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Archive for the 'Inspired by.....' Category

The Local Past - Barcelona

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011

By Glyn Davies

Facade of Casa Amatller, BarcelonaOne of the things that the curators tried to incorporate into the V&A’s Medieval & Renaissance Galleries was the idea that the past survives, often in evocative fragments, all around us in the modern city. At various points since, artists and designers have chosen to go back and take inspiration from those fragments. And one of the most interesting things that I find while travelling around Europe is to see the very different ways in which that inspiration has manifested itself. Works inspired by gothic art, or medieval buildings here in Britain look very different from medieval-inspired architecture in France, or Spain.

This trend was especially noticeable in the late nineteenth century, when artists were especially keen on developing ‘national’ styles that reflected local traditions and techniques. Often, artists working in this style had close links to the literary scene, and to nationalist and localist politics, both left wing and right wing. One of the best examples is Catalunya. I was recently in Barcelona, and while of course I had to go and see the wonderful medieval and renaissance art displayed at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (a long walk uphill to the area called Montjuic), I ended up spending most of the holiday doing walking tours around the city to see the buildings of the Modernista period, roughly contemporary with the Art Nouveau style throughout the rest of Europe.

Casa de les Punxes, BarcelonaThe artists and architects of Barcelona, concerned with their Catalan, rather than Spanish, identity, had a particularly intense relationship with their local historic building styles. The buildings of the Eixample district in Barcelona often display fanciful references to medieval building styles, but at the same time, they are eclectic, and usually built using the most up-to-the-minute engineering and construction techniques. The medieval look is only skin deep!

The first photo here shows you part of the street facade of the Casa Amatller, one of the more prominent Modernista buildings in the city. It was designed by Designed by Josep Puig i Cadafalch, with ironwork designed by Manuel Ballarín, sculptural reliefs by Alfons Juyol, and stained-glass windows by Eduard Amigó. Puig i Cadafalch was one of Barcelona’s leading architects, and this apartment building, constructed at the turn of the century, was designed to resemble a medieval palace. In the photo, you can see that the facade is entirely covered in tiles, a pointed reference to local Catalan building techniques.

The second photo is of one of Puig i Cadafalch’s rather more austere buildings. Whenever I look at this, I’m reminded of its cousin in London, Saint Pancras station. Both buildings take their inspiration from fifteenth-century northern European castles, particularly in the round towers with their pointed roofs. In this case, though, the spectacular ironwork is a strongly Catalan element. This building is known as the House of Spikes (Casa de les Punxes)!

The last image is one of my favourites. Everyone has heard of Antoni Gaudi, who’s become probably the most famous of Barcelona’s turn of the century architects. But among aficionados, another name is often mentioned: Lluís Domènech i Montaner. This architect’s undoubted masterpiece is the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, not far from the Sagrada Familia church. The site has been closed for ages now, but recently, work has started on restoring the buildings, and as a result, limited guided tours are available. If you get the chance, then I can heartily recommend it. Even in a degraded state, the Hospital is hugely impressive. The photo below shows you just one of the ward pavilions. And immediately, you get a sense of how the architect was throwing together ideas from a whole variety of medieval and renaissance building styles to create something new. The tiled onion dome looks Byzantine. The arches are inspired by romanesque churches, while the tall columns and window forms come from a variety of gothic architectural sources. More subtly, I think, the integration of architecture, sculpture and pictorial representations on the outside of the building reflects the inspiration of the unashamedly ‘multi-media’ approach of medieval buildings. Walking around this hospital complex, I had a real sense of how the past could be used creatively to make beautiful and useful buildings and objects for the future.

Hospital Ward, Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, Barcelona



A Labour of Love

Friday, December 18th, 2009

By Stuart Frost

There is an extensive and varied programme of events to support the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries. Activities, talks, special projects and lectures will take place throughout 2010. A fascinating demonstration took place on Saturday 5th December, the first weekend the galleries were open to the public, and it focused on a unique object that I think will astound visitors who see it.Quilted bedcover, Italy, about 1355-1400. Museum no. 1391-1904.

The object in question is a large bed-cover that can be dated between 1360-1400, and perhaps even more precisely than that. The quilt is vast, 320cm high by 287cm wide. It is decorated with fourteen scenes from the story of Tristan. The photograph to the right shows a detail from one of the scenes, with the hero Tristan pointing to his sword.

Photographs of the original quilt really don’t do it justice. It looks far more spectacular in reality, partly because it is easier to appreciate its vast scale and to read the scenes. The image at the bottom of this page should give you a sense of how big the quilt is, although it doesn’t include all of the object.

Tristan is a chivalrous knight who performs great deeds but whose life is ultimately brought to a sad conclusion as the result of a tragic love affair with Isolde, the queen of his lord, King Mark of Cornwall. As in many great romance stories, love grows but doom follows.

The Tristan quilt belongs to the age of romance literature, a type of literature that was popular from the middle of the twelfth century until the sixteenth. These types of poems and stories were written in the local vernacular, rather than the Latin of the church. .Detail from a modern copy of the Tristan Quilt made by Francine Nicolle.

If you click on any of the pictures in this blog entry you will find more information about the quilt, and be able to access a larger group of images on Flickr. Some of those photographs relate to conservation work that was undertaken to prepare the quilt for display in the new galleries. Others, like the one to the left, relate to the recent demonstration of the technique that was used to create the copy.

The scenes on the quilt were created by stitching the outlines of the figures through two layers of linen, and then carefully stuffing the pockets between the layers with cotton. Then the loose stitches that form the outline were tightened. The figures are raised in relief, the background between them is flat. The technique is still practiced in France where it is known as boutis. Over a number of years a large number of French men and women brought together by the Musee de Boutis in Calvisson have been involved in making a modern copy of the Tristan quilt.

Francine Nicolle has been the driving force behind the project. I first met her several years ago when she brought examples of the work to the V&A. After six thousand hours of work her copy of the quilt was finally completed earlier this year. It really is a remarkable achievement and one which raises many interesting questions about how the original was made. Francine and her French colleagues arrived in London on Friday 4th December, and the following day they laid out the quilt in the Sackler Centre Art Studio so that the public could see it. Throughout the day a number of demonstrations took place, and the public were able to participate and try the technique for themselves.

Detail from a modern copy of the Tristan Quilt made by Francine Nicolle.The event was a great success thanks to the efforts of the delegation from Calvisson and colleagues in the Learning & Interpretation department who planned the event over a long period of time. French speakers from within the department were on hand to translate the talks given by Francine and her team. The provision of powerful lights helped to illuminate the quilt and show exactly how the figures on the quilt were raised. The attention to detail helped give visitors a clear sense of the technique. It really was a remarkable event and quite an emotional occassion.

I’ll post extra photographs of the event on Flickr in due course. I’d like to thank everyone involved in the project, but especially Francine Nicolle, Catherine Paoli, Christina Shannon and at the V&A Helen Didier and Maureen McKarkiel.

Quilted bedcover, Italy, 1355-1400. Museum no. 1391-1904.Although the galleries themselves are now open this doesn’t mean that the work of the project team has finished. A large amount of content will be added to the V&A website over the coming months so if you check back at regular intervals you are likely to discover something new. The Tristan Quilt is one of the objects that will be the focus on an in-depth online only subject.

We also hope that a subject exploring the links between some of the key objects in the galleries and the literature of medieval and Renaissance Europe will be added in due course. The version of the Tristan story illustrated on the quilt is a 14th century Italian version that isn’t easy to find. The most accessible English translation is the Penguin Classic edition written by the German Gottfried von Strassburg. He who followed an earlier version written in French by Thomas around 1160. It is a wonderful story, and a very good read.

If you wish to come to the V&A to see the quilt you will find it in Room 9, The Rise of Gothic 1200-1350. It is part of a subject that looks at the subject of Knights and Heraldry. If you wanted an object that epitomised these themes I don’t think you could find a better one. The quilt depicts a magnificent castle, kings and queens, knights in armour, brave deeds and a duel to the death. You can find out more about the quilt and see images of all of its scenes online via Search the Collections.

If you have any questions or comments please do post them below and we’ll endeavour to answer them as soon as we can!

Microwave Oven Safe Madonna

Monday, September 21st, 2009

By Stuart Frost

In order to mark the opening of phase one of the Ceramics galleries at the V&A last week I thought I should select a ceramic object for this blog entry. I’m looking forward to reacquainting myself with some of my favourite ceramic objects and in discovering new pieces I’ve not seen before. 

In the old displays one of the objects I was particularly drawn to was a nineteenth century piece depicting two boxers, one of whom was Tom Sayers (1826-1865).  Sayers was a bare-knuckle fighter who fought for the world title in a fight which lasted a remarkable sixty-one rounds. His celebrity status is reflected in objects like the V&A’s ceramic figurine, his splendid tomb in Highgate cemetery and the fact that over ten thousand people followed his funeral procession. However, as there is no connection here with anything medieval or Renaissance I’d better move along!Microwave Oven Safe Madonna, by Philip Eglin, 2001. Musuem no. C.8-2002.

My favourite medieval ceramic objects in the new displays are tiles that were found in Tring, Hertfordshire. These rare survivals depict apocryphal scenes from the early years of Christ’s life in a format rather like a cartoon strip. The tiles depict miracles that aren’t mentioned in the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. However the Tring tiles deserve a blog entry in their own right so I’ll return to them later.

Amongst my favourite contemporary pieces in the V&A’s collections is Philip Eglin’s Microwave Oven Safe Madonna. I’ve been waiting for an excuse to write about it for some time. There are countless contemporary artists and designers who’ve looked back to the medieval period for inspiration and Philip Eglin is one of my favourites.

The overall form of this white porcelain figure was inspired by a medieval woodcarving of a seated Virgin and Child in the V&A’s collections. If you look carefully at Eglin’s Madonna you’ll be able to see a fragmentary foot on her lap. Like the original medieval carving that informed the work the figure of the infant Christ that should be sat on the Virgin’s lap is missing. Not everything is as it first appears. Whilst the figure retains some of the same qualities of the medieval sculpture it also includes a number of references to modern living. Here the Virgin is actually sat on a paper bag rather than a seat or bench.

I’m sure that the Ceramics galleries will inspire thousands of different creative responses from the visitors who come to see them and I’m certain that the Medieval & Renaissance Europe galleries will do the same.

Microwave Oven Safe Madonna was one of the works that was exhibited alongside medieval works at the V&A in the exhibition, Philip Eglin, held at the Museum in 2001. You can find out more about this exhibition by following the link to the archived website that I’ve provided below.

Click here to find out more about Ceramics at the V&A.

Click here to find out more about Philip Eglin at the V&A.

Click here to find out more about how you can contribute to the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries Appeal.

Harold Godwinson, Hastings and Hollywood

Friday, February 27th, 2009

By Stuart Frost

Conservation work on a section of a 19th photograph of the Bayeux Tapestry, February  2009.Long term readers of this blog will know that the Bayeux Tapestry is a subject that is close to my heart. Conservation work was recently completed on a section of one of two nineteenth-century photographic copies of the Bayeux Tapestry at the V&A.

One of the V&A’s photographs exists as a complete roll matching the length of the original tapestry. The other photograph was also once a roll but it was seperated into twenty-five sections in the past. It is one of these sections that has benefited from the attention of conservators Merryl Huxtable and Victoria Button at the V&A.

The surface of the photograph has been delicately cleaned. The photograph has also been removed from the textile to which it was attached, allowing the print(s) to be remounted onto Japanese paper. This will help reduce some of the unevenness in the print and will ensure that it looks as good as possible when it is mounted and displayed in a Discovery Area in the new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries. Click on the photographs to find out more about the work that has been completed. I’ve posted other photographs of the work on our Flickr site. I hope to produce a longer online subject about the Bayeux Tapestry photographs so more information will follow at a later date.

Conservators working on the Bayeux Tapestry photograph, February 2009.Hollywood appears to have finally discovered the Battle of Hastings. There are apparently no fewer than three creative teams preparing to dramatise the events of 1066 for the big screen in multi-million pound epics. The story clearly has the potential to make a great film and hopefully the competition between rival filmmakers will bring out the best in all concerned. The medieval source material varies in reliability but the Bayeux Tapestry is one of the best. It is actually some of the less trustworthy sources that provide some of the most dramatic stories and I hope that some of those make it through into one of the films.

The events leading up to the death of King Harold Godwinson on 14 October 1066 have everything a scriptwriter could want: envy, murder, exile, brother betraying brother, the breaking of sacred oaths, endless ambition, bravery, heroism, lust, love and loss.  Hopefully the universality of these themes will draw in American audiences for whom the events of 1066 are of marginal significance, just as they were for 11th century superpowers like the Byzantine Empire.

I want the film versions of 1066 to be good – the story deserves it – and with the right attention to period detail there could be some stunning set-piece scenes. However quotes like “In Hollywood terms it is a ‘buddy’ movie about two men which ended in tears” set alarm-bells ringing. The film archives at the British Film Institute provide plenty of evidence that bad men-in-tights films out-weigh the good ones. Let’s keep our fingers crossed!

The Bayeux Tapestry, 19th century copy based on photographs taken for the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A).In 1885 the V&A’s photographic copies provided thirty-five members of the Leek Embroidery Society with the inspiration and source material to embroider a full copy of the Tapestry. The work was completed in 1886 and after an eventful history their copy found a home in the Museum of Reading where it remains today. Each woman stitched her name beneath the section she embroidered. The detail reproduced here features the name of Elizabeth Frost, no relation!

We are about to commission sets of clothing based on garments illustrated in the Bayeux Tapestry. Visitors to the new galleries will be able to try on an 11th century style tunic and find out more about medieval fashion and textiles.


Monday, November 12th, 2007

By Stuart Frost

Brooch (fibula), Anglo-Saxon, 7th century. Museum no. M 110 1939 FavershamI saw a production of Faustus in Richmond two weeks ago. The play was loosely based on the text of the Tudor playwright Christopher Marlowe. However contemporary British artists Jake and Dinos Chapman were as central to the story as Dr Faustus himself. I’ve been enjoying watching the Tudors on BBC2 on Friday evenings and I’m looking forward to watching Elizabeth: The Golden Age at the cinema at some point during the next week or two. The public’s fascination with the Tudor history has been remarkably enduring. It seems as though the public appetite for Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Shakespeare’s work is undiminished despite an endless stream of documentaries, dramas and plays. Ray Winstone’s Henry VIII is one of my favourite recent interpretations of England’s most famous king.

The medieval period, by contrast, maintains a lower and more erratic public profile. Recent highpoints have included The National Theatre’s excellent production of St Joan (Joan of Arc). The Globe Theatre company also staged a fantastic production, In Extremis, which was unsual in focussing on the twelfth-century characters of Peter Abelard, Heloise and St Bernard of Clairvaux. The earlier middle ages appear to have been even more under-utilised even though it is an age as rich in drama, stories and epic struggles as any other. Perhaps the forthcoming film-version of Beowulf will encourage other filmmakers and writers to look back to the so-called Dark Ages with new enthusiasm?

Brooch (Fibula), Anglo-Saxon, 7th century. Museum no. M 109 1939 MiltonThe film version of Beowulf is based on an epic Anglo-Saxon poem, a masterpiece of literature that vividly reflects the values of the culture from which it emerged. I’ve heard the poem skillfully recited in the original language which was a remarkable experience. Even though I couldn’t understand a word if felt as through the distance between the past and present had collapsed. The first part of the poem is the most well known. The young Beowulf comes to the aid of King Hrothgar whose people are terrorised by the monster Grendel. Whilst Angelina Jolie is ‘box office’ she certainly isn’t the most obvious choice to play the mother of the hideous Grendel. I hope that the film does the spirit of the poem justice.

I‘ve illustrated this blog-entry with a selection of objects which belong to the same era as the poem. Whilst the Museum doesn’t hold many Anglo-Saxon artefacts you can see from these pieces of jewellery that what material there is is incredibly beautiful. The people who were buried with these brooches may well have been familiar with the heroic deeds of Beowulf. Hopefully after the film version has completed its run a whole new generation will also be able to recount the outline of the story, and will have been inspired to go back to the orginal text.

Romantic Ruins

Monday, June 4th, 2007

By Stuart Frost

The surviving architecture of medieval Britain perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the age.  The ruins of castles and abbeys have provided inspiration for many generations of painters, poets and photographers. The photograph of Raglan castle reproduced below has been chosen for inclusion in a display I’m pulling together that will be installed late in 2009. We’ve recently confirmed a selection of twenty-five prints from the V&A’s vast collection of photographs, all of which feature nineteenth century views of medieval and Renaissance buildings. Click on the image of Raglan for a more detailed view.

Raglan Castle from Across the Moat

Raglan Castle is located in south-east Wales, not far from the town of Monmouth. I’ve been researching the background to the castle so that I can write an object label for it and a longer database entry. I last visited Raglan on 6 September 1992. The reason I can be so precise is because the admission ticket dropped out of my old copy of the castle guidebook when I opened it. Like many people who work in museums I’m not very good at throwing things away!

Raglan was once an extremely impressive residence and fortress. Enough of the castle survives to give a vivid impression of the scale of the building and the comfortable accommodation it provided. Its architecture and furnishings reflected the wealth and status of its owners who included the Earls of Pembroke, the Earl of Huntingdon and the Earls of Worcester.  Most of the surviving structure dates from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. How did such a magnificent and costly castle become reduced to the impressive and romantic ruin that we can see in this photograph? 

