Monday, 29 November 2010

Embroidered Frontal of Ann Macbeth

Illustration: Ann Macbeth. Embroidered frontal for the communion table (detail), St Mary's Cathedral, Glasgow, c1910.

Although Ecclesiastical embroideries have a long and traditional history in Britain, the nineteenth century saw a particularly enthusiastic reinvigoration of the partnership of craft and church. The trend could, in some respects at least, be traced back to the enthusiasm of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin for both a gothically inspired revival of the decorative arts in Britain, as well as a renewal of the partnership between the arts and the church.

Embroidery was seen as a perfect vehicle for ecclesiastical furnishings and vestments with its penchant for embellishment and use of precious and semi-precious materials. By the time of the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, ecclesiastical embroidery was well featured and design work for this particular and fairly exclusive market was being produced by some of the leading architects and designers of the day. Ecclesiastical embroidery continued to be featured within international exhibitions throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century.

What probably gave this form of the craft its real push towards the ecclesiastical was the fact that it had become an early and integral part of the British Arts & Crafts movement, with William Morris himself providing elaborate embroidered altar fronts and vestments through Morris & Co, and included decorative and design work provided by Morris daughter May. That Morris was to include ecclesiastical embroidery within the remit of his largely domestically themed interior supply company Morris & Co, does tend to show the potentially lucrative and status driven market for church furnishings and vestments.

Through the Arts & Crafts movement came the concept of art embroidery which soon spread to the ecclesiastical market. A number of artists were commissioned to supply embroidered work for the church and indeed the church became an enthusiastic commissioner of crafts in many forms including embroidery. There was also another level of embroidery craft that supplied numerous churches and chapels throughout Britain during the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century. Enthusiastic suppliers of amateur embroidery became the mainstay of a number of parishes. Some were designed by amateurs while others were copies of more familiar ecclesiastical embroideries. The moniker of amateur can sometimes be misleading, as the level of embroidery skills maintained by British women during this period was much higher than perhaps we would expect and in many cases could well be on a par with professional embroiderers.

Illustration: Ann Macbeth. Embroidered frontal for the communion table, St Mary's Cathedral, Glasgow, c1910.

During the first few years of the twentieth century Ann Macbeth who was closely associated with the Glasgow School of Arts & Crafts and Art Nouveau styling, produced this embroidered frontal for the communion table of St Mary's Cathedral in Glasgow. It was featured in a number of contemporary magazines and is perhaps typical with the style that we have come to associate with the Glasgow School. It is a highly decorative piece that while coloured still maintains a good compositional control of both colour and narrative. The embroidery work itself has not been allowed to dominate the composition. This was often a feature with the work of Macbeth who produced embroidery that often played down fussy techniques and respected the initial decorative design work.

Macbeth was equally concerned with both domestic and ecclesiastical embroidery and her work tended to be similar in both respects. However, it would be fair to say that her church embroideries did tend towards the higher status end of her design work, as this Glasgow Cathedral frontal shows. In a future article Macbeth's equally considered and highly effective embroidery for the St Bartholomew Church in Haslemere, which was produced at roughly the same time as the Glasgow Cathedral piece, will be featured on The Textile Blog.

Often ecclesiastical embroidery is dismissed or marginalised in our contemporary secular world, in favour of domestic and ethnically derived work. This is a shame as much of the European high status embroidery work of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, which often had large amounts of time and professional creativity spent on it, was designated for the church. These pieces reflect both an era and a particular style of embroidery work that gives us a valuable lesson in the high standard of achievement and creativity that could be found within the craft of embroidery.

Reference links:
St Mary's Cathedral Glasgow 
The country woman's rug book (Paragraph Press reprint series of craft & hobby handbooks)
Embroidered and laced leather work
Educational Needlecraft (1911)
Glasgow School of Art: Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Ann Macbeth, Margaret Macdonald, Robbie Coltrane, Cathy Jamieson, Dalziel + Scullion
School and fireside crafts,
Victorian embroidery (The Victorian collector series)
Needlecraft Practical Journal #85 c.1910 - Ecclesiastical Embroidery
Butterick Art & Ecclesiastical Embroidery c.1898 (Metropolitan Handy Series)
Ecclesiastical Embroidery (Batsford Embroidery Paperback)
Embroidery in the Church
Clothed in Majesty: European Ecclesiastical Textiles from the Detroit Institute of Arts
English ecclesiastical embroideries of the XIII. to XVI. centuries

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