Archive for October 16th, 2019

Bingewatching the Lost Dress of Elizabeth I

Wednesday, October 16th, 2019

The always excellent Historic Royal Palaces YouTube channel has three new videos about the Bacton Altar Cloth, believed to be the only surviving fabric from a dress worn by Queen Elizabeth I. If it wasn’t hers, it had to have belonged to a woman of the highest nobility or royalty. There were literally laws against anyone of lesser rank wearing so sumptuous a textile. (Sumptuary laws, donchaknow.)

Its provenance can’t be definitively traced through historical records, but the pivotal connection between queen and parish altar cloth is Blanche Perry, one of Elizabeth’s longest-serving and most dedicated ladies-in-waiting. By the end of her 57 of years of service, starting when the queen was a young princess, Perry held the title of Chief Gentlewoman of Queen Elizabeth’s most honourable Privy Chamber and Keeper of Her Majesty’s jewels. The Queen was known to have given her hand-me-downs, and Perry donated the textile to her parish church, St Faith’s in Bacton, where her ancestors and her own heart are buried. Historic Royal Palaces curators confirmed that the silver chamblet silk richly embroidered with animals, people and botanicals in gold and silver thread, was once a dress.  There is evidence of pattern cutting that would not be present had the piece not been a garment later recut and sewn to make a cross-shaped altar cloth.

The conserved Bacton Altar Cloth has gone on display at Hampton Court Palace alongside the iconic Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth wearing a gown that features the elaborate embroidery and precious materials also seen in the Bacton Altar Cloth. The exhibition runs through February 23, 2020. The Historic Royal Palaces videos present fascinating background on the cloth, its conservation and installation.


This is a overview of the find, starting with an absolutely delightful visit at St. Faith’s with historian Ruth E. Richardson, former church warden Charles Hunter and Historic Royal Palaces Curator and Tudor fashion expert Eleri Lynn. The parishioners always knew their altar cloth was reputedly a piece of one of Queen Elizabeth’s gowns, but until they raised the 3 pounds some-odd necessary to frame it and hang it on the church wall in 1909, it was apparently stashed under the vicar’s bed for safekeeping. God I love history so much.


This all-too-short video gives us a glimpse at the conservation of the altar cloth. You see close-ups of the embroidery in brilliant like-new color (a view you don’t get in any of the photographs), the removal of the backing cloth and the patches underneath that while simple are meaningful historical textiles in and of themselves. I wish it were feature length, seriously.


This is a behind-the-scenes video showing the installation of the altar cloth and Rainbow Portrait. Even though there is no narration, it is riveting because you see the nuts and bolts of curatorial work, the mounting of the pieces, the detailed touch-ups on the frames, how they have to navigate through the confines of medieval spaces like those glorious but really quite short Gothic arched stone doorways. I also loved seeing the magnificent artworks casually leaning against the walls of back corridors. It conveys in a few seconds how incredibly deep a bench of cultural heritage is in Hampton Court Palace and, I’m sure, in every other site maintained by Historic Royal Palaces. Oh, and the wallpaper! A big to the dark emerald green damask wallpaper in the room where the portrait and altar cloth are now on display. 

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