The castle was held by Royalist forces during the English Civil War and was surrendered to Parliamentarians on 19th August 1646 after a siege which involved the use of mortars and cannon.  Shortly afterwards the castle was deliberately slighted to ensure that it couldn’t be used easily as a fortress again.  Further depredation occurred throughout the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as the castle buildings were plundered for building materials. This is story that rings true for many castles in England and Wales. It was only in 1938 that the castle was placed under the protection of the Commissioners of His Majesties Works and a programme of conservation was carried out.

Today many of us enjoy visiting castles like Raglan but this sort of leisure pursuit isn’t as recent as you might think.  A guide to Raglan was published in 1792 and was in its eleventh edition by 1829. Visiting castles is one of my greatest pleasure but I’d love to have been able to explore castle ruins as there were before they were tidied up in the twentieth century. The vegetation that you can see in this image taken in 1860 portrays Raglan as a romantic ruin, a victim of the relentless progress of time. Photographs like this became popular in the decades following the invention of photography and two other prints of Raglan by the same photographer were published in 1862 in a volume, Ruined Abbeys and Castles of Great Britain, that catered for this demand.

Early architectural photographs are a valuable record of the appearance of many great medieval buildings before the impact of organisations like English Heritage, CADW and the National Trust in preserving and interpreting them. These organisations, and others like them across Europe, play a vital and role in preserving the architectural heritage of medieval and Renaissance Europe. However part of the appeal of nineteenth century photographs like this one is that they evoke a sense of romance, discovery and mystery that I think is difficult to recapture when visiting a castle today. Personally I find that the more heavily interpreted a site is, and the more carefully manicured the surroundings, the less space there is for my imagination to wander.

For more information about Raglan Castle visit the CADW (Welsh Historic Monuments) website.

Anyone who has a passion for castles will find the Castle Studies Group website of interest.

Love and Romance

Monday, February 12th, 2007

By Stuart Frost
February 12th, 2007


Valentine’s day falls on Wednesday 14th February this week so it was inevitable that it would provide the subject for this blog-entry. Whilst there are many statues or images of saints in the V&A alas, as far as I am aware, there is not one of St Valentine. A reference book informs me that St Valentine’s day probably commemorates two Valentine’s rather than one. One was a Roman priest martyred around 269AD, and the other a bishop of Terni who was taken to Rome and put to death there. Neither appears to have had a strong association with romantic love or courtship.

Salt cellar known as the Burghley Nef

Whilst there aren’t any images of St Valentine to illustrate this entry, there are many objects in the V&A’s collections that have a clear link with desire, love or marriage. Some of these have a strong connection with romance literature. Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet may feature the two most famous lovers of medieval and Renaissance literature, but before Romeo and Juliet (as the marketing for the recent Ridley Scott film went) there was Tristan and Isolde. The Ridley Scott film doesn’t follow the original romance particularly closely, but it is entertaining and is testament to the enduring appeal of the epic medieval masterpiece.

The Tristan Quilt - Detail

The story of the two lovers was one of the most popular romances of the Middle Ages and existed in many versions written by different authors. The earliest of the surviving versions were written around 1160. Scenes from the legend were depicted on a wide range of luxury objects including ivory caskets, textiles and tiles. I’ve included three examples here, a quilt, a hanging and a magnificent metalwork salt (or table decoration). Click on the photographs for more detailed views and further information. Even if you look carefully at the salt I’ll doubt you’ll be able to see the small figures of Tristan and Isolde playing chess underneath the main mast of the ship. It is easier to see the figures of the sailors manning the deck and climbing the rigging around Tristan and Isolde. It was on this voyage that the fate of the two lovers was sealed. Tristan had been instructed to bring Isolde from her native Ireland to Cornwall to marry his uncle, King Mark. On the ship the couple drank a magic love potion prepared by Isolde’s mother, intended for her daughter to share with King Mark. As a result Tristan and Isolde share an unbreakable and everlasting love, rather than Isolde and her husband King Mark. After many events and adventures their relationship, like that of Romeo and Juliet, ends tragically. 

With hindsight maybe I should have picked an object related to a story with a less depressing ending? Never mind. Happy Valentine’s Day! 

Animating the past

Tuesday, November 14th, 2006

By Stuart Frost

Over the last few years I’ve become increasingly familiar with the V&A’s fantastic medieval and Renaissance collections. Those of us fortunate enough to be developing the new galleries all have our favourite objects. The 19th century photographic copy of the Bayeux Tapestry is certainly one of mine, even though it isn’t a real medieval artefact.

