Stitching Together Past and Present: Nuntastic Textiles and Victorian Medievalism

Anyone who has strolled through Oxford and paused to look up at a college window or church tower will have noticed that the city abounds in medievalist architecture. Oxford’s Gothic Revival buildings are not the only material witnesses testifying to nineteenth-century fascination with medieval-inspired styles and with debates harking back to the medieval period. Textile arts also evince how the Victorians read their own age through past ages, and vice versa. Few textiles exemplify this knitting together of past and present as attractively as the textile treasures in the archive of Pusey House, which was established to commemorate Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800-1882), one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement, Regius Professor of Hebrew and Canon of Christ Church.

(The Oxford Movement was a mid-nineteenth century movement within the Church of England that sought to revive an interest in patristics, the sacraments, and ritual, and generally to restore what they saw as pre-Reformation ideals (another instance of medievalism!)).

(One of the altar cloths we discovered, embroidered by Mother Marian Hughes (1817-1912)

Several months ago, the librarian of Pusey House, Jessica Woodward, and Godelinde Gertrude Perk, a researcher at the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, were discussing textiles, both of us being interested in historical embroidery and other fibre arts. Jessica pointed out that the Pusey House archive holds many textiles, several of which are connected to the Pusey family, but also associated with some of the first Anglican nuns. We agreed that it was a pity these textiles were so little known, not only because they were quite expertly made, but also in the light of their historical importance: the Sisters of St Margaret (who owned the book with the sample) and the Sisters of the Holy and Undivided Trinity (one of whom made the corporal) were among the first nuns in the Church of England since the Reformation. Central figures in the Oxford Movement supported this Anglican revival of monasticism.

The spookiest object in the House: a nun doll dressed in the habit of the Sisters of the Society of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, dressed by Mother Marian Rebecca Hughes (1817-1912)

Jessica and Godelinde brainstormed a little about an exhibition and reached out to a fellow academic at the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, Natascha Domeisen for a first look at the textiles, and finally to the textile conservators of the Ashmolean Museum, who generously offered conservation advice and help displaying the objects. The exhibition would never have been possible without the expertise of Clare Hills-Nova, Sue Stanton, and Sebastian Blue Pin; Sebastian came over several times, analysed the fibres, and displayed the objects beautifully.

While we (Jessica, Sebastian, and Godelinde) studied the textiles in order to select the ones to display (the display case being rather moderate in size), we made several unexpected discoveries: we found a handwritten note sewn onto a cloth, which stated that the set of altar linens had been made by Mother Marian Hughes in 1846, the first Englishwoman since the Reformation to become an Anglican professed religious. According to the note, Dr Pusey had used the set when celebrating mass at home. We then discovered an altar cloth from the same set was still in daily use in the Pusey House chapel, despite it being 175 years old. The letters were also quite illuminating, shedding light upon attitudes about embroidery at that time. Godelinde, for one, was also quite delighted to find that a familiarity with medieval religious iconography will stand you in good stead when deciphering Victorian religious art. However, we were most impressed by the skill of the textile artists and their thematic complexity, as emblematized by the corporal and the sermon case.


This blogpost serves as the online version of the exhibition, but if possible, you are warmly invited to visit the exhibition “Threads of Devotion: Textile Treasures from the Pusey House Archive” which can be seen from the 17th of June to the 9th of July 2021. The exhibition is open Monday to Friday, 9:30-17:25 – you can book a viewing slot at https://tinyurl DOT com/puseyhouselib .

1. Wedding veil

Pusey House Archive, PUS/Veil

Date unknown

Vertical maximum 117 cm, horizontal maximum 122 cm

Lace veil of a cream mercerised cotton ground featuring scalloped edges that frame an embroidered border of repeat pattern wheat and floral motifs. The central field displays clusters of larger floral motifs and singular embroidered flowers. This veil is believed to have been worn by Dr Pusey’s wife, Maria Catherine née Barker (1801–1839), at her wedding in 1828, although the tulle seems more characteristic of the early 20th century. It was presented to Pusey House in 1947 by Mrs Edith McCausland née Brine, Dr Pusey’s last surviving grandchild, who claimed it to be Mrs Pusey’s possession.

2. Letter from Edward Bouverie Pusey to his goddaughter, Clara Maria Hole (later Sr Clara Maria), transcribed by Henry Parry Liddon

Pusey House Archive, LBV 125

Originally written on 3 February 1875 at Christ Church, Oxford

 The first page reads:

“There is a large proportion of embroidery in your distribution of time … but, I suppose, that, after the illness which you had some time ago, the quietness of needle work would be very good for the brain. I would only say on this, ‘Do not work against time,’ for this would produce an excitement and hurry which would undo the good of a quiet employment.”

Dr Pusey then goes on to recommend reciting psalms or hymns to prevent overtaxing the brain, but concludes his letter with a more optimistic conceptualization of art, presenting God as carving the artwork of the soul by way of trials: “a block of rough stone would not … mind the blows which indented, in view of the beauty of form which it was to acquire hereafter. And the form which we are to have traced in us, is the image of God.” The goddaughter’s crafting should be as deliberate and careful as God’s is.

Dr Pusey’s letter

Dr Pusey’s anxieties about too much embroidery contrast strikingly with Maria Pusey sending a workbox to her goddaughter and wholeheartedly recommending embroidery. This workbox and its accompanying letter can be seen in the cabinet outside the Pusey House Chapel.

According to the caption, the second page of the letter, now hidden by the first page, recounts how Mrs Pusey ‘had learnt to value needlework when she was ill and was pleased that her goddaughter had asked for the workbox as a present’.

Maria Pusey’s letter

 3. Sermon case made for Dr Pusey by an anonymous embroiderer

Pusey House Archive, Object 15

1847

32.5 cm by 25.5 cm

Obverse cover: folded card covered in burgundy silk velvet, edged with twisted braid of metal threads and secured with a whip stitch. The centre of each face bears a cross motif, possibly of palm wood, that is overworked with basket weave type embroidery (replicating cross repetitions) in metal threads, creating a raised emblem. Interior: ground fabric of cream dyed silk embroidered with polychrome silk threads in a floral, foliate and fruit design. The Lord’s Prayer, the blessing and the dedication have been worked in embroidered stitches.

With its raised cross with metal embellishment, the sermon case recalls opus anglicanum, medieval religious embroidery produced in England. Victorians believed these medieval embroideries to be the handiwork of nuns, although they were actually predominantly produced in professional workshops in London. We do not know who made this particular gift for Dr Pusey, but Mother Marian Rebecca Hughes (1817–1912), the first Anglican Sister to take vows since the Reformation, is one likely candidate. She was a friend of Dr Pusey’s who made several embroideries for him during the 1840s (see item 4). If she is the artist, the medieval echoes in this embroidery present her as part of a long lineage of female monastics: she restores a tradition disrupted during the Reformation.

(Note the misspelling of “Christ Church” as “Christ’s Church”)
(Obverse cover)

4. Corporal made by Mother Marian Rebecca Hughes (1817–1912) for Dr Pusey

Pusey House Archive, PUS/Lin/1

1846

25 cm by 25 cm

Ground of plain weave mercerised cotton embroidered with red and blue silks. The outer border exhibits Neo-Gothic text and large Greek crosses worked in raised stumpwork to create a dimensional effect. The central field dedicates patterning to fleurs-de-lis and small Greek crosses executed in a chain stitch which frame the monogram of the Holy Name (IHC, Jesus Christ), again in raised stumpwork technique.

A corporal is a square linen cloth onto which the chalice with wine, the paten (silver plate) with bread, and the ciborium (a container for additional hosts) are placed during the consecration of the bread and wine. This particular corporal gives material expression to Tractarian understandings of the Real Presence in the sacrament. The border reads Hoc est corpus meum quod pro vobis traditur (“This is my body, which is given for you”), the words of the consecration of the Eucharist as given in the first Epistle to the Corinthians (11:24) and recited by the celebrant. The circle surrounding the monogram recalls the host, and the monogram itself also draws attention to the presence of the Incarnate Christ in the sacrament. The fleurs-de-lis (lilies) in Marian blue are a traditional attribute of the Virgin Mary, likewise alluding to the mystery of the Incarnation; the red circles signify Christ’s five wounds and, by extension, his Passion.

This corporal forms part of a set that is now 175 years old. A hand-written note, possibly by Henry Parry Liddon (1829–1890), sewn onto an altar cloth states that the entire set was given by Mother Marian Hughes to Dr Pusey, who would use it when celebrating mass privately. A second, larger cloth is still in use in the Pusey House Chapel, literally threading together Dr Pusey’s devotion and that of the House.

5. Sample card from Liberty’s, inserted (by publisher) into Designs for Church Embroidery by A.R and Alathea Wiel. Chapman and Hall, 1894.

Pusey House Archive, SSM 40/298

1894

Samples of polychrome silk floss embroidery thread (Liberty’s) wound around card. This book was the property of the convent of the Society of Saint Margaret, an Anglican order, in East Grinstead, Sussex. The convent also ran a School of Ecclesiastical Embroidery in London, but the library stamp indicates that this copy of the book was kept in the convent. The Victorian era saw an upsurge of interest in the creation of medievalist vestments and church hangings, which women particularly were encouraged to create. These textiles furnished Gothic Revival churches (omnipresent in Oxford!). The faint pencil markings and numbers signal that the nuns were particularly interested in various shades of gold, frequently found in Victorian church embroideries. This use of colour also harks back to opus anglicanum, once again suggesting that the nuns perceive themselves as stitching together past and present.

Photos by Jessica Woodward, Sebastian Blue Pin, and Godelinde Gertrude Perk.
Blog introduction by Godelinde Gertrude Perk, captions by Sebastian Blue Pin and Godelinde Gertrude Perk.

Exhibition credits:
Conservation Advice: Sue Stanton, Sebastian Blue Pin, and Clare Hills-Nova
Captions: Godelinde Gertrude Perk and Sebastian Blue Pin
Display & Publicity: Jessica Woodward

2 Replies to “Stitching Together Past and Present: Nuntastic Textiles and Victorian Medievalism”

  1. Thank you for creating this exhibition and showing some of the beautiful work of these sisters.

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