothing. If you are interested in the relationship between medieval embroidery design and its contemporary artworks. GO.

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