A Stitch in Time: the V&A and the Bayeux Tapestry (3)

Eliza Stothard received the exaggerated report of her death (see my previous post) with ‘mingled feelings of indignation and amusement’ (1).

This humiliation came on the back of a newspaper review of Jules Comte’s La Tapisserie de Bayeux (1878) which had sought clumsily to draw a line under the affair – ‘an offence which, however inexcusable, should now be forgotten’ – by attributing Eliza’s urge to cut away a piece of the Bayeux Tapestry border to ‘a feminine instinct’ (2).

Photograph of a portion of the Bayeux tapestry by Joseph Cundall

Photograph of the Bayeux Tapestry by Cundall & Co., 1873. Museum no. E.573:27-2005. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Eliza’s family rallied to her defence. Charles Kempe fired off a letter to the Times in which he defended his aunt of the charge made against her by drawing attention to the fact that the tapestry fragments were in Charles Stothard’s possession before he married Eliza, and complained that ‘the authorities at Bayeux object to removing the obnoxious notice, until the charge, made publicly in England, has been withdrawn’ (3).

Charles Kempe's letter to The Times

Extract of Charles Kempe’s letter to the Editor of the Times, 24 September 1881. V&A Archive, MA/49/2/54 Miscellaneous press cuttings Sept. 1880 – Jan. 1882. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A great nephew, John Kempe, who would later edit Eliza’s autobiography for publication, contacted the V&A to enlist its support in getting Eliza’s name cleared, even going as far as to draft a statement for it to have printed in the Times:

‘We are requested to state that the placard at Bayeux, to which we called attention in a recent article, charging Mrs Stothard, from the authority of the “Venusta Monumenta”, with having in the year 1818 cut out and taken away a piece of the tapestry, has been withdrawn upon the representation of the South Kensington Museum that they are satisfied that the charge is untrue, and that the Venusta Monumenta contains no such statement’ (4).

Extract of a letter from John A. Kempe to Mr Fowke, 24 September 1881. V&A Archive, ED 84/167. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

No such statement was issued, although an internal minute paper shows that the V&A was concerned to discover how the mistake had been made in the first place and that it had answered Kempe’s letter privately.

Department of Science and Art minute paper

Science and Art Department, minute paper, 26 September 1881. V&A Archive, ED 84/167. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Times, perhaps feeling a pang of remorse for its part in traducing the character of a respected English author, published a leader on 26 September in which it recast the allegation of larceny as an affront to national pride and thanked Charles Kempe for rescuing ‘from a false imputation a distinguished authoress, his nation, and the female sex all over the world’ (5). Eliza Stothard was vindicated, her honour restored – for now.

The story, however, was not scotched completely. In a letter to the Spectator in 1899, Charles Milnes Gaskell (perhaps the barrister and Liberal politician) recalled that ‘When the piece was in the South Kensington Museum, a scrap of paper was below it bearing, as far as I can remember, the following inscription: “Cut out by me while my dear husband was sketching the Bayeux Tapestry”’ (6).

Given that it was at least 27 years since Gaskell could have seen the fragment on display in the Museum, one should perhaps exercise a healthy scepticism towards the seemingly remarkable precision of this recollection of the wording on the label – although I suppose that John Kempe asks us to trust the ‘wonderful memory’ of his 91 year old great aunt, albeit ‘aided by some notes in her cabinet’, of an event that took place over half a century earlier!

In spite of her phlegmatic response to the ‘unjust stigma’ that had been attached to her, John Kempe was convinced that the unseemly episode hastened his aunt’s demise. Her subsequent trip over a stool, coupled with a ‘gouty tendency’, can hardly have helped, but it seems that Eliza Stothard never quite recovered from the ‘shock which this incident inflicted upon her mind’ (7).

*

There is an intriguing footnote to the V&A’s connection with the Bayeux Tapestry. Twice the original tapestry was set to be loaned to the V&A – to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 and the 900th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings in 1966 – but both times the loan was stymied by external bureaucratic wrangling (8).

  1. The Times (24 September 1881), in V&A Archive, MA/49/2/54 Miscellaneous press cuttings Sept. 1880 – Jan. 1882
  2. The Times (31 August 1881)
  3. The Times (24 September 1881)
  4. V&A Archive, ED 84/167, letter from John A. Kempe to Mr Fowke, 24 September 1881
  5. The Times (26 September 1881), in V&A Archive, MA/49/2/54 Miscellaneous press cuttings Sept. 1880 – Jan. 1882
  6. The Spectator (20 May 1899), p. 715
  7. ‘Autobiography of Anna Eliza Bray’, ed. John A. Kemp (1884), p. 35
  8. V&A Archive, MA/46/1/5 Advisory Council minutes 1947-1958; press cuttings files 1009 and 1015

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *