A Stitch in Time: the V&A and the Bayeux Tapestry (2)

In a previous post I revealed the strange circumstances under which the V&A came to own a piece of the Bayeux tapestry. Here I explain why it was returned to Bayeux and how Henry Cole inadvertently planted the seeds of controversy regarding the identity of the person who spirited it away to England in the first place.

The V&A was eager to have the ‘celebrated Bayeux Tapestry’ photographed in its entirety for its collection; however, an attempt to do this in 1871 was rebuffed by the Bayeux municipal authorities, who were (not unreasonably) concerned that the process might damage the tapestry. Undeterred, the V&A came up with a cunning plan.

Photograph of Bayeux Tapestry by Cundall & Co

Photograph of the Bayeux Tapestry by Cundall & Co., 1873. Museum no. E.573:17-2005. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1872 Henry Cole argued successfully that it would be politic to return the tapestry fragment to Bayeux: the minutes of the board meeting of the Department of Science and Art for 10 August 1872 record that its return would be ‘a graceful act on the part of the department’ (1). Cole wrote immediately to the Mayor of Bayeux to offer to repatriate the missing fragment. To help oil the wheels of diplomacy, Henry Manning, Archbishop of Westminster, sent a letter of support for the photographer Joseph Cundall to present to the Bishop of Bayeux (2).

The scheme (or bribe?) worked and the V&A was given permission for Cundall to supervise the production of a full scale colour photographic facsimile of the tapestry. In his account of the history of the Bayeux Tapestry, Francis Rede Fowke offered a fascinating insight into the considerable practical and technical difficulties that confronted the photographers:

The work was … attended with great difficulty, for, although the custodians finally permitted the removal of the glass, pane by pane, so as to free from distortion the portion of the work under manipulation, they would in nowise consent to the removal of the tapestry from its case. The tapestry is carried first round the exterior and then round the interior of a hollow parallelogram, and the room in which it is shown is lighted by windows at the side and at one end, so that the difficulty of cross lights and dark corners had to be overcome as far as possible; nor this alone, for the brass joints of the glazing came continually in the way of the camera, and great credit is due to Mr. Dossetter for the ingenious devices by which he successfully overcame the difficulties with which he had to contend (3).

Photograph of Bayeux Tapestry by Cundall & Co

Photograph of the Bayeux Tapestry by Cundall & Co., 1873. Museum no. E.573:25-2005. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

When Fowke returned the fragment (‘ce précieux spécimen artistique’, as Cole described it) to Bayeux on 14 August 1872, he took with him a copy of Dr Rock’s Textile Fabrics, which he presented to the Mayor in recognition of ‘the valuable assistance rendered … to the Officers engaged in the photographic reproduction of the Tapestry’ (4).

In his letter to the Mayor of Bayeux, which oozed flattery and bonhomie, Henry Cole had repeated in good faith the assertion made by Dr Rock that it had been snatched from Bayeux by ‘Madame Stothard’ while her husband was engaged in copying the tapestry (5).

Letter from Henry Cole to M. Marc, Mayor of Bayeux

Retained copy of a letter from Henry Cole to M. Marc, Mayor of Bayeux, 10 August 1872. V&A Archive, ED 84/167. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Unfortunately this information was reproduced on an ‘obnoxious placard’ (as Eliza Stothard’s nephew, Charles Kempe, later described it; the Times called it ‘pompous’) which was appended to the newly-returned fragment. To add insult to injury, the tapestry’s curator, possibly Abbé Laffetay, was apparently in the habit of telling visitors that ‘Madame confessed to the theft upon her deathbed’ (6)!     

This must have been news to Eliza Stothard, now a celebrated writer of historical romance, who was still alive and kicking (albeit aged 91) when she learned of this defamatory anecdote in 1881!

To be continued

1. The National Archives, Kew, ED 28/28, RP/1872/10791

2. V&A, National Art Library, 86.WW.1. A copy of this letter, along with one of Cundall’s full size photographic facsimiles of the Bayeux tapestry, was sold at Bonhams on September 2009, lot 164

3. Francis Rede Fowke, ‘The Bayeux Tapestry: A History and Description’ (1913)

4. The National Archives, Kew, ED 28/28, RP/1872/14847

5. V&A Archive, ED 84/167, Henry Cole to M. Marc, 10 August 1872

6. The Times (24 September 1881)

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