At the V&A

Esther Chadwick

‘English Work’, opus anglicanum, was a luxurious kind of embroidery made in England in the 13th and 14th centuries, used to decorate ecclesiastical vestments – copes, chasubles, dalmatics – as well as banners, book bags, seal covers, cushions and other objects. Fabric grounds of linen, wool and silk were covered in figural scenes and rhythmic or sinuous ornament which shimmered with threads of coloured silk, silver and gold, and sometimes even pearls and precious stones. It was produced mainly in London, but there were provincial embroiderers too, at York, Norwich, Colchester, and possibly Exeter, and it could be bought at regional fairs. But its reputation was international. The chronicler Matthew Paris described Pope Innocent IV’s greedy reaction to these sophisticated English products: ‘Truly, England is our garden of delights,’ Innocent is reported to have said, ‘an inexhaustible well from whose plenty many things may be extorted.’ (Paris went on to note that ‘the London merchants who dealt in these things were not displeased, and sold them at whatever price they chose.’)

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