Are you sitting comfortably? – or, plumping up a 17th century Dutch cushion

With the weather getting that bit nippier out there, it’s rather nice to turn our thoughts to home comforts. However in this case it is the home comforts of a 17th century Dutch household.

This tapestry cushion cover will feature in our Dutch Domesticity display.

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Front and reverse of a tapestry cushion cover, woven in wool, depicting Esther and Ahasuerus in a wreath, Northern Netherlands, 1650-80. V&A T.31-1946 – The original vibrant colours are still visible on the reverse.

In 1648, after a long military struggle, the Dutch Republic was recognised as an independent state, free from the political and religious domination of Catholic Spain. The new Protestant republic was the most powerful trading nation in Europe. The economy prospered and many people came to have more money to spend on domestic comforts, particularly textiles.

As well as making life more comfortable, household items sometimes conveyed lessons from the Bible.

This cushion cover depicts a scene from the Old Testament story of Esther and Ahasuerus, when Esther intervened to prevent the massacre of Jews in the Persian Empire. The choice of this story may reflect the repression of Dutch Protestants when the Netherlands were under Spanish rule.

This same scene can be found depicted elsewhere in the Museum’s collections.

Esther approaching Ahasuerus, tapestry woven in silk and wool, Brussels, 1510-1520. V&A 338-1866

Esther approaching Ahasuerus, tapestry woven in silk and wool, Brussels, 1510-1520. V&A 338-1866

Esther was the wife of  the King of  Persia. The King allowed his chief minister to order the massacre of all Jews in the Persian empire. Esther, who was Jewish,  risked her own death  by approaching the King unbidden, to intercede with him to  save her people. The scene on the cushion shows Ahasuerus seated on a throne under a  canopy, extending his sceptre to Esther standing before him, to indicate his  approval of her request.

Buff earthenware with moulded decoration in low relief and decorated with coloured glazes. Depicitng the Old Testament story of Queen Esther before King Ahasuerus, French, about 1600. V&A 1795-1855

Buff earthenware with moulded decoration in low relief and decorated with coloured glazes. Depicitng the Old Testament story of Queen Esther before King Ahasuerus, French, about 1600. V&A 1795-1855

The Meeting of Esther and Ahasuerus, after Paolo Veronese, print on paper, by Wenzel Hollar, Germany or England, early - mid 17th century. V&A DYCE.1917

The Meeting of Esther and Ahasuerus, after Paolo Veronese, print on paper, by Wenzel Hollar, Germany or England, early – mid 17th century. V&A DYCE.1917

Esther suppliant before Ahasuerus, after Guercino, print on paper., by Sir Robert Strange, English School, 18th century. V&A DYCE.2873

Esther suppliant before Ahasuerus, after Guercino, print on paper., by Sir Robert Strange, English School, 18th century. V&A DYCE.2873

The dating of the cushion was partially guided by the clothing worn by the figures. Esther is wearing fashionable dress of the 1650s to early 1660, so the cushion cannot be earlier than this in date. However, it may be a little later, perhaps produced by someone working from an earlier print source.

I have to admit that, at first glance, the areas of re-weaving on their faces did lead me to entertain the idea of a story involving a bearded lady and a king with the face of a bulldog! – This image has really stuck in my head, so I hope its suggestion doesn’t ruin anyone else’s enjoyment of it.

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The bulldog king and the bearded lady?!

But let’s return back to the subject of comfort.

This whole post was prompted by the fact that a few months ago I received a call from one of our textile conservators asking for advice on ‘how fat the Dutch liked their cushions’.

As you will have seen in the photographs at that start of this post, the object is a ‘cushion cover’ but only consists of the ‘top’ decorative side of the cover. To help clearly convey that its original purpose of it was not to simply be a flat textile, we decided that it should be displayed in a manner that suggested how it would have appeared as a cushion. This meant that our textile conservators needed to attach the cover to a backing, with ‘stuffing’ to create a more three-dimensional form.

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The cushion cover in the Textile Conservation Studio, in the process of being attached to a piece of textile which will form the ‘back’ of the cushion.

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The colour of the material was closely matched to that of the cover’s border, in order to make it as unobtrusive as possible.

But just how stuffed should it be? – did the Dutch opt for pleasurably plump cushions or thin slabs more concerned with the display of designs than practical comfort?

This led to my carrying out some detective work, with the help of numerous paintings of Dutch interiors from around the middle of the 17th century, such as the examples below.

The Visit Possibly West Friesland, about 1630-35 Geneva, Musée d’Art et d’Histoire

The Visit Possibly West Friesland, about 1630-35 Geneva, Musée d’Art et d’Histoire

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Here you can see two cushions on the right hand side. The different colour used for the backs of them help to give an idea of their depth.

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Another larger cushion can be spotted on the chair behind the couple. Displayed at an angle (to show off the fine tapestry), this suggests that it was relatively plump and sturdy – enough so to hold this position and not slide off onto the bottom of the chair.

A Family Group in an Interior, attributed to Quiringh van Breckelenkam, ca.1658-70 J. Paul Getty Museum

A Family Group in an Interior, attributed to Quiringh van Breckelenkam, ca.1658-70 J. Paul Getty Museum

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Behind this rather skeptical-looking figure, we can spot another rather plump cushion. This cushion appears to have tassels at its corners.

The tassels on the cushion above are interesting, particularly as our cover has two multi-coloured tassels attached to the back.

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Tassels attached to the reverse of the cover.

The exact function of these tassels is not clear as they are not at the corners of the cover and are attached in such away that they would not be fully visible if a backing were attached around them. Perhaps they were previously attached to two corners of the cover’s original backing and when that backing deteriorated or was removed, the tassels were also removed but then reattached here for safe keeping.

Having supplied lots of contemporary guiding images of stuffed cushions to our textile conservators, it was a joy to next see the cushion when it was brought out of their studios for use in a display mock-up a few weeks later with its new ‘wider waistline’.

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I think it looks particularly comfortable and also somehow helps to breathe some life into the decorative design.

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The cover couldn’t be extravagantly stuffed, as we need to avoid placing any unnecessary strain on it. This is therefore a structurally-supported, accurate approximation of a 17th century Dutch cushion.

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