Brass Jug. Museum No. M. 25-1939At the moment I’m particularly enamoured with a wonderful brass jug with three feet. Click on the picture to the right for a better view. The jug is destined for a new home in 2009, when it will become part of a display exploring dining between 1350-1500. I’ve been trying to think why I like this jug so much. It isn’t a world famous treasure, it wasn’t made by a well-known artist, nor was it owned by a famous patron. It isn’t made of a precious materials and its decoration is plain. It does, however, have undeniable personality and charm. When I first saw it I thought it looked as though it might come to life at any moment, scamper down of its shelf and start running around on its three stumpy legs. At first I thought this might be a sign that I needed a holiday. Then I realised that subconsciously I’d made a connection between the jug and a sequence in Walt Disney’s Fantasia where Mickey Mouse, dressed as a wizard, casts a spell that results in mops and buckets running amock.

In fact this type of connection isn’t as implausible or ridiculous as it might sound at first. ‘Once Upon a Time, Walt Disney’ at the Grand Palais (16 September 2006 to 15 January 2007) is an exhibition that highlights the sources of inspiration for some of Disney’s greatest animations. Many of the ideas were developed from medieval or Renaissance sources. The castle in Sleeping Beauty takes some elements from the castles of Louis II of Bavaria and others from the lavish illuminations of a famous book of hours (Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry). The wicked Queen in Snow White was based partly on a Gothic sculpture of Queen Uta that can be seen in Naumberg Cathedral, Germany. Pinocchio’s hometown was inspired by the medieval town of Rothenburg in Bavaria. Identifying these sort of obscure links and reference points is strangely satisfying.

Most of the films mentioned above were made before 1940 but medieval and Renaissance culture continues to provide inspiration for the film industry and theatre. The costumes and set designs in the Lord of the Rings trilogy were inspired by the culture of the medieval and Renaissance world. The city of Gondar was inspired by Sienna for example, and I’m sure there must be many other examples in recent films and cartoons. Our initial audience research indicated that films like Robin Hood and the Lord of the Rings were important reference points for many of our visitors, helping shape their perceptions of the medieval period in particular.

As part of the plans to redisplay the collections we did consider developing a series of short animations to run on small screens in the galleries alongside the relevant objects but in the end we decided to develop other ideas instead. Still, given the links with the Middle Ages maybe we’ll be able to show Snow White as part of a film festival to accompany the opening of the galleries?

If you’ve yet to find your own favourite medieval or Renaissance object at the V&A highlights are displayed currently in Rooms 46 and 17-20.

You can also Search the Collections online


Click here to find out more about Once Upon a Time, Walt Disney: The Disney Studios’ Artistic Sources


1066 and all that!

Tuesday, October 10th, 2006

By Stuart Frost

The 14 October 1066 is arguably the most famous date in English history, even if most people remember the year rather than the day and month. The Battle of Hastings didn’t actually take place at Hastings. If you get off the train there looking for the site where Harold Godwinson died you’ll be disappointed. The nearest train station is at Battle. From there it is a few hundred meters to the ruins of Battle Abbey, founded by William the Conqueror on the site of his victory. Each year, on the weekend nearest to the actual date, the Battle of Hastings takes place at Battle all over again.


The Bayeux Tapestry, actually an embroidery, gives a very good impression of what the battle must have been like. Many of the scenes capture the violence and chaos of the fighting remarkably vividly. The original tapestry is in Bayeux, but Reading Museum is home to a life-size copy that was embroidered in the 19th century. Not all of the ladies who made this copy travelled to Bayeux to study the original. They used an actual-size hand-coloured photograph that was produced in the 1870s. The V&A holds this photographic copy in its collections. In fact the V&A has two photographic copies, both of which were originally on display at the Museum and which once merited their own guide book. Neither of these photographs is on public display at the moment, but we are hoping to include a section from one of them in a Discovery Area in the new Medieval and Renaissance galleries.


The Reading version of the tapestry isn’t an exact copy. For example, there is a naked male figure in the lower border of the original. One of those embroiderer’s working on Britain’s ‘very own copy’ decided to give this little chap a pair of shorts to cover his obvious exuberance. There are other examples of 19th century prudery in relation to medieval and Renaissance art. Fortunately the V&A’s plaster cast copy of Michelangelo’s David was provided with a fig-leaf rather than a pair of woollen shorts.

Find out more about the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries Project.

Explore Reading Museum’s tapestry online.